Michael K. Le Roy, president of Calvin College, and Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, discuss the challenges of religious pluralism in light of rising Islamophobia in the United States, 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 and outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio will be available on our website, CFR.org.
We’re delighted to have Michael Le Roy and Eboo Patel with us to talk about the challenges of religious pluralism in light of rising Islamophobia in the United States.
Dr. Le Roy is the president of Calvin College, a liberal arts college of the Christian Reformed Church. Prior to going to Calvin College, he held several administrative and faculty positons at Whitworth University, Wheaton College, and the College of William and Mary. He has received Wheaton College’s Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching Award and the American Political Science Association’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
Dr. Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that has worked with over 200 colleges and universities to train thousands of young people on the principles of interfaith leadership. In addition to his work with IFYC, Dr. Patel serves on the Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Advisory Council, the board of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation. He’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, USA Today, Huffington Post, NPR, and CNN.
Michael and Eboo, thank you very much for joining us today.
We have seen Islamophobia on the rise throughout the United States over the past year, and then some. It would be great if you could begin by giving us an overview of this trend that we’re seeing and what it means for American pluralism. So, Eboo, why don’t we start with you, and then we can turn to Michael.
PATEL: Thank you so much, Irina. Thank you for inviting us to be a part of this. And, Michael, thank you so much for being my partner in this.
And thank you to everybody who’s joined this call. Salaam alaikum to all of you.
So I wanted to begin with what does Islamophobia look like in America. And as I was doing research on the data points around this, I came across a story that is really the piece that I wanted to share, which is, what does Islamophobia feel like? And I feel like a story is so much richer and offers so much more texture than however many data points one can amass.
So this is a piece that came out in The New York Times just a few days ago, and it’s about a mosque that is below two apartment complexes in Tucson, Arizona, where some hundreds of University of Arizona students live. And members of this mosque have found increasing amounts of trash and litter around the courtyard of the mosque, and thought that maybe it was just, you know, random students being rude and throwing things. But over the course of the past few months, they’ve realized that this is not random at all, that this is very intentional and quite deliberate, and that people were yelling religiously bigoted slurs and racist things as they were targeting Muslims going to prayers with beer cans and all sorts of debris from these balconies. And I’m thinking to myself—as somebody who goes to prayers, I’m thinking to myself, what must this feel like to go to a masjid or a jama’at khana or wherever you go to pray, and look around and think, boy, people are throwing garbage at us? And how do you explain that to your child who comes and brings you a piece of litter and says, I’m picking up trash. And you’re thinking to yourself, you know, that trash is not there randomly; that trash is there because people don’t want us here, people are targeting us?
And the fact is, whether that’s happening at your mosque or not, you know it could happen. And that’s the essence of Islamophobia, is this sense of things—bad things that might be happening to Muslims in one corner of the country could well be happening to you, because there is an emotion, a feeling, a sense that Muslims are targets right now. It’s, frankly, very scary, and I think it’s particularly scary for people who wear things like headscarves or Muslim beards and who are obvious Muslims in that way. And it’s scary for parents, and I know that because I have an 8- and a 5-year-old who ask me questions like, if Donald Trump wins, are we going to have to leave America. It is obvious that any kind of religious prejudice violates the dignity of the afflicted community.
I want to focus on two additional reasons that this is so heinous right now. The second reason is the deep offense that any religious prejudice causes against the American ideal. I think it’s useful, and frankly extremely inspiring, to go back and read the inspiring American tradition of welcoming and pluralism, and recognize just how deep and central a part of this country that tradition is. So, from Jane Addams: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” George Washington: “The United States will give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.” This is what the best of America is all about, and any form of prejudice is violating that ethic.
The third point that I want to focus on is how religious prejudice serves as a barrier to the contributions of the afflicted community. In a free-market democracy, the way that a nation like ours runs is through the civic, economic, and political contributions of its various communities, and prejudice serves as a barrier to that contribution. For me, the most obvious recent example dealing with Muslims is the case of young Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old high school student in Texas who creates an alarm clock in a pencil box, takes it to school, and has teachers call a bomb scare on him. Gets questioned for 90 minutes by police officers, placed into handcuffs because people think that a kid whose name is Ahmed Mohamed, who’s fiddling around with electronics, must be somehow involved in bomb-making. Well, Ahmed Mohamed’s family left America. They took a kid who could have given great talents to this country and they decided that it just wasn’t worth the prejudice that they felt. That is one example of how prejudice is a barrier to contribution.
The fact is, this is not new in America. A variety of groups have faced this. And I just want to offer one example that I think both highlights the deep ugliness of prejudice and also the long-term possibility of America. And that’s the parallel with anti-Catholic prejudice.
