Eboo Patel and Wajahat Ali: Is “Interfaith America” Even Possible?

Interfaith demonstrators in Philadelphia marching against white supremacy, August 2016. Photo: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

In this November 29 episode of the Faith Angle podcast, Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core sits down with Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali to discuss the possibilities and challenges of interfaith partnerships in today's polarized America, each drawing from the wisdom of their personal Muslim faith. Wajahat points to the obstacles that increasing political division, anti-immigrant discrimination, and bias against those of other faiths pose to robust religious pluralism. While accepting the strain of these realities, Eboo highlights with hope the many forms in which interfaith partnership is flourishing in America today. He offers listeners an invitation to learn from and replicate promising interfaith civic engagement in their own communities. 

Additional Resources

Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise by Eboo Patel 

Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali 

 

Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Josh:

When looking at the panoply of challenges and fissures in American life, Eboo Patel says it'd be a good start to become a little more modest, a little more focused. His big goal really isn't to change the world. Instead, he says the deep clues in life are almost always fundamentally religious. As the ancient Buddhist proverb goes, "Our work is to try to move the world a quarter of an inch." For all his modesty, Eboo isn't Buddhist. He's an Ismaili Muslim. At age 46, he's seen religion function first as a constraining obligation and then in college as fire. And then in his 20s, joining the workforce as institutional power in the tradition of Dorothy Day.

Josh:

Eboo believes religion is one of the most powerful forces in the world. Even if many policymakers, journalists and others ignore or overlook it. Part of that links to being an Ismaili. Eboo's religious community consists of just 15 million of the world's nearly 1.9 billion Muslims. For over 1400 years, Ismaili, in the Shia tradition, have sought the betterment of society in their own words through an informed embrace of pluralism, forging bridges of peace and understanding and sharing time, talents and material resources to improve the lives of their community, and those among whom they live.

Ismaili life, we might say, reflects living as a creative minority.

Josh:

Similar in American life to the lives of Orthodox Jews, Mormons, or Anabaptists, it's a small tribe, always mindful of the larger other. So, when Eboo observes hundreds of four-year US colleges founded with a religious motivation, but today serving all, he's heartened by an unbounded sense of American possibility. When he sees Presbyterian hospitals serving Muslims or Catholics, he's heartened, and he thinks there's much more of that in American life than we typically notice.

Josh:

Joining Eboo on the podcast today is Wajahat Ali, New York Times contributing journalist and poet playwright, who for vocational reasons, spends a lot of time with elite influencers on Twitter. Keeping up with cable news. Waj is a brilliant Pakistani American Muslim, and yet the two approach from different places the dialogue you're about to hear. As the old phrase goes, "Where you stand depends on where you sit."

Josh:

Nineteen years ago in Chicago, Eboo Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core to equip the next generation of citizens and professionals with the knowledge and skills needed for leadership in a religiously diverse world. Today, 50 IFYC employees and a bevy of volunteers partner with higher education institutions and corporations to make Interfaith cooperation a growing norm in 21st Century America. Patel cites Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day, whose lifelong work including her religious institutional commitment serves as an inspiration for building a world that meets our deepest yearning.

Here's a direct excerpt from Dorothy Day that Eboo cites as inspiration for IFYC's work.

Eboo Patel:

Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, "What else is the world interested in?" What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships. God is Love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love and to stand in that relationship to each other. There can never be enough of it.

Josh:

Today's conversation is a rich one because Waj and Eboo bring differing viewpoints. One from the leading edge of political journalism, the other from the heartland. For any politico reading the news these days, it's easy to overlook the hopeful observations that Eboo discerns. And yet, more than most, we elites will do well to really take in what we're about to hear. Enjoy the conversation.

Wajahat Ali:

So, we're with Eboo Patel here, who founded Interfaith Youth Core on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. That's a beautiful sentiment. And I, for one agree, I know Josh does as well. However, the reality is Eboo. And before we get to the good syrupy, sweet stuff, let's just talk about the bitter reality of America right now. Is that America right now is a country torn with disinformation, where a large part of this country thinks that Trump won the election, where there's tribalism and where religion is often used as a shield and a sword, to protect your own community and harm others.

Wajahat Ali:

So, the question that I have for you realistically serving the landscape, 2021, is interfaith even possible anymore in our country, which is bereft with tribalism, extremism, hate and disinformation?

Eboo Patel:

Waj, it is good to hear your voice. It is good to see your face, albeit on a screen and I am going to play the glass half full to your...

