Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), leads a conversation on the global interfaith movement’s efforts to achieve religious pluralism, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program & Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio will be available on our web site, www.cfr.org.
We’re delighted to have Eboo Patel with us today to discuss the global interfaith movement’s efforts to achieve religious pluralism. Dr. Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that has worked with over 200 colleges and universities to train thousands of young people in the principles of interfaith leadership.
In addition to his work with the Interfaith Youth Core, Dr. Patel serves on the Department of Homeland Security Faith-based Advisory Council, the board of Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation. He also served under President Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Dr. Patel is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and a Promise of America, and his forthcoming book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer.
So Eboo, thank you very much for being with us today. We’re—we’re delighted to have you here to talk to us briefly about the work that you’re doing at your organization to cultivate interfaith religious leadership, working with religious leaders and fostering pluralism. So if you could tell us more about that, we would appreciate it.
PATEL: Well, it’s my pleasure, Irina. Thank you so much for inviting to be—me to be a part of it. And I looked through the roster who signed up for the call, and there’s lots and lots of good friends on that, so I’m looking forward to a phone call amongst friends.
So in the last 10 or 15 years, the interfaith movement has really taken off, and you can see this at a number of levels.
At the international level, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, has started a—a major organization called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The king of Saudi Arabia started a major center on interfaith cooperation in Vienna. There was the Alliance of Civilizations, which was a partnership between Spain—the governments of Spain and Turkey with United Nations involvement.
At the local level, there are probably, at this point, hundreds of cities in the United States of America with some kind of city-based interfaith council.
The work that we do at Interfaith Youth Core takes place at the campus level, and my best estimate is—is somewhere around 700 or 800 college campuses with some sort of robust interfaith activity on that campus.
And people on this call can think of the dozens and dozens of ways that they see every day the growth of this thing called interfaith work, or the interfaith movement.
So with this kind of growth, I think that there has been an interesting—an interesting growth in the way the term interfaith is used and sometimes in amusing ways, in—in which I will be in a setting and—and literally hear the word “interfaith” used in—in not only contradictory but actually opposite ways within—within 10 minutes. And I’ll offer some—some funny examples of this.
And so I am at an interfaith conference at a college campus in Utah, and somebody says that they are so happy everybody has gathered, because they’re thrilled that this city in Utah is beginning to realize that there is not just one truth but that there are many truths. And there’s polite applause after that statement.
And then somebody else stands up and says that he’s delighted at this interfaith gathering because he is—he is excited that the one truth that we all know exists is going to be presented to increasingly diverse audiences and—and on and on and on.
There are people who say interfaith work is—is about transcending all religions. There are people who say that interfaith work is about lifting only Abrahamic religions. There are people who think that interfaith work is largely about siding with a particular political perspective in the Middle East, and there are people who say that interfaith work is about siding with the—with the—the actual—the opposite perspective in the Middle East.
What I would like to do in the space of this call is to offer some definitions and guiding frameworks for interfaith work, at least the way that I see it. Frankly, I am less invested in the actual definitions and frameworks that I offer than I am in our movement having a conversation about definitions and frameworks.
So I probably have five or six frameworks I want to put on the table here. I’m looking forward to a robust discussion afterwards. And any time anybody has—has six frameworks they’re playing with, you know that they are writing a book, which is precisely what I am doing, so these frameworks make up the spine of the book that I am working on this summer called, Interfaith Leadership.
And let me actually begin with—with the definition of interfaith the way that I see it, at least.
So I understand interfaith to be broken up into—it’s two component parts. Part number one, “inter,” the inter in interfaith, for me, stands for interaction between religiously diverse people.
The faith part of interfaith stands for how different people approach the transcendent through relationships with their religious and ethical traditions. I take that definition largely from Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
So put together, interfaith is about how our relationships with our traditions impact our interactions with those who are different and about how—about how our interactions with those who are different impacts the way we relate to our religious and ethical traditions.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I—I prefer the term “interfaith” to “interreligious.” In my mind, the word “religious” stands for the—the traditions like religions. Christianity would be a tradition. Islam would be a tradition. And traditions don’t have agency; a people have agency.
And the term faith, through the great comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his definition, stands for the relationship that an adherent would have with the tradition. So a Muslim is a Muslim because of a particular relationship she has with the tradition of Islam.
So why is interfaith work important? Why—why should we care about the dynamic of people from different faith backgrounds in interaction with each other, their faith background impacting that interaction and that interaction impacting how they view their faith?
Well, it’s important because faith identity in any diverse society can become one of five things.
One, it can become a bunker of isolation, two, it can become a barrier of division, three, it can become a bludgeon of domination, four, it can become the blase of simply losing identity altogether, or five, it can become a bridge of cooperation.
Yes, I did work very hard on getting that alliteration right. It took me about a decade.
You can—you can define these quite simply.
