Eboo Patel: Choosing Peace over Violence
Dr. Eboo Patel is a man of peace in a time of violence. At a time when a Muslim name automatically gets equated with terrorism and Islam itself is misunderstood, this young Muslim Indian American shows the power of interfaith dialogue.
Recently he was honored in New York with the 2012 Guru Nanak Interfaith Peace Prize, established by Hofstra University with a gift by the Bindras, a prominent Sikh American family in New York. This award has earlier been given to the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Arthur Schneier and Religions for Peace.
Although young in years and with a stud in his ear which makes him look like a college student, Dr. Eboo Patel has a formidable resume. He holds a doctorate in the Sociology of Religion from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is the founder and president of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core and is also on President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He was named one of ‘America’s Best Leaders’ by the US News & World Report in 2009.
Patel has been successful in propagating the very commonsense yet outrageous idea that given a choice, young people of different religions will prefer love over hate, peace over violence. “I grew up as somebody whose heritage is Indian and whose faith is Muslim and whose citizenship is America,” he recalls of his youth in Chicago. “I have friends from all different religions and every time I turned on the television there were stories about religion as a source of violence, but in my own personal life religion was a source of an inspiration to serve and that was the case in the lives of my friends.”
Interfaith Movements – Mahatma Gandhi, Dalai Lama & Martin Luther King Jr
Inspired by the role religion played in the lives of great men like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr., he realized that a lot of what made them great was the interfaith movements which they had built.: “It became clear to me that what I wanted to do was to help the present generation of young people follow in that tradition of interfaith bridge building.”
He was influenced by an incident in his youth when he just stood by and did not stand up for a Jewish friend who encountered anti-Semitism. When he told his father about this, he said, “ Not only did you fail your friend but you failed your religion, that Islam calls you to stand up for people who are suffering, especially those who are different.”
The 1990’s were largely a decade of racial and religious turmoil with the first bombing of the World Trade Center, the war in the Balkans, the assassination of the Israeli prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the nuclear tests first by India, then Pakistan all foreshadowing a world which was low on tolerance. Religion, the source of so much violence could also be a source of redemption, thought Patel. “I think that religion calls us to be better than we otherwise might be, gives us courage, gives us conviction and gives us clarity.”
President Obama’s Faith Based Initiatives
As part of President Obama’s advisory council on faith-based initiatives, Patel helped to shape the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in which letters were sent to about 3000 college and university presidents across the country inviting them to enter into a sustainable large scale interfaith program. Over 250 college campuses are part of the program through Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core which makes interfaith cooperation a priority in higher education. Patel’s contribution has been helping make interfaith co-operation on campuses a higher profile issue in the White House, and shape that initiative.
Patel’s urge to connect people of diverse religions and work for their common humanity goes back into his youth, when he visited his grandmother in Bombay while studying at Oxford. He woke up one morning to find a strange woman in their apartment in Colaba, someone whom he did not recognize as family. His grandmother told him she was a young girl who had been abused by her uncle and her father so she had taken her in, and warned him not to open the door as her abusers might he out looking for her.
“I kind of scolded my grandmother, telling her she should not be taking in refugees in her home – it was dangerous, she was getting on in years. She said she had been doing it for 50 years and showed me the Polaroid’s of all those women she had helped over the years.” The women came from all religious backgrounds and diverse regions.
When Patel asked her why she did this, her simple, heartfelt answer convinced him of the path he must follow: “She said ‘I am a Muslim, this is what Muslims do.’ And that was very inspiring for me. My grandmother was carrying out the tradition of mercy within Islam. How was I carrying it out? I had just gotten the idea of Interfaith Youth Core at that time and it made me really commit to that idea, because I thought for myself it is my responsibility to take the core values of Islam, of mercy, of cooperation, of pluralism, of tolerance and to carry them out in a concrete way.”
Eboo Patel: Bringing Interfaith Dialogue to College Campuses
His belief in religion as a bridge of co-operation rather than a barrier which divides people has led him to author ‘Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.’ He has also edited ‘Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action’ and also writes a blog on religion for ‘The Washington Post.’
Does he see a change in the attitudes on college campuses from the time he was a student? He says, “I think the answer is absolutely yes. When I was in college in the early 1990s there was almost no discussion about religious diversity in the campus culture but now I would say a positive and proactive engagement of religious diversity is becoming a higher and higher priority across American college campuses.”
As a father of young children, he is very aware of the future we are building for the next generation and the fact that it is in our hands to lay the foundation with the young people of today. Asked to share some thoughts on how Indian youth are making a difference, he points out that India has a great tradition of interfaith cooperation from the time of Emperor Ashoka through the Mughal Emperor Akbar to the work of Gandhi and Nehru.
“India It is one of the oldest civilizations engaged in interfaith cooperation and America also has an inspiring tradition of interfaith cooperation,” says Eboo Patel. “George Washington wrote a letter to the leader of a synagogue while he was president saying that ‘This government would give bigotry no sanction and prosecution no assistance’. I think that young Indian Americans should view themselves as writing the next chapters in both of those narratives, both in the Indian narrative of interfaith cooperation and in the American narrative.”
For Patel, the passion lies in connecting young people through the Interfaith Youth Core and hundreds of trained students go back to their campuses and run campaigns there. What gets him through good times and bad? He says, “You know, I think the heart of my philosophy is that we are created with the breath of God and we are created to be as God said nothing but a special mercy upon all the world and we should do everything we can with the gift of God’s breath to be that mercy that he intended us to be.”
More information about Interfaith Youth Core – www.ifyc.org
(This article first appeared in The Hindu)