The great historian Arthur Schlesinger once said that the deepest bias in the American people is anti-Catholicism. And if we look over the course of American history, from the ugly pope burnings of the late 18th century to the Know-Nothing Party of the 19th century, whose—the entire party was based on blocking the Catholic presence in America; they elected huge numbers of people to state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress—and into the time of the KKK in the 1920s and the anti-Kennedy campaign of 1959 and 1960, a huge amount of American energy was spent blocking the Catholic presence in the United States of America. And I think to myself sometimes, what if that ethic had won? What if, in fact, the Catholic contribution to America had (sic) won? Think about what this country would lose in the process, or would have lost. Think about the hundreds of Catholic hospitals—nearly 600, at my last count—the 235 Catholic colleges and universities, the 7,000 Catholic grade schools and high schools—virtually every single one of those institutions is open to non-Catholics. The civic contribution of Catholics in America helps America be America. It is virtually impossible to imagine American civil society without that contribution.
One can make the same case for a variety of ethnic, racial or religious groups that have experienced profound prejudice in the past. If we imagine an America without the contributions of African-Americans, imagine America without the contributions of Jews—civic, political, economic—that’s what at stake here. When we let prejudice flower, that means that we block the contributions of an American community.
I don’t want to leave us on a dark note. I think that the story of the Catholic presence and flourishing in America, the arc of the story brings us to a really inspiring place. And in my mind, there’s no better example of that than what I experienced personally just a few months ago in our nation’s capital. So if one goes back and looks at the history of the—of the Kennedy campaign, people will read lines like, if we elect John F. Kennedy to the White House, that means the flag of the Vatican will fly on the South Lawn and the pope will descend upon Washington, D.C. It was this notion of America in the throes of, quote/unquote, “popery” if a Catholic president was elected. And as I was on the South Lawn of the White House, flying the flag of the Vatican as Pope Francis descended upon Washington, D.C. to the cheers of hundreds of millions of Americans, I thought to myself, we have come a long way in just about 50 years. And for me, the lesson of that is America wins—prejudice loses, America wins.
But it doesn’t just happen. People work for that to be the case. And there are plenty of people who stood up against anti-Catholic bigotry. I think Abraham Lincoln, who says during the 1850s: “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’” People were calling out these anti-Catholic parties even as they were emerging. And I think that’s the kind of thing, as we believe in the possibility of America and in that possibility prevailing, we need to have a critical mass of people who are saying Islamophobia—barriers to the contributions of our Muslim American friends, neighbors and citizens—is un-American because we cannot be America unless we welcome the contributions of all people.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you so much, Eboo.
And let’s open it up now to Michael.
LE ROY: Well, I want to thank our listeners who have called in. And I want to thank Irina and Eboo. As always, a very articulate description of the problem, and passion, and a good challenge in a very positive way. So thank you again, Eboo, for that.
The story and the—and numerous stories that are emerging in our country today related to the experience of Muslims in American society and culture should be deeply unsettling and deeply disturbing to all of us. I want to speak about it in two ways—one from a Christian point of view, and another as a citizen of this—of this country—and describe the two ways in which this—we are challenged. I want to make a couple of observations on contemporary U.S. culture, and then describe ways in which we’re challenging students at Calvin College to respond appropriately and constructively to this threat.
I speak as somebody who grew up on Bainbridge Island, where the narrative and story of Japanese Americans being forcibly removed from their homes and communities at the beginning of World War II and put into internment camps was part of the story we grew up on. And I remember being really deeply moved by the specific stories of the parents and grandparents of some of my friends having to relocate and lose everything that they valued, and their identity, and their home. And it was very powerful to me. But I also learned from a few people who managed to speak up and speak out at that time. I remember editor Woodward of the Bainbridge Review, who wrote a pretty passionate critique of this policy as it was emergent in a time when Americans were very fearful. And his opinion at the time was disparaged, but now it’s held up as an example of what bystanders should have been doing instead of standing by. So I feel very convicted about a need to stand up.
I also come from a tradition—represent a tradition, the Christian Reformed Church. And many of our members—older members—are people who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and some lost their lives doing that. So we—I come from a tradition where I feel actually compelled in this moment to also respond appropriately.
I’ll just say a couple things as a Christian that not all people may know that followers of Jesus are really called to believe this. First of all, we see all human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, their religious commitments, to be created in the image of God. And so each person is a sacred image bearer of that—of that special status.
We also understand that the world is corrupted, and all human relationships become corrupted by sin. And so that helps us to understand, but not accept, why dehumanizing behavior and oppression and hate that we even see in the media and the news today occurs. It occurs out of this brokenness that we find in the world.
