x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

US interfaith group reaches across spiritual divide

Many people believe religious cooperation in this polarised age is doomed to failure. But by focusing on students, can Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core prevail?

Interfaith Youth Core leader and author Eboo Patel is fighting a pluralist cause many think he can’t win, but he is undeterred. Courtesy of Adrienne Baker
Interfaith Youth Core leader and author Eboo Patel is fighting a pluralist cause many think he can’t win, but he is undeterred. Courtesy of Adrienne Baker

A few months ago, Hannah Minks, a theology student at Dominican University, outside Chicago in the US, opened one of the weekly religious dialogues she organises for students by asking the dozen or so attendees whether true interfaith cooperation is possible.

“Every person around the table said ‘No’” recalls the 22-year-old, who graduated in May. “I don’t think they were being pessimistic, just realistic – understanding that religious conflict is a big part of our world and not seeing how we can get rid of it.”

Minks is a student leader for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based organisation focused on religious intolerance. In that meeting she went on to highlight tales of religious pluralism in US history, point out the similarities in various belief systems and offer her own story of religious understanding.

“At the end of the discussion I asked the class again if they thought cooperation was possible,” she says. “Some of them said, ‘maybe’.”

In an America often convinced of the inevitable clash of civilisations, the challenges facing the IFYC and its leader, Eboo Patel, are considerable. The influential Rhodes scholar has worked with the Obama administration on several major interfaith projects. Yet he’s under no misconception that the IFYC can achieve its goal – making religious pluralism a social norm – anytime soon.

“We should not and cannot judge how we’re doing now against an issue that is going to last for the rest of human history,” 36-year-old Patel says during a recent interview at the IFYC offices just west of Chicago’s Loop. “The best thing we can do right now is help college campuses take this issue seriously and become ecologies that model interfaith cooperation and help young people start to see themselves as interfaith leaders.”

The son of Ismaili immigrants from Mumbai, Patel was raised on Chicago’s Far North side. During high school in the suburbs, Patel mixed with Hindus, Jews and evangelical Christians and suffered the occasional racial slur at lunch.

At the University of Illinois he fell in with a radical crowd before gravitating towards social justice and the Catholic Worker organisation, which is devoted to helping the poor. During this period, his father regularly railed against American leaders for their failure to help Muslims suffering in Bosnia and Iraq.

Patel experienced something of a religious awakening around 1998, sparked by an audience with the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, and the wisdom of an informed Oxford University professor. During his year there as a Rhodes scholar, Patel met Azim Nanji, an Ismaili scholar who told him that his grandmother, Ashraf Ma-ji, was a living saint of the Ismaili tradition. Returning from England an inspired Muslim, Patel soon watched the September 11, 2001 attacks heap anger and accusation on his faith. He launched the IFYC the next year, as he recounts in his 2007 memoir, Acts of Faith, which received strong reviews. The IFYC is likely to gain a higher profile in the coming months as his second book, Sacred Ground, is published, and US presidential campaigns address terrorism and again raise the spectre of Islamophobia.

“I’m really glad that Eboo Patel is a prominent voice in the religious movement in the US and North America,” says Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, a Chicago-based organisation that works to foster harmony between religious communities. “He appeals to people who have suspicions about Islam and he forces a lot of people to re-examine their stereotypes of Muslims.”

US society is among the world’s most diverse and highly religious. From the Founding Fathers to 21st-century leaders, the American narrative is in large part a tale of religious tolerance. Writing in his autobiography about the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson says that law meant to include, “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination”.

In the summer of 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reminded the country of these ideals in his frequent defences of Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” proposal that generated a national outcry. “The first colonial settlers came to these shores seeking religious liberty and the Founding Fathers wrote a constitution that guaranteed it,” Bloomberg said. “They made sure that in this country the government would not be permitted to choose between religions or favour one over another.”

That summer proved a crucible not just for Park51, American Muslims and religious tolerance, but for Patel and IFYC in particular. An August 2010 Time magazine poll found nearly one third of Americans thought Muslims should be barred from running for president. Major politicians such as Newt Gingrich railed against Islam and Sharia. City councils in at least a half dozen states fought to halt mosque construction. “I was getting further and further into despair and anger,” Patel recalls. Then he received a call from Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and founder of Zaytuna College, in California, who told Patel he was getting it all wrong. “‘We Muslims have known these bigots existed for a long time. Now the whole country knows’,” Patel recalls Yusuf saying. “‘These are the moments that change agents yearn for, Eboo’.”

Chastened, Patel decided to write Sacred Ground, because, he writes: “There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under attack.” The book contrasts the controversy over the Islamic centre in New York and today’s creeping Islamophobia with the USA’s history of pluralism.

But the focus of Sacred Ground is Patel’s work. During a summer 2010 interview on CNN, veteran reporter Christiane Amanpour asked him what he and the IFYC had accomplished, if anti-Muslim sentiment still ran so high. Weeks later, as Patel made a pitch for funding, a wealthy New York philanthropist asked him how the IFYC measured its effectiveness. He had no answer.

To find one, Patel turned to Tarek ElMasry, a consultant at McKinsey & Co. ElMasry studied IFYC operations and found the organisation making only glacial progress toward its goal of spreading interfaith cooperation. At a friendly BBQ dinner with Patel and their wives, ElMasry attacked Patel’s management style as lacking focus and discipline. “That was kind of the ‘come to Jesus’ moment with Tarek,” admits Patel. “I was furious, and it took me several months to fully absorb that and realise we’re not having the effect we want to have.”