A bunker of isolation is simply the people who say—who take the—the bricks of their religious tradition, if you will, and say, “I—I want to have no part of modern society, no part of interacting with people from different backgrounds.”
People who build a barrier are not simply isolating themselves, they are actively denouncing all other ways of being, all other faith identities.
The bludgeon of domination is what we read about in the morning newspaper every day. It’s—it’s the acts of violence motivated by people’s faith against those who are different.
The blase is what we recently read about in—in the Pew study and what we read about in the Public Religion Research Institute studies. It’s the—the—the increasing numbers of people who are disaffiliating from religious traditions, and I believe that that is a result of—of mixing in the maelstrom of diversity and the challenge of articulating particular identity and diversity.
And the fifth is—is the bridge of cooperation.
So we, of course, at Interfaith Youth Core and—and many of my friends on this call would be invested in the bridge. But I think it’s a good idea to define why bridges of cooperation are—are a good thing.
And I actually want to offer five reasons for that, five what I call civic goods associated with interfaith bridge building.
The first civic good is reducing prejudice. And so we’re obviously aware that there’s more warmth towards certain religious identities and less warmth towards others. Pew does good work on this. So does Gallup. So did Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, “American Grace.”
Prejudice is bad in a diverse society. It’s bad because it—it impacts the dignity of those who are adversely affected, and it is also a barrier to their participation, and participation is the lifeblood of—of any civil society or democratic polity.
So one civic good associated with interfaith bridge building is reducing prejudice.
The second civic good is strengthening social cohesion. And roughly speaking, social cohesion is positive relationships between people and—and communities of different identities.
Third, a third civic good is the increase in social capital. We know that religious communities are huge repositories of social capital in our society. This is civic energy, trust, voting, philanthropy, et cetera. And we also know that—that bridging that social capital helps multiply it and is a significant civic engine in a society like ours.
A fourth civic good is the continuity of particular identity communities. This is somewhat counterintuitive, but I—I think the research shows on balance that a—a positive and proactive engagement with diversity actually helps strengthen the—strengthen the identity of particular communities—Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, et cetera.
And finally, I think that there is something sacred to a diverse society living harmoniously. And I think one—one interesting—one interesting illustration of such holiness is the language that so many great Americans have used for our diversity—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community,” Jane Addams’ “Cathedral of Humanity,” you could even adapt John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” although used specifically in a—in a Puritan context—other—other American leaders have used it in the context of thinking about diversity—Abraham Lincoln’s “almost chosen people.”
There is an American civil religion, if you will, about bringing people from different backgrounds together, and I think that it is—it is a very important civic good that interfaith bridge building helps to capture.
I think ultimately what interfaith work is about is building healthy, religiously diverse democracies, and I want to take a moment and just define each of those terms.
What do I mean by democracy? Not just a society in which people get to elect their representatives but a society in which people’s private and personal identities are allowed to be made public through a variety of things. Voting is one. Advocacy is another. Philanthropy is another. But, in a democracy, who you are at home gets to also be who you are in the public square.
What is diversity? Diversity is not just interesting ethnic foods, diversity is people with deep disagreements living together in a democracy, which is to say people with deep disagreements attempting to get their differing views into the public square.
How we might understand religion in this context? Well, I think the great theologian Paul Killick offers us something useful here when he says that religion is about ultimate concerns, or concerns that people invest with a sense of ultimacy. Some people invest the idea of salvation with ultimacy. Other people invest particular parcels of land around the—the world with the sense of ultimacy.
If we are dealing with a religiously diverse democracy, we are dealing with a society in which people who have sharp disagreements on ultimate concerns get to make those disagreements public and effectively get to have arguments about what the public square ought to look like.
This could, in one sense, of course, be a recipe for ugliness, for civil war, and we see no shortage of that around the world.
What is a healthy religiously diverse democracy? I think a healthy religiously diverse democracy is a place that exhibits pluralism, and I want to define pluralism in three parts and then end my—my little presentation with that.
I think a healthy religiously diverse democracy is a diverse society in which people from different backgrounds respect each other’s identities.
That does not mean they agree. That does not mean they like each other all the time. It means that they recognize that other people have a right to their identity and they have some appreciation for where other people might be coming from.
Part two of pluralism, part two of the—a healthy religiously diverse society are relationships between different communities, a thick version of social cohesion, and part three is some kind of commitment to the common good.
So you might disagree on some fundamental things, but in a—in a healthy, religiously diverse democracy, one that’s exhibiting pluralism, your disagreements on some fundamental things does not negate the ability to work together on other fundamental things.
The final thing that I will say is that I don’t think that this simply happens. Bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground. People have to build bridges, just like we’ve had environmentalists who’ve built the environmental movement, we’ve had human-rights activists who’ve built the human rights movement, and we’ve had social entrepreneurs currently building the social-entrepreneurship movement.