And then we are followers of Jesus, so we also believe that he comes to renew and heal the broken world in and through his followers. And what it means to be a follower is to love a neighbor, to welcome a stranger, and to seek justice, and seek justice in our cities and communities. And the scriptures are quite clear for us on this. And so being a follower means that we join together with those who have stood up for righteousness in those key, difficult moments when a—when a dominant culture was saying something quite different.
My observations on our culture is that I agree with what Eboo said, is that xenophobia—that is, the fear of someone coming from outside the community, outside the country—is one of the besetting sins of our U.S. culture. And Eboo has documented well the history of anti-Catholicism. I add to it a non-religious dimension, but the Japanese internment. I’ll also add to it a fear or prejudice against those people who have been in our country since before its founding. I mean, there are many Latinos who trace their heritage in the current borders of the United States to far—residence far earlier than that, but then get treated as though they are illegal immigrants to this country. And now it’s Muslims.
I think it was de Tocqueville who observed that it seemed that Americans needed an external enemy to forge a kind of internal unity. And while de Tocqueville was documenting that dynamic operative within American culture, he was also documenting, I think, one of our dysfunctions or sources of un-health.
I think another reality for us is we’re all contending with religious extremism in many different forms. And, of course, in the United States, when you refer to religious extremism, most Americans initially think of Islamic extremism. But we have examples of Christian extremism, too—resort to violence against innocent people in the name of Christ, which is just as reprehensible. And we need to name that reality of religious extremism, the taking of life in the name of religious faith, which is a serious—which is a serious problem globally.
And lots of people that, when we express concern about the free exercise of religion in other countries and the protection of religious freedoms, a lot of Americans think of the protection of Christians. But there also have been a lot of Muslims that have been victims of Muslim religious extremism or Hindu religious extremism that we see globally.
And I bring that up because the United States is seen in its best form to be a haven against this kind of persecution and prejudice. And so it’s at this moment that we need to be very clear about standing up with a different narrative—a narrative of the United States as a place that enshrines as a core value the free exercise of religion, and is a—is a place that people should feel free to have their faith and to exercise that faith in this context. So we have a valuable resource in our Constitution and a longstanding practice of protection of the free exercise of religion.
Also, the United—the United—Christians in the United States need to remember that we’ve generally benefited from this principle of the free—or the protection of the free exercise of religion. And at that moment, I think, when we realize, wow, we’ve been tremendous beneficiaries of this, it means also extending that same protection to others. And so, while we benefit, we also need to stand up to protect and defend the free exercise of religion of other religious groups in our country. And so we have tremendous resources that we can draw on. We have the practice of free exercise, those of us that espouse a religious faith, but also constitutional legal protections that are very, very important.
So what do we say that Christians must do to respond? And hopefully we can extend this, as many other religious leaders have, to a general kind of an American approach as well.
First, we need to stand up and defend the human rights and the free exercise of—that Muslims need in America, Muslim citizens of this country need, and be prepared to confront prejudice and harassment and violence honestly and peaceably wherever we find it.
We need to build neighborly relationships with Muslims in our communities. We need to learn and understand the Islamic experience here so that we can—because we often share a lot of values in common, and so understanding where we come from.
Understanding the differences. Differences are meaningful and profound, but they should not be a basis for prejudice or oppression.
And we also need to fully support, as I said, the free exercise of Islamic faith, and remind others that it’s our constitutional duty to do so as Americans.
And then, finally, I think that the Christian community itself—and there are many communities, I should add. There’s a lot of diversity within Christianity. But we’re perplexed with some of the same things that I think our Islamic brothers and sisters and perplexed with. What does it mean to engage a secular culture that is sometimes hostile to faithful people? And how do we engage this out of our deep faith, but to do so in a constructive way that educates others? How do we exercise our religion freely in our respective communities? And how do—how do we do that in a way that also helps educate the wider society? And then, how do we develop faith-based understandings of pluralism that don’t constitute threats to religious belief? So, in other words, I think a lot of Christians are perplexed about what does—what does it mean to be principled in our pluralism without giving away the faith that we hold dear to.
These are—these are interesting questions. And I think that we would learn a lot, as followers of Jesus, to be engaging with faithful Muslims on the—and to understand how they engage these questions, as well, in their respective communities. So I think dialogues like this are an important starting point. And I really come to them, I think, in a spirit of humility, wanting to learn what I can.
So I think I’ll end my remarks there and open it up for questions. But thank you, again.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you both.
And we invite you now to ask questions or contribute your comments and thinking. And if you have a specific question or comment, please direct it. We are not in the same room; we’re in our respective offices, doing this virtually. So it would be helpful if you could address your question to either Eboo or Michael. So let’s go, Cassidy, to questions.
OPERATOR: Absolutely. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from Mr. Rodney Petersen with Cooperative Metropolitan Industries (sic; Ministries).