Patel began an organisational overhaul: no more dispatching a staffer to the US Embassy in Kazakhstan at the behest of the State Department, or endeavouring to link the ideas in the latest New Yorker article to interfaith cooperation.

From now on, all eyes of his 35-member staff were to stay on the ball: using a few key programmes to instill the country’s college students with an appreciation for interfaith cooperation.

Studies have generally found two key levers to achieving that end: building a positive relationship with a person of another faith and coming to appreciate another tradition. “Now that’s our focus,” says Patel. “That’s how we measure an effective interfaith programme.”

In 2011, with a budget of about $5 million (Dh18m), the IFYC trained students that ran interfaith groups on more than 100 campuses. The US has about 2,800 college campuses and Patel hopes to reach half of them within five years. Students thirst for knowledge and new experience, a new understanding of the world, its people, cultures and traditions. From age 18 to 22, many people investigate their own identities, examining background, politics, religion and more.

“The college years are some of the most formative and open moments in a person’s life,” says Ficca, applauding the IFYC’s focus on campuses. “Also, young people tend to be very action-oriented and want to make a difference.”

Last November, IFYC student leaders at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, fasted during the Thanksgiving holiday to raise money for a local homeless shelter. At Patel’s alma mater, the University of Illinois, IFYC volunteers sent a million meals to Haitians after the January 2010 earthquake.

Minks, who has been involved in similar service events at Dominican, is planning to bring interfaith ideals to a younger crowd this autumn, when she begins teaching religious studies at a Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio. “I feel like by college age a lot of people have already made up their minds about whether interfaith cooperation is possible,” says Minks, who passed this perspective on to Patel. “I’ve talked to him about it, taking interfaith to high school. He said: ‘That’s your job’.”

The IFYC’s primary tool for attracting students to its cause is the interfaith leadership institute, held every few months at universities across the country. The four-day events begin with a welcoming address from Patel, then attendees are divided into groups of about 15 people. An interfaith trainer asks each group a series of questions about plurality and tolerance, leads a variety of discussions and advises them to use their own faith narrative to inspire others to join the cause.

Minks felt energised by her first leadership institute in October 2010. “I think it’s sometimes difficult to find a space for that conversation,” she says.

“I think a lot of people kind of avoid the topic. There’s a sense that the millennial generation is sort of not-religious.”

A 2010 study of religion by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than previous generations. One quarter of the millennial generation is not affiliated with any faith, compared to 20 per cent among Generation Xers at the same age, and 13 per cent among baby-boomers.

That reality highlights a major hurdle for the IFYC: if your target demographic has no faith, how do you get them to embrace interfaith cooperation? One way is by blurring the line between those who can participate and those who cannot. The IFYC works with people who follow a specific faith and with people who consider themselves merely spiritual, doubling its potential recruitment pool.

“I think my generation, in particular, really dislikes the idea of institutions,” says Minks. “Religion gets a bad rap because it doesn’t resonate. And I think that’s why it’s starting to get more spiritual [rather than religious], because there’s a search for something more.”

Ficca, however, sees a possible tension between the IFYC’s mingling of specific religious traditions and vaguer belief systems. “The ‘I’m spiritual’ crowd is a legitimate part of the religious landscape, but I get a little nervous that there might be a danger that people start to see religious identity as something to overcome,” says Ficca.

“If everybody simply makes up their own religion, then we’re not availing ourselves of the wisdom, the practice, the sense of community that religious traditions offer.”

Few schools embrace that wisdom and sense of community as deeply as Dominican University, in west suburban Chicago. The school is weaving IFYC ideals into its institutional fabric, making interfaith cooperation integral to campus life, to its core curriculum and to educational outcomes. This past school year, every freshman read and discussed the book Living Buddha, Living Christ, which links Christianity and Buddhism. Sophomores took up Diana Eck’s Encountering God, an iconic examination of religious pluralism.

“This is a very relationship-centred place, and a very diverse student body, and we’re a Catholic institution with a strong service core, so it was just a natural fit,” explains Donna Carroll, Dominican’s president. “You only need to watch TV or read the paper to understand that we as academics, creating an environment that shapes the next generation of global leaders, need to take faith literacy and inter-religious dialogue into account. Religion can be a powerful or a divisive factor in our world today.”

On that score, the winds may have begun to shift in the past couple of  years. Many conservative voices have tempered their Islamophobic rhetoric in the lead-up to the Republican National Convention next month. And when Peter King, the Republican representative from Long Island, New York, held a Congressional session last month to release the findings of his committee’s 2011 investigation into radicalisation within US Muslim communities, the event received scant coverage in the press.

At the same time, suburban communities in Connecticut, Illinois and Wisconsin continue to fight new mosque proposals and anti-Sharia sentiment still receives strong support in many states. In May, Kansas legislators voted unanimously to ban the use of foreign law – standard legalese for anti-Sharia bills.

And then there’s Europe, where Muslim populations tend to be larger and more conservative, engendering greater frustration and suspicion.

Just over a year ago, the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik killed nearly 80 people in response to what he saw as the Islamisation of Europe. France and Belgium prohibit women from wearing the burqa in public and Switzerland has banned minarets on mosques.

Patel accepts that widespread religious liberty and interfaith cooperation is still some way down the road.

“When you choose college campuses, you’re on a 30-year plan,” he says. “Most 22-year-olds don’t graduate and have a profound impact right away.”

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National’s Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.