One of the most exciting things in interfaith work is the growth of an identity category called interfaith leader, and we’re watching more and more people lay claim to that identity category and say, “I am the kind of person who’s going to build a healthy, religiously diverse democracy.”
FASKIANOS: So thank you very much for that. Let’s open it up now to the group. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
OPERATOR: At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now.
Questions will be taken in order in which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, just press star two.
Again, to ask a question, please press star one now.
Our first question comes from Ramdas Lamb with University of Hawaii.
QUESTION: Thank you for—hello, Dr. Patel?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: OK, good. Thank you.
Great. That was really good. Thank you for providing some important explanations of interfaith dialogue and what the goal should be. And I think your clarification of pluralism’s also important.
I have a couple questions, thought, and—and—and I—that I think you could shed light on, and they deal with this issue of dialogue and pluralism.
So it would seem that for the process of dialogue and pluralism to happen, I think you would agree with this, is we have to approach each other with the idea that we’re both equals, we’re both coming at an—an idea. Even though we have diverse views, we’re coming at—essentially equals.
But yet the Quran and the Bible both tell us than nonbelievers don’t go to Heaven or paradise, which means they usually end up in Hell. This is a fundamental belief, and—and for many Muslims and Christians, it’s not something you can let go of.
So it would seem that those who are involved in those traditions, that are serious in those traditions, for the purpose of interfaith dialogue, I’m wondering is it to really show the others their truth or—and I think you mentioned how that can happen.
But I’m wondering, should Muslims and Christians, when they approach this, should they start out by accepting equal legitimacy of the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, et cetera? Do you think that’s necessary?
Because if it’s not, they’re really dealing with people who they’re assuming are going to go—are condemned people. That—that’s the first.
And—and then the second is—is connected with this. I wonder...
PATEL: The first—the first question wasn’t big enough?
I’m joking. I’m joking.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I know you can handle it.
OK. So the—the next is about your team. And I noticed—I went on your web site, and I noticed you have a variety of Muslims, Christians and humanists, who mention how their beliefs inform the way they approach their work. And that’s great. I think that’s obviously important.
Yet the only one who has any connection at all with Hinduism is one woman, who actually distanced herself from the tradition, calling herself secular, and the only issues that she’s really interested in is identity politics, which is—which is fine.
But I’m wondering, if this an interfaith thing, why you couldn’t find maybe a Hindu who includes his or her faith traditions in—in what he or she is doing the way your other members do.
PATEL: Right. So both important questions. I’ll go ahead and deal with them each separately.
So the first question is—I think the important thing in interfaith work is for people to be able to find some dimension of their tradition that they have a positive point of contact with.
And there are, you know—by definition, if you’re doing interfaith work, you are going to deal with people who disagree with you on matters of ultimate concerns. They’re going to disagree with you on matters of salvation. They’re going to disagree with you on matters of creation. They’re going to disagree with you on significant political issues invested with—with holiness and sacrality in the American and global public square.
So I just—basically, I think if you’re the water, you’re going to get wet.
And—and I walk into any interfaith event knowing that there are people at that event for whom I am not going to Heaven, and that’s OK. That’s the definition of the work that I do, and, you know, every once in a while, I gently remind them that they don’t control it anyway.
But I—I basically don’t—you know, I—I—I occasionally tell young people that we work with—don’t get into interfaith work if you don’t want to run into people with whom you disagree on the most important things. That is the definition of this work.
And the purpose of it is not to get people to agree with you on the most important things; the purpose of it is to find ways to have positive relationships with them, even amidst the dramatic disagreements.
As—as I ended my presentation with, in a religiously diverse democracy, I think the mark of healthiness is the ability to disagree on some fundamental things and to work together on other fundamental things. And salvation is clearly one fundamental thing many people who orient around religion differently disagree with.
On the matter of our staff, you know, so—you know, we—we—we hire people not, frankly, based on their identities. We hire people based on their skill sets, their excellence in the frameworks knowledge base and concrete skills of interfaith work. And sometimes that means that we have a set of religious Hindus on staff, as we did a couple of years ago, and sometimes that means that the only person who’s connected to the Hindu tradition on our staff is a secular Hindu.
So if—you know, check back on—check back in six months on our staff list, and it might have changed, depending on—on who’s gone off to other interesting endeavors and who we happen to have hired.
But, you know, if—you are welcome to start an interfaith organization that hires people by identity categories based on religion. That’s not the way we choose to do things at Interfaith Youth Core.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from David Gray with Bradley Hills Church.
QUESTION: Hello. Good to connect with you today.
PATEL: Hi, friend.
QUESTION: We’ve got, at the church, coming up—my question is talking to children. We’ve had, as you know, a Jewish congregation that’s—we’ve co-located with since 1967, and starting this Friday, we’re going to start hosting the prayer—Friday afternoon prayers for the Islamic Community Center of Potomac, at least for a while. So it’ll be wonderful having all three faiths in the D.C. area, worshipping under one roof.
