Eboo Patel: a journey to social justice through interfaith dialogue

By Gregory Smith
November 15, 2013

“Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape, now let it fall.”

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, used this quote to illustrate the importance of speech and communication in establishing interfaith within society.

Patel began by describing the time he first realized the importance if interfaith in the world.

“I was in my grandmother’s apartment in India when I was 22,” Patel said. “There was a girl who was in a white nightgown that was too big for her. I asked my grandma who she was.”

Patel’s grandmother told him that the girl’s family was beating her and that she was going to stay with his grandmother for a while. Patel responded by saying that his grandma was too old for that.

“She brought me over to the cupboard and pulled out a shoebox full of old Polaroids. She explained that she had been doing that for years,” Patel said. “She had been taking in women of all faiths for years. Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim. She took all of them in.”

A few years later, Patel worked with a Catholic service organization. Although it was very different from his religion, it was something he felt called to do.

“I felt a call by these people,” Patel said. “They lived in solidarity with the poor, and it was something I felt I should be a part of.”

Following this experience, Patel asked himself a very important question.

“What must I do to make myself worthy of my religion?” Patel said.

From there, Patel began working to promote interfaith dialogue, through numerous books and discussions.  His most recent book, “Acts of Faith: The story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation,” helps to illustrate the challenges associated with interfaith in society.

Patel discussed what he believed to be one of the issues revolving around religion and why there is so much tension between various religions.

“There is a conflict in tribal concepts of religion and sticking up for those concepts,” Patel said. “A lot of religious conflict is because people have a tribal understanding of religion as opposed to the universal principles of religion. These universal principles are the things your religion teaches you and what you should live by.”

The topic of pluralism was an important aspect of interfaith relations according to Patel. Pluralism is the diversity of religions co-existing in society and is what Patel believes is key in peace building.

“The absence of pluralism will mean the presence of violence,” Patel said. “There is greatness in other religions.”

However, it wasn’t easy for Patel to begin his journey towards interfaith promotion and awareness. He talked about how he had to overcome a fear of not looking good in the eyes of others and how he was seen as un-popular by some for what he was doing.

“At some point you just have to stop intellectualizing fear and overcome it,” Patel said. “You have to stop worrying about whether or not it makes you look good.”

Patel would eventually serve on President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations and several other committees.

“I knew I was really committed to social justice,” Patel said. “I wanted to be a part of the world in a way that would last.”

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Gregory Smith

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