So much of the news of recent years has a religious component, for good or ill, and often involving the young. Since I interviewed Eboo Patel, I watch this unfold with a Gwendolyn Brooks poem ringing in my ears — a poem that he has taken as his rallying cry. It is called "Boy Breaking Glass":
"I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration."
I spoke with Eboo Patel two years ago, just before Muslim youth in suburban Paris began to set their neighborhoods on fire, and weeks after four young Muslim men walked into three subway stations and boarded one bus in London with bombs strapped to their bodies. In light of such events, Eboo Patel is puzzled by people who patronizingly describe his own projects as "sweet." He sees the work of honoring the vast spiritual longings and religious energies of the young of every faith as work of extreme urgency for us all. At 23, he founded the Interfaith Youth Core, now at work across America and in several countries.
Patel himself is now 31. He is ambitious, and his own energy is vast. He reminds me that heroic religious and social icons of the past century — such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi — were in their 20's when they began to change the world. Moreover, as they transformed cultures less pluralistic than our own, these extraordinary reformers knew each other and worked together across traditions.
Eboo Patel draws sustenance from "interfaith" images many of us have forgotten: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, saying that he felt as though his legs were praying; the Baptist minister King consulting with the Hindu Gandhi; and Gandhi sitting alongside the Pashtun Abdul Ghaffar Khan in Indian villages where Hindu-Muslim tensions threatened, reciting alternately from the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita, insisting that "the word of God" be heard.
Yet of all the differences between Eboo Patel and his Catholic, Mormon, Hindu, and Jewish friends growing up in suburban Chicago, he says, personal religious beliefs were the most difficult to talk about. He believes there is a salutary and practical power in giving young people fluency in the depths of their own religious traditions and those of others. He does so by first engaging adolescents and young adults in ground-level interactions based on service to others. He calls this work "track two diplomacy." In many cultures, he has found, religious elders and leaders can be reluctant to engage openly with differing beliefs. But their children are open to meaningful interaction and the possibility of change.
As sensible as that may sound, Eboo Patel's approach cuts somewhat against the grain of Western civic instincts and the enduring ideal of secular society. He has a great respect for evangelical Christians who want to convert him. He says educated Americans often wrongly suppose that in order to show respect for the beliefs of others, they must be discreet — even silent — about their own.
In extreme measure, the French have historically attempted to prevent religious tensions by forbidding public expressions of religious identity. After the Paris riots began two summers ago, a school headmaster was quoted by the BBC as saying, "I did not want to know what their religion was — any more than I wanted them to know what mine was." Such an attitude, Patel believes, will fail us increasingly as our societies grow more pluralistic. And there is compelling global evidence that an alternative approach can yield dramatic benefit. In India, the political economist Ashutosh Varshney has studied why some cities remain relatively calm when Hindu-Muslim tensions rise and why others explode in violence. He found that the existence of civic associations to engage religious diversity could make that difference.
Like other recent guests on On Being, this young Muslim is dismayed by dismissive — even derisive — attitudes towards religious people often expressed in our most influential newspapers and journals. Eboo Patel's perspective and experience is as global as anyone I've interviewed, and he is supremely articulate on the futility of imagining that religion will somehow disappear. On the contrary, he says it will continue to play a robust role in every aspect of human endeavor.
I like the language he uses to describe the world he is working for: one in which the next generation of the world's faithful are steeped in the best of their traditions and attentive to the best in others. He is committed to building not just cooperation, but "mutual loyalty," among different religious peoples. Eboo Patel convinces me that his is not an idealistic vision. It is a pragmatic and genuinely enlightened response to the world we now inhabit.