And as we talk to children, I’m interested for—for advice and feedback on—on lessons you’ve learned to explaining the importance of interfaith to diverse groups of children.
PATEL: Yeah. What—what a great question.
And so, you know, my family has had direct experience with that because we’ve sent our kids to Catholic preschools and schools that have taken their Catholicism seriously.
And so, you know, our kids will come back knowing the sign of the cross, and they’ll come back during Easter week telling us about, “The bad people put Jesus on the cross, but Jesus was resurrected, and—and Jesus always make good choices.” I remember that being something that my—my oldest son said almost verbatim a few years ago when he was in Catholic preschool.
So we’ve had to—we’ve had to—to navigate this, right? How do you—how would we communicate to our children what it means to have a Muslim identity that has deep respect for Catholicism and still diverges from it in important places, like the—like the—the crucifixion, which Muslims do not doctrinally believe in?
And—and what we have done is to emphasize that Islam is a religion with a set of core beliefs, and one of those beliefs is respect for other people’s traditions, even when we disagree with parts of it.
And so we would take the example of Jesus. We would lift Jesus up as common between Muslims and Christians and say part of the Muslim belief—part of the—the commonality is Jesus’ notion of being a revealer of—of—of a revelation from God that would be common in—in the different traditions, in somewhat different ways but still common, Jesus being an example of—of moral behavior and that there’s this interesting difference about Christians believing that Jesus is the son of God and that he was crucified. And we Muslims don’t believe that, but we respect that Christians believe differently than us.
And so there’s this sense of we have some things in common with other traditions, we are clear about our own views on—on a set of doctrine, and that clarity—that clarity can be articulated with respectfulness even in the face of disagreement.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Peg Chamberlain with National Council of Churches.
QUESTION: Hi, Eboo. Thanks for being here, and I can’t wait for the book.
PATEL: Hi, Peg.
QUESTION: The—two—two questions, of course.
The first one is a question about interfaith leader and what critique you have or insight you have about the leader of a faith group who wants to be or is engaged with other faith groups as an interfaith leader and the person who is not particularly a positional leader in his or her faith but primarily wants to be an interfaith leader. That distinction make sense?
The second question is the—the critique that I get most often about Islam is that Islamic leaders are not denouncing ISIL as much as they should be. Got—got any handouts you want to give me about that one?
PATEL: Yeah, I denounce ISIL. Go tell all your friends. I think they’re terrible. I think they’re antithetical to Islam. Tell your friends.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing, on—on your—vis-a-vis to your first question, so if—I think one of the things that characterizes the way I define interfaith leader is that it is a—it’s—I define it as a civic category.
So—and I—this—this, in a way, goes back to our—the first gentleman’s question. You can be an interfaith leader with any—in my definition of it, with any identity background. It is—it—being an interfaith leader, in my view, is having the frameworks, the knowledge base and the skill set to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between people who orient around religion differently. That’s what it is.
You can do that if you are a Brahmin Hindu. You can do that if you are a secular humanist. You can do that if you’re spiritually seeking.
Now, any of those particular social positions are going to give you different kinds of access to different communities.
So Peg, given the significant position you hold in the—religious leadership position you hold in the Christian community is going to give you access to imams and rabbis and bishops and cardinals in a way that I just don’t have as somebody who is not ordained or is not a religious leader in that way. And probably my social position as the leader of a civic organization gives me access to—to different populations of people.
But I think the important thing is, do you have the frameworks, the knowledge base and the skill set to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between people who orient around religion differently?
And in the book that I’m writing, I actually articulate the different types of knowledge and the different skills that I think are necessary for this. I mean, I’m happy to run through that very briefly if—if people are interested on this call, but I—I think that—I think it’s most useful to understand interfaith leader as a civic category, if you will, as opposed to a religious or spiritual category.
QUESTION: I agree with you. Thanks for that.
What about accountability? Where does accountability—leaders are—if you’re a leader, you’re accountable, right? How does that work out?
PATEL: So I—I think that’s a great question, Peg.
So—so the—if interfaith leader is a civic category, then it becomes similar to teacher, environmentalist, human-rights activist, social entrepreneur, and in each of those social sector fields, right, there are various evaluations and metrics. And people argue about this all the time.
Can you—can you judge a good teacher by the test scores of her students, right? I don’t know, but I do know that that—that—the field of teaching has a vigorous argument about the evaluation of good teachers. And I think that interfaith work should have the same. I think that we should have ways of measuring whether particular interfaith programs or particular types of interfaith leaders are more or less effective at building bridges of understanding and cooperation.
So to get to that, one has to have a set of metrics that, if you will, define the bridge, and the metric that we’ve come up with at Interfaith Youth Core is what we call the interfaith triangle, the three sides of the triangle, obviously, attitudes, relationships and knowledge.