PETERSEN: Thank you. This question is directed to Dr. Michael Le Roy.
Dr. Le Roy, I’m concerned about the case of Dr. Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College losing her position there by arguing that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Could you comment on this? And how would she have fared at your school?
LE ROY: Yeah, I’m so surprised that that question came up at all. No, I’m kidding. But thank you for asking it.
Let me start by saying, while I did—I did work at Wheaton College. I feel like I have some understanding of the context there. One of the things I know is that I don’t know—(chuckles)—all the circumstances regarding that personnel situation, and so I’m not going to comment specifically on that personnel situation.
But what I—what I will say is—and I think it’s—I think it’s difficult for people outside these faith-based college communities to understand that there are two tasks that these faith-based communities are seeking to accomplish. The first is they have an obligation—in fact, they promise—to bring students in and help them to deepen their understanding of their own faith. And each faith-based community defines orthodoxy—they define Christian belief in particular ways. And so doing so in alignment with their mission is important, and being clear about what those commitments are is also quite important. Most of these institutions feel a deep sense of mission and purpose about instilling faith that is deeply rooted and going to be pervasive in its influence in the lives of these students and graduates for as long as they live.
The second challenge is that they’re also trying to help the students understand how to engage constructively in culture and society in whatever vocation they seek to pursue. And so those things are in balance and in tension.
And I think one of the things that further complicates and challenges—makes us greater challenge today is that I think—well, one of the things that’s really shifted within my lifetime is that, for a couple hundred years, especially for Protestant institutions, sort of the reigning cultural narrative was one of Protestant Christianity. I think we’re all well aware that that has shifted within the last 30 or 40 years, and the reigning cultural narrative is either very pluralistic and diverse—leaving a lot of people confused—or it can feel secular and fairly hostile. And so what that means is that the institutions are feeling even more challenged about how to deepen a sense of faith among students, you know. And I think that there are times within communities where—there are moments within communities where institutions like Wheaton are trying to kind of sharpen the clarity and the distinctiveness of the faith mission, and you saw that worked out in the media, just as I did.
And I don’t offer that as an excuse or an explanation, because I don’t know enough about the circumstances to offer either, but just to give some context around that kind of issue or question.
And so, you know, the—I think—I think this whole issue—I think one of the things that—(laughs)—that Professor Hawkins was sort of touching on in a public comment was she was trying to, I think, say something about her own faith, which she articulates as a Christian faith, and also speak to the Islamophobia that Eboo’s been describing and express a sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims. And I think the challenge is—I think, actually, one thing that we don’t talk about enough is that this was all done in a context of social media, which is not a medium that lends itself to nuance and rich description and lots of context. And here she was, trying to actually reference the complex formulation of the Trinity—(laughs)—at least implicitly, which is extremely complex and very nuanced. And in the formulation that she offered, and in the short number of characters that she had to offer it, it was pretty difficult to do.
And so, what I’ll—what I’ll say is, in that context, knowing what I know about Wheaton and knowing what I know about social media, it’s probably not surprising to me that there was some difficulty there. But I think if you were asking about kind of how things would work at Calvin, I think what I can say is that we, too, care about both things. We care about a community that really helps students think Christianly and think deeply about social and cultural issues, but also to understand the tenets of their faith; and we also care about our students engaging constructively and positively in society.
That said, I always make it a practice that whenever we have a personnel situation, that we deal discreetly and confidentially with that. So we wouldn’t have responded publicly about that, but would have had more dialogue, and would have—would have moved the conversation into a medium that lends itself to the—to the nuance and complexity of description and expression. So I’ll leave you with that.
PETERSEN: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Kevin Norton of the Department of Justice.
NORTON: Thank you, gentlemen, for your participation today.
My question is, what do you see ramifications or the implications of Christian and Muslim relations on the pending election?
LE ROY: Eboo, why don’t you take that, and I’ll see if I have something I can add after you.
PATEL: Sure. I’d love to actually double-click on that. If you could just add a couple of sentences. I’m not fully sure what you mean about the ramifications of Christian and Muslim relations on the—on the elections.
NORTON: We have in the—thank you for wanting clarification. We have had various candidates speak in particular about Muslims, and I’m interested in knowing what are your thoughts on that conversation in the pending election. I mean, what do we think about if one candidate versus another candidate gets in and how that might play out in this country moving forward with the conversation of building capacity, and having the conversation about building relationships, and standing up and speaking out? What do—how do you see that playing out? If one candidate versus another gets in. Certainly I can’t speak with any specificity of candidates’ name and that kind of thing because of my position, so.
