An Interview with Dr. Eboo Patel at the American Academy of Religion

I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my heroes, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core Dr. Eboo Patel, at the American Academy of Religion’s National Meeting in San Diego, California. In the interview, I wanted to focus on five key aspects of the national interfaith youth movement: religion in the media, the emerging field of interfaith studies, how students find passion for their leadership in the movement, interfaith engagement and democracy, and the future of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Dr. Patel began by commenting on the controversial comments television personality Bill Maher and neuroscientist Sam Harris made about Islam as “more than stupid”, as well as Professor Reza Aslan’s article in the New York Times about Islam:

EP: “Reza Aslan’s piece in the New York Times was far more nuanced than calling Islam good or bad- it’s basically a cultural studies understanding of religion, which is that religion has no essentials, religion expresses itself in different cultural contexts in different ways. Muslim expressions in one part of Indonesia are factually quite different than Muslim expressions in some parts of Saudi Arabia. Bill Maher is, in this case, very simply being a two-dimensional racist… He sees ugly things about Muslims on the evening news and that is effectively what he knows about Islam. Therefore, he says ‘Islam is evil. Islam is ISIS’. That’s the equivalent of saying ‘I see racism in America. The constitution says that black people are ⅗ of human beings, therefore America is only racist.’ It’s much more complex than that.”

JJ: What can young interfaith leaders do to change this conversation?

EP: “The best response by interfaith leaders to these situations is multifold. One is to gently and generously offer dimensions of Muslim culture, contribution and the Islamic tradition that are beautiful, merciful, and admirable, simply to point out factually that not everything about Islam is bad. These things are easy- from great athletes and artists to lines in the Qur’an and the Hadith. My friend Professor Scott Alexander likes to say if you are willing to lump 1.6 billion people into a single box and call it bad that’s just called racism. People that only know Islam in the evening news need to know other things. A second part of this is to not be self-righteous. If you find yourself getting indignant and self-righteously denouncing somebody to their face as a bigot, you haven’t won that person over. Our role here is not to walk around with a stamp that says ‘you’re ignorant’…[but] to impact people’s attitudes toward other traditions and communities and to encourage cooperative interaction between them. That’s a much more challenging and complicated role than to seek and identify bigotry.”

Related to young leaders changing conversations, Dr. Patel commented on the work that Interfaith Youth Core alumni perform and what inspires them to do so.

I wondered if finding inspiration in their own sacred texts and teachings was enough, or if something else happens to inspire the rapidly growing passion among young people involved in interfaith work.

EP: “What makes you so engaged in this movement?”

JJ: Of course my Buddhist faith plays a role – the Buddha began his own spiritual journey by encountering difference and asking questions about what difference meant. Truly, my inspiration comes from the people I admire and their passion for interfaith work – in whatever specific field they advance, my heroes all believe religion and spirituality are important pieces of our identity to affirm, and further that these pieces offer a paths of knowing ourselves. Interfaith work is also about knowing ourselves, and equally about knowing the other.

EP: “For many interfaith leaders, passion comes from a mix of big ideas, my own identity, and my relationships.”

JJ: There is a lot of excitement around the interfaith movement right now – are there particular fields or sectors we have not reached as interfaith leaders?

EP: There are many sectors that might be working toward showcasing religious diversity as positive, yet they do not explicitly name it “interfaith”. A spin on this question is, What does interfaith cooperation look like in the field of sports, music, healthcare, government, etc., and how are they dealing with issues of religious diversity? This question allows us to empirically answer “how” using various research techniques.

JJ: Could you share some of your thoughts on the emerging field of Interfaith studies? I know that IFYC recently hosted a conference for faculty members at institutions of higher education that hope to create a minor, concentration, center, or other explicitly academic resource for interfaith studies. How do we keep these studies in conversation with the goals of the interfaith movement while remaining authentic to the academy both ideologically and structurally?

EP: “I view interfaith studies as an interdisciplinary sub-field related to a variety of things, clearly related to the study of religion and its various arms theology, history, etc…also multicultural studies…the central dynamic within interfaith studies is relatively clear. Interfaith studies is research, inquiry, teaching and reflection about the implication on individuals and communities who orient around religion differently [as they] nteract with one another… The best [practice] is to look at the academic projects that have already been done that address that question. You can look at sociology projects that have survey results at the center, like Robert Wuthnow’s America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity or American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, or ethnographies like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman…there are also examples in theology like that of Catherine Cornille. Diana Eck’s A New Religious America is like a quasi-ethnography in this field, or historical works like Peace be Upon You by Zachary Karabell. The conversation between John Rawls, Jeffery Stout, Nicholas Walterstorf about the role of religion in public discourse in a democracy is a central conversation within the field of political philosophy which is already legitimate.”

JJ: Perhaps the most important question is the future of IFYC. The organization is now 13 years old, with a staff of 40 in an office in downtown Chicago. About 800 alumni come out of IFYC programs each year, and thousands more are touched by speaking events. Could you comment on the strategy IFYC employs to keep good relationships with the rapid growing amount of alumni, and any personal thoughts about leadership of IFYC for the coming years?

EP: “We have a great alumni program at IFYC, two exceptional full time staff in the alumni department who report to a Vice President. We anticipate it growing in the next five years and our hope is that those people who go through IFYC’s programs understand and talk about themselves as interfaith leaders, looking at interfaith leadership as a craft – something they constantly seek to improve and to make beautiful. It is important they find a community and a network within this movement in which they feel accountable to one another and a contribution to a positive change in the world. Our goal at IFYC is to provide appropriate space and support for that as this alumni network grows and our alumni get older. At 22 a graduating senior might look to IFYC for Divinity School. At 25, they might look for a reference for a job. What is the appropriate role for IFYC when the alum is 30 and in their second or third job? What about when the alum is 35 and they go through the typical path of a professional?…I don’t know what the role of IFYC is there. I think at that point we talk about the alum’s impact in the world and how they understand the role IFYC played in their life. We will start saying ‘this is our contribution to the world. Look at these people who are pastoring congregations, running non-profits, and starting businesses that deliberately hire religiously diverse staff. As far as my own journey in this, I see myself at IFYC for the medium term future…When I was 28 I related to 19 and 20 year olds in a more visceral way than I do now. IFYC is really a ‘higher ed’ interfaith organization. We nurture student development and networks of faculty and staff. I think IFYC continues on the same path for the next ten years.”

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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