And we define it as such because the way social scientists tend to measure religious diversity is by measuring people’s attitudes towards other religions, their relationships with people from different religions and their knowledge about other religions.
So if you categorize Pew and Gallup surveys, if you categorize Robert Wuthnow's social science and Robert Putnam’s social science, you’ll find that basically those are the categories of questions that they ask.
And so what we are saying is an effective interfaith program is a program in which people walk out with better attitudes towards other religious traditions, with more relationships with people from other religious backgrounds and with more appreciative knowledge and an effective interfaith leader is a—is a leader who can create a program in which people increase on their attitudes, their relationships and their knowledge.
QUESTION: Well-said. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes Ruth Messinger with American Jewish World Service.
QUESTION: Hello, Eboo. You are amazing.
PATEL: We might as well just have a dinner party with all these friends on the line, right?
QUESTION: Why not? We just love listening to you.
So I just was going to—I was going to—I really—I love the last point you made about interfaith work and about sharing. And I was just going to share outside of the faith connection—but your argument about don’t—getting into interfaith work unless you’re going to be in a room with people who disagree with you, I was just going to remind from my former life in politics that Churchill once pointed out that there is no need to negotiate with our friends, we’re negotiating with our enemies.
So this isn’t a question of enemies, but the point is if you—if you’re serious about building something new, you’re only going to be able to do it if you’re in a room with people who don’t agree with you on everything.
PATEL: Right. Thank you for that.
And—and by the way, my book starts with Ruth’s story, so—and she was kind of enough to sit with me and—and narrate it.
But in—in the 1960s, Ruth—Ruth got her start as somebody with—who had recently graduated with a social-work degree who was creating the foster care network in Western Oklahoma. So here is this Radcliffe-educated, Manhattan, feminist Jewish woman in Western Oklahoma, and who is she—who is she working with most closely to create the foster care network—were—were Evangelical Christians who ran house churches in Western Oklahoma.
So I promise you, all of them thought you were not going to such a nice place after you died. Right, Ruth?
PATEL: And still. And—and it’s not like you didn’t know that. And yet you found this really powerful point of contact with these Evangelical Christians.
You reduced prejudiced towards Jews by your—by your presence with them and by the knowledge they gained of who you were and Judaism, you built social cohesion by strengthening their relationship between somebody from a different religious community, yourself, and them, and you dramatically grew social capital by encouraging those house churches to be the—the basis of the foster care network in—in Western Oklahoma.
QUESTION: And they did it better than anybody else, also.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jason Poling with New Hope Community Church.
QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Patel, for your comments. I have just one question for you.
Despite the effectiveness of your work, to what do you attribute this obnoxious persistence of the idea that you’re not really doing interfaith unless you’re checking your most cherished convictions at the door?
PATEL: I mean, there are—the fact is that there are many interfaith movements, right?
So there’s—there’s an interfaith movement right now with Southern Baptists and Mormons and Catholics against same-sex marriage, and I promise you, they’re not checking their religious convictions at the door.
And then there’s an interfaith movement amongst liberal Protestants, liberal Jews, liberal Muslims and secular humanists, and they might be more likely to check said religious convictions at the door.
So this is not—there are—there are many—there are many rings in the tent of interfaith work, which is precisely why I think that, as this movement has grown, this is a very good time for an argument about definitions and frameworks.
And—and I’m—you know, I’m—in this book and in this presentation, I’m putting my stake in the ground, so to speak, and—and I—again, as—as I said at the top, I am less invested in my stake as I am in us having a discussion or an argument about definitions.
Ought an interfaith organization be staffed exclusively by people who claim a strong identity in one of the six or seven, quote/unquote, great world religions? That’s an interesting point.
Ought an interfaith organization be staffed by people who have a particular knowledge base and skill set in civic interfaith work?
I think that these are precisely the type of arguments and discussions we ought to be having right now, and any—any field worth its salt has these kinds of arguments and discussions.
And 20 years ago, frankly, interfaith cooperation was too small for—for—too small to have such arguments and discussions. And as we grow and as we seek funding from major foundations and as governments become invested, I think we owe it to the public, so to speak, to be clear about what it is we think we are accomplishing and then measure if we are actually accomplishing that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Valerie Kaur with Stanford Law School.
QUESTION: Hi, Eboo. Can you hear me?
PATEL: Hi, Valerie. How—how are you?
QUESTION: I love the idea of a virtual dinner conversation. Peg and Ruth, it was delightful to hear your voices as well.
My question is this. I—you know, I’m one of many of this generation who has been inspired to take on the title of interfaith leader because of you, Eboo, because of your framework, because you gave us permission to do so and showed us all the ways that that was possible.
In—in my own practice of interfaith leadership, though, I—I see my work as bringing people of multiple faiths together around shared moral imperatives in order to create social change, so for example, in the wake of Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson or in response the mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
So the way that I measure success is not necessarily how many people I’m able to build bridges with or how many people of different faiths I’m able to bring to a shared table. The way that I measure success is the actual impact we make when people of many faiths and backgrounds stand together to demand change in—in the name of justice.