PATEL: Right. Right. Well I appreciate—thank you for asking the question. So maybe two quick comments. Number one, frankly, my largest concern is the rhetoric of certain candidates and the culture. So I think that frankly there is less trash that would come down from those apartment buildings at the University of Arizona if Donald Trump hadn’t made his comments. In other words, the rhetoric on the campaign trail creates the environment for trash to be thrown and ugliness that happens. But I think it’s also important to say that Muslim extremism, the very small but loud and dangerous number of Muslims around the world who have fallen to extremism, that’s real. And it’s dangerous.
So I am not suggesting that the Donald Trumps of the world are making this up. I’m only saying to suggest that the entirety of Islam, all 1.6, 1.7 billion Muslims, especially those who are fleeing the extremists in places like Syria, are all coming to the United States to attack us, I just—I think that that creates the context for ugliness, bigotry, prejudice, xenophobia. And that manifests in five-year-olds picking up tobacco cans on their mosque’s property and saying: Mom, what’s this? And their mom has to make a decision about whether she tells her kid: That was thrown at us because we’re Muslim. At some point, the kid is going to figure that out, right? This is the conversation my wife and I have at home. Do we tell our kids ourselves that there’s plenty of people in the United State who don’t like them because they pray in Arabic? Or do we let them find out on the school yard and explain it to them afterwards? That’s a reality of every Muslim household in America.
So I am most concerned with the impact on culture. Impact on policy if one of these people were to get elected—you know, truthfully, I don’t know. I was struck in the Bush administration that when the Department of Homeland Security was created that there was a civil rights office created within it. One of the people who signed up for this call, my friend Shaarik Zafar, went to work for that office. So the Bush administration, while they were aggressive about identifying potential extremists, were also proactive about protecting the civil liberties and rights and identities of potentially targeted groups, like American Muslims. I think that that’s important. I think that that’s the kind of policy decision that the vast majority of people don’t see. But that matters. And it is—let’s put it this way, I would be much more confident that some candidates would be proactive on that front, and other candidates would not be.
NORTON: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Terry Snyder from Cardinal Stritch University.
SNYDER: Good evening.
My question is this: We have a lot of work to do to ensure that Americans understand the Islamic tradition and their Muslim neighbors. I want to flip that a little bit. In Wisconsin here, we’ve had in recent weeks and months this issue with the Ariens folks, the factory up in Sheboygan, where Somali Muslims, immigrants, have been given jobs, and at first were allowed to take time off during their shift to perform their prayers. Now, the issue became, I guess, that too many Somalis were hired, and to allow all of them to go during their shifts to pray would actually have, according to the Ariens people, led to a shutdown of the production line, costing the company money.
Now, the upshot is, is that we have here in the Milwaukee area long-time Muslims who are saying: Look, it’s OK to say your prayers at home at night if you can’t do it during the day, or if there’s something that impedes you in your job from taking time off to pray during your shift, or during your job. Now, my question is, I know that the Council on—there’s a Muslim council, American council, that is suing Ariens. I don’t see however that this is a question of religion.
This, to me, is more a question of culture, that the Somali workers probably have never encountered factory work in Somalia, as they have in Wisconsin. And why would you not want them to adjust their faith, the way many of us have had to adjust our faith, to accommodate an employer when in actual fact there doesn’t seem to be anything in the Quran or the Hadith against having to make an adjustment. So how do we go about ensuring that our immigrant brothers and sisters understand the context into which they are moving? That’s my question.
FASKIANOS: Who wants to start?
PATEL: Michael, do you want to start on this one?
LE ROY: Yeah. You may have—I’m not aware of this particular case. But I do know that the constitutional history is full of cases where organizations, employers have struggled to understand what a reasonable accommodation to a worker is on the grounds of—on a whole host of grounds. You know, everything from reasonable accommodations for disabilities to reasonable accommodations to religious practice. And probably—this is why we have a judicial system and why we have a court system, to tease out and discern what an infringement on the free exercise of religion, vis-à-vis what is, you know, a reasonable accommodation by an employer. And so, you know, actually our Constitution provides for this kind of conversation, this kind of discernment about whys and appropriate practices.
I’m also actually brought to mind another—like, I won’t be able to reference the specific quote—but Alexis de Tocqueville talks about this kind of engine of assimilation is the American preoccupation with material prosperity. And so when you were saying something about religious groups accommodating for their employer, it kind of reminded me of that value that de Tocqueville identified in American culture back in 1831. And so I just thought it was sort of an interesting observation or thought.
And I know—you know, I know that there are still many people within my own religious community and tradition here who actually do everything they can to find a job that will accommodate their religious observance on the Sabbath, so not working on Sunday. And there are fewer and fewer employers seeking—that are willing to accommodate that, or able to accommodate that. So this is a long-standing conversation in the United States between the tension of the free exercise of religion and the need to make reasonable accommodations for employers. So I think it’s a two-way street. And probably there’s a lot to learn in a case like this going forward.
