Editor’s note:  Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Chicago-based Neighborhood Youth Core, delivered the annual Ensign Lecture at Yale Divinity School on March 22 on the subject "Acts of Faith: Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Global Religious Crisis."   Brin Bon ’13 M.Div. attended the lecture and wrote this reflection.  Click here to view a webcast of the entire lecture.

Opinion: Work of Eboo Patel as manifestation of Heschel maxim

By Brin Bon ’13 M.Div.

In his well-attended talk before a group of students, faculty, and visitors at Yale Divinity School on March 22, Interfaith Youth Core President Eboo Patel repeatedly described and lamented the increase in anti-Muslim hostility since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.  But that hostility, Patel argued, can also be seen as an opportunity for advocates of greater interfaith understanding.

Andemichael and PatelRecently, anti-Muslim sentiments have been highlighted by the groundswell of protests against plans to build a Muslim place of worship and community-gathering site near the epicenter of the Sept. 11 attack. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and internet blogger Pamela Geller, both with devoted followings, have claimed that the building of a mosque at ground zero is a slap in the face of all Americans.  Their polemic is clear: Muslims cannot participate in America the same way as people of other faith.

The building of a Christian church, or even a Jewish synagogue, would hardly garner widespread public outrage, and their intentions would not be suspect.  However, there is so much anti-Muslim sentiment in the air that the public immediately picks up on anything Muslims, acting as a group, might do. Several states in the recent past have tried to enact statutes that forbid any court from considering shariah law—a legal code and prescription for interpreting law used in Muslim countries—or even making it a felony to recognize shariah law.  Geller and her followers insist that Muslims are making a mockery of the U.S. judicial system, further perpetuating Islamaphobic sentiments and religious intolerance.

Clearly, Patel’s concern with this rising Islamaphobia strikes a cord with many.  He is a dedicated Muslim, and as president of the Interfaith Youth Core he is leading a growing interfaith youth movement committed to increasing religious cooperation for the good of society.   From that platform, he is in a position to act on a belief he holds that runs counter to what many in the interfaith movement might say, i.e., that this is a discouraging and bleak time for religious tolerance.  Near the end of his lecture expounding his four principles of religious dialogue, Patel declared, “In a peculiar way, this is our moment.”  He went on to explain that it is better when intolerance is made explicit, rather than perniciously entering the unconscious without examination.  He encouraged the audience, many of whom will go on to enter academia or the ministry, to speak out about the religious hatred that they see sewn and spread in the media today.

 “The explicitness of the ugliness gives us an opportunity,” noted Patel. When the vitriol and accusations launched by the extremist fringe are spotlighted for what they are, then the toleration and cooperation espoused by the center will become the dominant voice in the conversation.  To this end, Patel encourages people of faith, especially students, to identify what, in their own religion, inspires them to advance cooperation in community and to recognize this message in other faiths.

One must also be aware, argued Patel, of the history of past interfaith moments when Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and other faiths have supported each other amidst difficult times.  As an example, he recounted the story of Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose family died at the hands of Hitler, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., who relied on his Christian foundation to oppose segregation.  The two “joined their legs in prayer,” each from a place of deep faith, said Patel, to oppose the discriminatory and inhuman treatment of blacks.  Heschel once said, "A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."  Patel’s work is surely a manifestation of this sentiment. 

Posted: 04/04/2011