So as you’re developing your model for interfaith leadership, I’m wondering if you will be considering multiple ways to measure success.
PATEL: So I—I find that fascinating. You know, Valerie, you just made public a long running-private conversation between us, right?
PATEL: It’s—it’s always interested me, and I find it fascinating, because—because you and I happen to have a very similar definition of justice and we happen to have similar relationships with our faith backgrounds, you with the Sikh tradition and me with the Muslim tradition, and how it inspires us to move towards a particular definition of justice, right?
PATEL: And so I—I deeply—I deeply resonate with you there.
And my question is we live in a nation of 320 million people, many of which have—have a—have different definitions of justice that emerge from their faith commitments, and what does it mean to live in this religiously diverse democracy?
And the—the best—the best definition I have of that right now is people who disagree on some fundamental things have to be able to work together on other fundamental things.
And right now, the emphasis—what I am proposing is the emphasis in—in interfaith work, or one emphasis in interfaith work, ought to be proactively seeking people with whom you or I might disagree with on the top five political issues of the day and asking the question, what—what else might we do together that is inspiring and useful and contributes to the broader society and also emerges from our faith traditions?
So, you know, at IFYC, we are spending our time on college campuses, and right now college campuses are rocked by the extremely tense discussions and protests over the Middle East. And, you know, I have a view on that. Lots of people have a view on it.
But my primary goal in going to those college campuses is not to advance my particular view; my primary goal is to say to the students on different ends of that spectrum, who are at each other’s throats right now—is to say, “Look, you’re a pre-med—your pre-med lab partner is somebody who you are shouting down in the student government over a BDS resolution. If you were a heart surgeon and that person was your partner in heart surgery, would you not perform next Tuesday’s heart surgery together because you disagree with where to draw the line in Jerusalem? I really hope not.”
And so I think that there is—there are lots of religiously diverse social-justice movements that inspire me. I think that one of the challenges of such movements is they seek to widen the divides between citizens who have different definitions of justice, and right now, my own view is that the primary work of interfaith cooperation in a polarized, diverse democracy is to bridge said widened divides.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Shaik Ubaid with Muslim Coalition.
QUESTION: Hi, Eboo. Thanks for the taking the call, everything, the presentation. I really admire your work.
I am going to ask you about your advice, because of your extensive experience here, for practical hindrances that we may have in the interfaith—building an interfaith movement in our meetings or gatherings, when we tend to have, you know, prayer rather than a silent moment, sometimes some faith traditions have a hesitation to join, sometimes, for example, from a Jewish group or even sometimes from Muslim group and how do we overcome that?
And the second thing is sometimes we have, you know—we look down upon those faith traditions that, you know, have an active conversion campaigns who proselytize, and how do we bring those groups—for example, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Muslims may do that, but others may...
And the last one is sometimes being projected as only, you know, faith traditions, eastern faith traditions, for example, you hear—you hear—hear about, you know, what’s happening by ISIS, and other Muslims and what the Buddhists are doing in Burma, Myanmar, what Hindu (inaudible) in India, only the eastern traditions have more violence, whereas people forget about (inaudible) or what—what the settler movement and (inaudible).
So how do we, you know—the three main problems that we have here in—in the New York area—so how do you suppose that we overcome this?
PATEL: So let me—let me take your first two questions with a single answer, which is, you know, how—how do we—how do we deal with religions that proselytize and how do we deal with the religions who might be uncomfortable with—with kind of a single interfaith prayer?
So, I mean, I think that this is—this is, again, relatively straightforward, right, which is if you’re in—again, if you’re in—if you’re in the water, you’re going to get wet. If you’re going to deal with religious traditions, you’re going to deal with people who—who—whose religious traditions have grown through conversion, and to—to look down upon that just doesn’t—doesn’t make that much sense to me.
Now, to say that the ground rules for a particular religious—for a particular interfaith program is that this is not going to focus on proselytization makes a lot of sense to me. To say that proselytization in—in whole is bad just seems to me to be—to be violating, you know, large swathes of, at the very least, Christianity and Islam and probably significant swathes of—of Buddhism and Hinduism as well.
I mean, one way to think of this metaphor is that not every part of the river is going to have a bridge over it. There are going to be significant places in which the river remains unbridged. And we—there are going to be Muslims and Jews who agree on God and disagree on the Middle East, and there’s going to be Muslims and Jews who agree on the Middle East and disagree on God, right?
And that is just the deal. Interfaith work is not about consensus, and it’s not about agreement. Interfaith work is about finding ways of relating to people with whom you differ on significant ultimate concerns, right?
And—and so if it turns out that you are with a group of people with whom you differ on the ultimate concern of salvation, my suggestion is you find other things to start the conversation with. That doesn’t mean you don’t come back to the interesting disagreement on salvation. It just means you don’t—you don’t start there.