PATEL: This is Eboo. I want to chime in on here also. First of all, let me just say I fully agree with what Michael is saying. And a number of cases have come before the Supreme Court in the past few years—the case of Sarah (sic; Samantha) Elauf who wore a headscarf to an Abercrombie & Fitch interview. She did not get the job because the headscarf was not in line with Abercrombie’s brand. Took her case to the Supreme Court and won. The case of an Arkansas prisoner who converted to Islam and grew a beard in contravention of the Arkansas prison laws, claimed a religious freedom exemption, took his case to the Supreme Court and won. So certainly the Constitution provides a broad frame for this.
But let’s hope that not all these cases wind up in court, right? Let’s hope that we are able to develop a kind of nimble culture that is able to recognize that these things are possible, that there are now Somali Muslim workers, not just in Minneapolis, and in New York City, and in Chicago, which have long been able to—which have long had a radar screen for religious diversity. They’re now in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in Grand Island, Nebraska, in Greeley, Colorado. I wonder what would have happened if the plant management had thought ahead about the prayer practices of Somali Muslims, and the particular interpretation of Islam that they follow, and thought ahead—thought about how to get ahead of that?
I just put the finishing touches on a book called “Interfaith Leadership.” And the main thrust of the book is that, as the United States becomes religiously diverse in all sorts of corners that probably never thought—never thought that they would be religiously diverse, leaders of athletic teams, of factories, of city councils, of school boards, of hospitals are going to have to deal with Jains who don’t eat onions or turnips or potatoes in their food, because they believe that that is new life. They’re going to have to deal with people who pray multiple times a day. They’re going to have to deal with Hindus who have particular prayer practices and want those accommodated in their hospitals rooms and in their schools.
And I just think that this is the reality of a highly religiously diverse, and reasonably religiously devout country. And so I think that that’s a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. And I think the most important thing we can do right now is develop a vision, a knowledge base, and a skill set to deal with this. My best comparison, frankly, is ESL in the ’80s, the recognition by schools, especially, that they were—that the Spanish language speaking first students coming in were not going to stop, and that the schools needed to create special programs to engage those students, to take advantage of their natural intelligence, and also help them bridge from a Spanish language speaking first background to an English language speaking first background. I think the same kinds of proactivness, the same kind of specialized knowledge and skills, is going to be required when it comes to religious diversity.
The final thing that I’d say is it’s not just Muslims asking for this. Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch game one of the World Series in 1965 because he was Jewish and it was Yom Kippur. And he’s like, look, I just—there are things I don’t do as a Jew. And he had a right to that, and I respect him for it. And there are other Jews who would have made a different decision. And the Somali Muslims follow a particular version of Islam in which praying on time five times a day is of the highest importance. That’s not—that is not who I am, frankly, but I have the greatest respect for the Somali Muslim commitment to that. And I also have respect for the plant management of having to run a factory and the realities of that. And you know, welcome to America in 2016. These are the kinds of challenges that are going to happen all over the country with greater frequency and intensity.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ruth Messinger with the American Jewish World Service.
MESSINGER: Thank you. And thank you, Eboo, as ever for your work and your presentation.
Actually, a lot of what I was going to say was just said by you and Michael very well. And that certainly was the experience in New York City, without even needing to go to the Supreme Court. I mean, I’m glad we didn’t need to go to the Supreme Court, but to accommodate various practices of Orthodox Jews and Sikh taxi drivers, and gradually just sort of people learning how to accept a much more diverse society and put these needs together. So I think you’ve spoken to that very well.
I was not on every minute of the early part of the call, so I wasn’t sure if there was any reference to some of the efforts that are being made by congregations around the country of all denominations to do reach out and put groups together by small, grassroots efforts. I was privileged to speak at a conference in Princeton which was a sisterhood shalom salaam. And it was Jewish women and Muslim women finding each other in various parts of the country and just sitting down with each other learning enough about the other religion to build friendships and understanding. And it seems to me that part of what should come out of a call like this is a sharing of information about where people are being innovative and creative in beginning to increase tolerance in the same way that the Interfaith Youth Core does, and looking for ways to get them positive attention and praise.
PATEL: Ruth, it’s so nice to hear your voice. This is Eboo. Thank you for that. You know, there is a growing interfaith movement in the United States of America. It’s happening on college campuses. It’s happening at places like Wheaton College, where I have been several times in the past couple years. It’s happening in the organization you just spoke of, Ruth. It’s growing all the time. And a lot of the people on this call are a part of that, people like Katie Gordon at Grand Valley State University.
