Eboo Patel is the Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organisation that promotes mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions. The 34-year-old Rhodes scholar also advises United States President Barack Obama, who appointed him a member of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in February 2009.
TheIsmaili.org spoke with Patel to gain a better understanding of the work that he does and the vision that he espouses.
In the second of this two part series, Eboo Patel shares his organisation's approach to fostering religious pluralism with Aliyyah Giga of TheIsmaili.org. (Read Part 1 here.)
Part 2: Transforming values into reality
TheIsmaili: Tell us why you established the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and what your vision is for it over the next 5 to 10 years.
EP: We are creating a global interfaith youth movement by building understanding among people from different faith traditions and inspiring them to serve together for the common good. One day, I hope this leads to a world characterised by religious pluralism, where relations between individuals and groups are based on equal dignity and mutual respect. In the next 5 to 10 years, we hope to train scores of young leaders to promote religious cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and make interfaith cooperation a public issue that inspires people to action.
For example, service is a common value among the world's faith traditions. Whether you are Jewish, Catholic or Hindu, you are taught certain values. These values can be a starting point for religiously diverse communities to come together and create common action for the common good. Serving together builds bridges between different faiths, leading to greater understanding and respect.
TheIsmaili: How has IFYC challenged conventional wisdom or spurred interfaith understanding?
EP: One of my favourite stories of IFYC leaders challenging understanding and spurring understanding is the story of Rachel and Nadeem.
Rachel is a Jewish student at Wesleyan University, and alumna of Interfaith Youth Core's (IFYC) College Fellows Alliance. She is friends with a Muslim student, Nadeem, another IFYC Fellows alumnus. When he was an IFYC Fellow, Nadeem organised a fast-a-thon on campus during the holy month of Ramadan to promote understanding and service. One year later, when Rachel was a Fellow, she built off Nadeem's event – and the insight she gained from their friendship – and organised an interfaith fast-a-thon during Ramadan.
The event engaged a quarter of the campus – 800 students – who fasted for a day and donated their meals to a community soup kitchen and food pantry. The local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs skipped lunch at their meetings for one week and donated the money they saved. Several members of local churches and faith communities did the same. Through this initiative, Rachel and the campus' interfaith leaders raised $11 300 for their local pantry.
These students made it clear that this event is about appreciating the shared value of service between religious traditions and acting on it together. Nadeem said: “The Fast-a-thon is a perfect demonstration of interfaith in action. I'm not okay that our neighbour is hungry, and neither are you. Let's do something tangible about it together.”
This year, Rachel and Nadeem are organising the third fast-a-thon at Wesleyan, and it looks like it will be even bigger than last year. What excites me the most is that projects like this are happening all across the country. There are hundreds of Rachels and Nadeems working across faiths to better their campuses and their communities. These projects are advancing interfaith understanding and making real differences in communities through common action, and I can't imagine a better way to challenge the conventional wisdom that religion can only divide us.
TheIsmaili: Dialogue, particularly interfaith dialogue, is often espoused as a vehicle through which to engender greater awareness and tolerance of diversity. What do you understand by the term “dialogue,” and why is it so powerful?
EP: At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that dialogue is most powerful when combined with action. We have a three-part methodology based on shared values, storytelling and service-learning. By finding shared values – like compassion – we begin dialogue speaking about and acting on our commonalities rather than our differences.
Through storytelling and personal narrative, rather than theology or politics, we come to know and respect one another. Once we have established relationships through serving together and sharing our stories, we can dialogue about more difficult issues, such as Israel-Palestine, knowing that we have commonalities to fall back on.
TheIsmaili: Conventional wisdom here in the United Kingdom suggests the freedom to disagree is one of the key aspects of dialogue. Do you concur? If so, how do you encourage constructive and positive disagreement?
EP: We expect disagreement at an interfaith dialogue. We don't believe that interfaith equates with relativism.
What I mean by that is that participants don't need to believe that all religions are equally valid; many of our participants hold exclusive truth claims, which will inevitably lead to disagreement. The important point about disagreeing is that in the end, whether we disagree on the concept of heaven, we agree that we share one earth, and that we need to work together to make it a better place for all.
TheIsmaili: Given all the benefits of interfaith dialogue that you have described, in your opinion, why isn't this dialogue as prevalent as it could be?
EP: Interfaith dialogue needs two things to become more prevalent: a public platform and funding to scale programs.
First of all, too often in the public square, the voices of extremism drown out the voices of moderation. We have to empower the vast majority of people who are drawn to the moderate middle, but have no outlet. We have to encourage these moderate voices, which include individuals of all faiths and no faith at all, to break through and advocate for interfaith dialogue to build bridges between faiths.
Second, we need funding to scale interfaith programs. These are programs like international interfaith fellowships to combat particular problems in the world – like malaria in Africa – as well as training programs to spread the methodology of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation. Interfaith cooperation is only as strong as the leaders who advance it within their communities, and we must train, network and nurture these leaders.