How do you go about doing that? Well, I think one thing an interfaith leader knows how to do is to create an event, an activity or an environment which is inviting to the people around the room.
So for us, because we work in college campuses, that tends to be a service project. For other people, maybe they’ve found settings in which interfaith prayer works. That’s—that is not the—that is not the path that we would recommend first. Again, it’s not—it’s not the kind of activity or event that tends to convene large groups of people from different religious traditions. It—it tends to—it tends to be uncomfortable for significant groups.
Question for an interfaith leader is, what type of activity or an event can you create such that diverse groups of people will convene around that event and be able to share the relative dimension of their religious tradition?
On your—on your last question, I mean, I am—I am not particularly invested in people, you know, associating the 969 movement in Myanmar with Buddhism, right? Like, I’m—I’m not interested in people thinking Buddhism is more violent than they currently think it is; I’m interested in them thinking that Islam is—is less violent. So—and I don’t think that the best way of going about that is to—is to highlight the violence of other traditions. That—that’s just not how I see my particular role.
You know, Charles Kurzman has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today, where he says, “You know, perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned with Muslim extremism in America; the data shows that—that—that right-wing anti-government extremism is far more dangerous.”
He’s a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It’s a good role for him to play. It’s not a good role for me to play as an interfaith leader.
What I would much rather do is to highlight dimensions of Islam and Buddhism that resonate with one another and that make a contribution to the broader society.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Melody Ahmed with Georgetown University.
QUESTION: Hi, Eboo. How are you? Great to hear you.
PATEL: Hi, Melody. Yeah, good to be with you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for this.
So 10 years is such a pivotal moment in this interfaith movement, and I agree wholeheartedly with you about this—this moment for looking at definitions. We’re engaged in kind of a rollicking conversation around our own definitions and interfaith getting chucked out, and should we say religions and cultures and dialogue, and we have these faculty roundtables, and it’s just really interesting to see how it develops.
So I guess the—the—the broad question is the next 10 years, what do you see? What do you want to do? What are you looking forward to? What are you worried about? I know it’s a big question.
Another part, a small part of that, on the definition, is this term “faith,” which you’ve defined so well. I’m—I’m hearing so much from Muslim and Jewish faculty colleagues, friends, students that they feel left out by this term. They feel it’s extremely Christian.
So how do you see that as the interfaith movement develops, and do you—do you get that response ever?
PATEL: Yeah, so, I mean, both great questions. It’s so nice to hear your voice, Melody.
So I’ll answer the second one first. So, you know, I use the word “faith” because of how Wilfred Cantwell Smith defines it, right, which is the relationship with the tradition.
And a tradition is—is internally diverse, it’s wide, it’s deep, it’s massive, people have arguments about what belongs in the tradition, et cetera, et cetera, right? And each of us, depending on our own social position and the communities that we feel like we are a part of, we have different relationships with that tradition.
So for example, many, many Muslims in South Asia would have a significant relationship with—with the dimension of the Islamic tradition, which facilitates the pilgrimages to the graves of Sufi saints, right? Professor Ahmed, your father-in-law writes eloquently about this in some of his books.
And, you know, there are many strains of Salafi Islam in the Middle East, which not only deemphasize that but actually think it should not be part of the Muslim tradition and some of whom actively destroy said tombs, right?
So that’s an—that is an argument about what belongs in a tradition by different communities who all claim to be a part of that tradition and who relate to that dimension differently. I find that a really useful way of understanding communities and—and people and lived religion, so to speak.
The reason that I am personally not, you know, super energized by the notion of religions and cultures and dialogue is religions—religions don’t do anything. Religions don’t have agency, right?
As Cantwell Smith would say, the problem is not getting Islam and Hinduism to get along. The problem is getting Muslims and Hindus to get along.
And how we deal with real people in real situations of interaction who have different relationships with their faith traditions, which inspires and motives and animates them in different ways, I think that that’s the question. So for that, I prefer the term interfaith as I defined it upfront.
What do I see in the next 10 years? I mean, I—I—perhaps this is selection bias and—and the work that we do at IFYC, but I see the academy playing a more and more significant role in this work by way of arguments around definitions, by way of creating evaluation programs, right.
Just like it’s academics that—that help create how we measure the effectiveness of public health and education and environmental programs—I mean, I see academics coming up with ways of measuring the effectiveness of interfaith programs.
I mean, I see governments getting more and more involved in this. And remember, the—the heart of this work is, how do people who orient around religion differently live in the same society together, which is to say, how do you build a healthy, religiously diverse democracy?
I mean, this is the—this is a central question in—not—in—in old democracies, like the United States and much of Europe. It’s also a central question in emerging democracies, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the violence in those countries is around how different religious communities are vying for the public square.