And one of the—one the things about prejudice being ugly and public and overt is that a lot of good people stand up and say: This is not who we are as Americans. This is not who I want to be. You know, my grandkids are not going to look at me and say, you know, how come you did nothing? I’m going to do something. And so I think this is a great moment to be an interfaith leader. This is a great moment to advance America’s tradition of religious pluralism, which is respect for diverse identities, relationships between different communities, and a commitment to the common good.
Michael, do you want to add something to that as far teaching at Calvin College?
LE ROY: Yeah. I have also observed a groundswell of engagement in Christian communities with Islamic centers and mosques, you know, in our community and in other communities around the country. The congregation I’m a part of, actually, just three weeks ago organized an event very similar to the one that was just described. And I think there are lot of—a lot of faithful Christians who know that the kind of prejudice and persecution that we witnessed in the culture is not something they want to be a part of. And they also, maybe, recognize in a moment that, wow, I don’t have a—I don’t have a Muslim community or Muslim friends that I know, but I want to learn more.
And so this is—you know, in these—and these dark moments also are when you see these heroic and courageous kinds of things. And I think that we’re witnessing some of that now. Now, we need to make sure that those efforts continue, and that they’re genuine and that they’re deep friendships and relationships, that they’re not just token or kind of momentary. But it’s an occasion for all of us to deepen our friendships and deepen our relationships, for sure. And there are many examples. And you mentioned Wheaton. Wheaton’s a good example. But also in the Christian reformed community as well, the Grand Rapids area. I know that a lot of good work is happening.
FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Douglas Kindschi of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute.
KINDSCHI: Yes. Thank you very much for your presentations.
And I’m working in the community where Michael Le Roy’s college, so Calvin College, is. And one of the issues we keep coming up with is how do we frame this whole issue so that the conservative communities not just refrain from the Islamophobia, but also become positively engaged? And it seems to come down to the issue of truth claims. If there is a—if I’m right, then the other side must be wrong. How do we—how do we frame the issue so that religious communities can handle the truth claim question in a productive way?
LE ROY: Well, I’ll take a—I’ll take a shot at that. I do think that emphasizing the areas where we have common ground is actually very important. And so that’s why I started my remarks with some of the theological underpinnings that animate my tradition’s thinking about these issues. We know conceptions of human rights are in part derived from general ideas about human beings as a sacred creation. And so being able to engage others, say, well, what do you think about this, and let’s talk about this further, I think is critically important. But I think another rallying point is the heritage we have in this country of religious pluralism and the constitutional principle of free exercise.
You know, the Constitution exists and institutions like the Supreme Court and the executive branch exist, to interpret the Constitution or enforce it. But it does require the citizens of this country to actually remember the principles, to understand them, and to live them out in regular ways. And so I think it’s an occasion also for us to get back in touch with what does the free exercise of religion mean? And what has that meant for my own tradition? What could that mean for your tradition? And I think actually the common cause we can have in the free exercise of religion and religious—the practices of religious pluralism in these countries is an important, kind of foundational, starting point. It’s something upon which people of faith can and should agree.
And so starting in those areas where we would have common ground or we can begin to build confidence—I mean, I think even a conversation that brought in faithful Muslims, faithful Christians, for example, where we talk about: What are the challenges for you, living in this secular age in the United States? What are the challenges—here’s what the challenges are for us, and sharing those kinds of experiences. I think that can be—that can move out of the need to win the conversation and toward a more—hopefully a more edifying understanding of different religious groups.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, next question.
PATEL: I will just go back to that—
FASKIANOS: Oh, Eboo, go ahead.
PATEL: Let me go back to that very briefly. Hi, there, Doug? How are you doing? Nice to hear your voice.
So I just want to affirm, I think, the two key frames that Michael keeps on going back to. There’s—(audio break)—which includes the constitutional framework, it includes the history of free exercise, it includes the civic pluralism that’s long been at the strength of this country. And I think the other key frame is the theological frame, which is to say: Why is it holy or sacred that you and I are in a positive relationship? On the second frame, I think it’s—for me, it’s hugely important to simply take as a given that there are massive doctrinal disagreements.
So you know, when people go to interfaith gatherings and come back and look at me shocked and say, but, those people there disagreed with my idea of God. I want to say, what did think you were going to? It did say interfaith. The definition of interfaith is people who orient around religion differently. Largely, they have different doctrine. We just have to recognize that that is a fact, that people have different ideas of who’s getting into heaven, different ideas of what and who God is, different ideas about human purpose and creation and the moral life, et cetera.
But the fact that there are doctrinal disagreements and differences does not negate the theology of relationship or the theology of interfaith cooperation in every tradition. I just think that we have to acknowledge the doctrinal differences, not be surprised by them, not trip up over them. And the way we engage the theological dimensions of our traditions is we say what is it from your tradition that would call you to be in a positive relationship with those who are different?
LE ROY: There is one thing there to what Eboo has said. One of the things I appreciate about Eboo and my relationship with Eboo is that, well, in contrast to some interfaith conversations—there are some interfaith conversations where the goal is to make faith less so the relationship can be more. What I appreciate about Eboo and many of the interfaith conversations that are going on now, and the Kaufman Institute convenes some of those as well, is how can we understand and make faith more so that we can deepen our interpersonal understanding? So in other words, we don’t—we don’t deepen that by becoming less committed. We deepen that by becoming more committed. And I appreciate that about Eboo and Kaufman as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Michael Jerryson of the Youngstown State University.
JERRYSON: Thank you.
Dr. Le Roy mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville. In his “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville argues that the United States does not have a long-standing pluralistic streak. Prejudice has served a large part of the United States’ early economic and political foundations, from the Naturalization Act of 1790, to the Christian eugenic rhetoric by the ministers of the late 1800s, and so forth. In this way, I’m wondering if we should start thinking of our U.S. history and the current times as an immigrant-phobia narrative, which right now is in respect to Islam. Dr. Patel’s example in Tucson is about fear-based attacks on Syrian immigrants. And I’m hearing this in Missoula, Montana, and Akron, Ohio. And so I want to know, how can we convince people who are not part of this conversation to extend their notion of community and citizenship to others, such as Muslims and particular Muslim immigrants?
LE ROY: So—
PATEL: Yeah—Michael, go ahead. Go ahead.
LE ROY: Yeah. Oh, thanks. Go ahead. Well, I’ll just say a couple of things very quickly. It’s not—I think it’s hard to dispute the fact that this is a—this is a thread that runs through our culture and society. And it has lots of different targets over time. You know, it was very interesting, some of the efforts to study intolerance in contemporary society within polling and then the preferences of those that are intolerant. I think this is shocking to some Americans because I think there is a narrative of progress, and as though we put prejudices behind us. But then we have a campaign like what we’ve had, and prejudice is revealed, and revealed in a pretty bold—in a pretty bold way. And it surprises us, again, because we’ve thought that we’ve made progress.
So you know, I think that there’s a persistence to this narrative. And I think each generation is called upon to do new work and in new ways to recover the foundations of their core—the core principles that seek to offer a better way, a better narrative, a more inclusive narrative, at the same time nurture a society that allows religious conviction to flourish. And so I think it’s challenging. It’s very important work. And I think that there will be a segment of the culture that is resistant to another narrative, or another way of thinking about it. And Eboo spoke to this I think earlier in a way that he was—that I agree with.
But the dialogue—you know, as we are allowed to make claims that this is contrary to the American constitutional heritage and contrary to a religious pluralist narrative, and contrary to our faith commitments, we provide another story—another story that’s a counter-narrative to the—to the narrative of hate and exclusion and prejudice.
PATEL: I just what to emphasize how important that is. You know, the great Muslim poet Rumi once wrote: There are many ways to tell my story. You can tell it as a dirty joke, a war, a romance. And there’s many ways to tell the American story. And there’s certainly enough evidence to tell the American story as a story of recurring and persistent prejudice. And I think it’s equally possible to tell the story as a story of pluralism wins. And so I prefer to ask the question, in a sense, not which evidence pile is larger, but which narrative is more inspiring? Which narrative is likely to create wind at the backs of the people who are charging towards progress? And in my mind, that’s the story of pluralism wins.
And so I’ll just, you know, sign off on my part with one of my favorite lines on that, from Langston Hughes, in which he says: O yes, I say in plain, American never was America to me, but let me say these words—America will be! That’s what I believe about his time. And he proved that to be the case. And I think that we’re going to prove that to be the case in our time.
FASKIANOS: I think that is a perfect way to end this call. And unfortunately we are out of time. And I know that there were several people still on the call who wanted to ask questions, and I apologize for not being able to get to you. But we have a hard stop at 5:00 p.m. So, Michael and Eboo, thank you very much for this discussion. I think it’s one that we need to continue, and continue talking amongst ourselves and share resources. So thank you both.
LE ROY: Thank you. I really appreciate this opportunity. And it’s great to have participated. So thank you to all you called in.
PATEL: Thank you so much, friends.
FASKIANOS: And you can follow Eboo Patel on Twitter at @EbooPatel and his organization, Interfaith Youth Core, at @IFYC. And Michael Le Roy is on Twitter at @MKLeRoy. And Calvin College’s handle is at @CalvinCollege. So I encourage you all to check them out there, and also follow us at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and resources that are of interesting to you. So thank you all, again, for today. And we look forward to your continued participation.
PATEL: Good bye.
LE ROY: Bye-bye. Thank you.