So I see government entities, from the U.N. to USAID to the State Department, getting more involved in this, giving out significant grants to the groups represented on this phone call. Well, how would you measure the effectiveness of those grants? How do you select who receives one of those grants?
All of this is going to require interfaith work to become kind of an established social sector, like environmentalism, like public health, like literacy, and that’s going, I think, take significant brain power of the—of—of academics to help develop frameworks, evaluation programs, et cetera.
QUESTION: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Eugene Merrill with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
QUESTION: I think, perhaps, sir, I’m the only one that you’ve talked to so far that you don’t know. I’m—I’m amazed...
PATEL: That’s not true.
QUESTION: ... at the depth and breadth of your friendship, and I can see why, now having heard you.
First of all, I really appreciated the—the very clear introduction to this discussion today, and—and I suppose it will come out in print some time or other. But if you have no plan to do so, I’d appreciate getting what you had to say in print. I think it’s a marvelous statement of—of what we all ought to be about.
I think I have a—a problem, as you might guess from a Baptist. I have a problem with the term “truth” and it’s not truth but many truths.
I suppose that we can say that if by truth, we mean a faith tradition, then of course, we have—there are many truths. In other words, a truth is equivalent, I suppose, semantically, to—to a faith tradition, to what we believe. And all of us believe in what we do, because we feel that it is the best of all possible options, and therefore we choose what we do to believe, and when we do so, I think we claim to be believing in the truth, perhaps.
I’m—I’m just wondering if I’m quibbling or if you think maybe a term like “many truths” ought to be avoided in the interests of speaking more, as most people have done today, on varying approaches—faith traditions, I think is a good term—and less on trying to achieve a commonality of belief, which I know you’re not trying to do, but a commonality of activity, of service, of work, of cooperation in the community and in the—in the larger world, as far as that goes.
And I—I think that’s—that’s where this kind of dialogue, this kind of cooperation has to be—has to be addressed and not the—the notion of some of kind of a—of a possibility of multi views on things, all speaking of a—a one truth or many.
There’s one truth to each of us, and each of us is pursuing his or her own concept of what that truth is.
Any response, or—that’s not really question, I guess...
PATEL: Well, I—I—I’m...
QUESTION: ... except, is that a happy term?
PATEL: Well, I’m—first of all, I’m grateful for you being on this call and for your generous words. And this—this call has been recorded, so you’ll be able to get the recording of it. And perhaps, Irina—perhaps there’s a print transcript as well?
And if you wait here...
PATEL: ... and if—and if you—if you say some prayers for my fortitude this summer, God willing, it will come out in book form. So hopefully—God—print is in my future if I can get my act together to write this book.
I would—you know, I would simply say to your comment that 50 years ago, the interesting dialogue in interfaith work was people who had a solid conception of “the truth” and that truth was different.
So a Jew who—who said, “I come from the Rabbinic tradition. I believe in Tanna, you know, the—the Torah, and we believe that Jesus was, if anything, a great rabbi,” and a Christian who would say, “We believe that Jesus is the—is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes from the Father except through Him”—so those are clear and different views of truth, and some kind of discussion would—would take place.
We now live in a—in a significantly more multidimensional world, and there are many people running around out there who have—who would say, “I believe in many truths,” or, “I don’t really believe in truth at all,” or, “I don’t really think it’s important.”
And an interesting question, I think, is, in what ways does interfaith work include those people?
And again, in the way I am defining this, in a civic manner, the language that I use, people who orient around religion differently, which is to say the 22-year-old college student who checks “none” on the Pew Survey of Religious Affiliation, and you would both be involved in interfaith work if you found, as you suggested, Eugene, a common activity to which you could engage in productively and articulate clearly how it is your religious tradition or spiritual orientation or philosophical world view inspired you to come to that place.
I think that the world is significantly—the ability to involve those with a far more diffuse religious identity, I think is a significant challenge of interfaith work, while being—while making sure that those with a clear, unitary perspective, if you will, such as yourself, feel equally comfortable.
And I think, as you suggested, the trick, so to speak, is the combination of the common activity and an expertly facilitated conversation.
FASKIANOS: Well, Eboo, unfortunately, we are at the end of our hour, and it has been a terrific discussion. I think everybody would agree. We appreciate your sharing your analysis and insights with us, and thanks to everyone for their comments and questions.
PATEL: Well, thank you so much. It—it’s been a—it’s been invigorating, and it’s good to catch up with new—with old friends and to make some new friends, also.
FASKIANOS: And as Eboo said, we will be putting on our web site the audio of this call, and I think, based on the interest, we’ll also make a—a transcript of it. So do check back to cfr.org/religion.
We encourage to follow our religion and foreign-policy initiative on Twitter, @cfr_religion, for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.
And you can also follow Eboo Patel on Twitter, @eboopatel, and his organization, Interfaith Youth Core, @IFYC.
So again, thank you, Eboo, and thank you all.
PATEL: Thanks, friends.