Wajahat Ali:

Of course, you are.

Eboo Patel:

... a glass has been shattered and the shards of glass have embedded themselves in our jugular veins.

Wajahat Ali:

Whoa, easy, easy. I wasn't going to say jugular. I mean, that's like death. I'll just say like maybe our femur, so we bleed out slowly.

Eboo Patel:

That's even better. Thank you. Listen, I think America works more than it doesn't work. And doctors who are walking into two-person heart surgeries, of course, surrounded by nurses and physicians assistants, and custodians, et cetera, et cetera, they're not saying, "Hey, you voted for somebody differently than I did. I'm not going to do this heart surgery with you." Right? People who run athletic leagues, Jews and Muslims who might view the Middle East very differently, are not typically saying, "I won't coach Little League Baseball with you."

Eboo Patel:

So, I always want to start with what's working because I actually think the best model of social change is not finding the worst things out there and screaming at them. I think the best model of social change is finding the bright spots, the things that are working and asking the question, "How can more of us do that?" Right? And the genius of America is in our civil society, in which people from various identities and with divergent ideologies still cooperate in really positive ways. I think it works more often than it doesn't. I wish that we paid more attention to where it worked, asked how and why it worked. And found ways to kind of spread that ethic elsewhere.

Wajahat Ali:

Okay, so since you've cast me now as the surly ornery uncle, who's cantankerous and sees the glass half

full, I'll-

Eboo Patel:

Half empty, half empty.

Wajahat Ali:

Yeah, yeah.

Eboo Patel:

Shattered, actually.

Wajahat Ali:

Shattered. Yeah, and we have to say that we're the two brown unicorn uncles, who still have hair in our 40s, for now. So, we're very rare, for now. This is like-

Eboo Patel:

I got to tell you, Waj. I just turned 46 and my 11-year-old woke up in a bad mood for whatever reason, on the day of my birthday, forgot it was my birthday. I had to remind him and he said, "Ask God for a less receding hairline," so.

Wajahat Ali:

Oh, cold. Oh, did you... there's the shattering? That's the-

Eboo Patel:

Just shows you that how assimilated we are. Can you imagine any child in India or Pakistan saying that to their parents?

Wajahat Ali:

No, they would be killed immediately. It will be just like, it'd be over, their life would end. But that is, dude, that is a brutal uppercut and low blow at the same time. How did you, we have to discuss how you actually recovered from that. But that actually is a beautiful sentiment of the harsh reality. Maybe your son is actually more like me, where he just calls out the blunt truths, even though they might be bitter.

Wajahat Ali:

I appreciate your sentiment, so I want to go off of that because if we even look at where, this is the conversation, right? For those who are listening. I'm a practicing Muslim, born and raised in America.

Eboo is a Muslim man. Josh is a white evangelical Christian, correct, Josh?

Josh:

You bet. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wajahat Ali:

Yeah, all who believe in our faith, wear it proudly, I guess on your sleeves when they ask us about it. We're not ashamed of it. But at the same time, here, we're having a very civil conversation. And Josh spent time in Europe, talking to Muslims and Christians. You spend your time, Eboo, oftentimes outside of the mosque, talking to people who worship the same God, sometimes even though they don't think they do, but they worship differently. And here we are modeling this type of behavior.

Wajahat Ali:

But the reality also is, is that you say this is a beautiful model that should be replicated. And oftentimes if we're to be honest, in these interfaith spaces, the critique that even we have is we're just preaching to the choir, man. Here's some granola eating Kumbaya Muslims, Jews and Christians. And if you look at the landscape in America, right now, frigging people are assaulting teachers now. They're going after doctors, people are hating each other openly. So, maybe, yeah, I agree with you, Eboo. But this is a kumbaya cult that you're part of. It's not part of the mainstream.

Eboo Patel:

In the vast majority of hospitals, schools, parent-teacher associations, little leagues, peewee football leagues, fire departments, et cetera. People from diverse religious identities and divergent etiologies are fighting fires together, are putting on school place together, are teaching classes together, are part of bowling leagues together, are fighting fires together, are providing people with safe places to sleep and warm meals after tornadoes together.

Eboo Patel:

The point that I'm making is we can tell a story that lifts up the worst elements, right? We can always find the one plane crash that happens somewhere in the world every month and focus on that or we can point to the millions and millions and millions of occurrences where people, I'll say it again, with diverse identities and divergent ideologies are cooperating.

Eboo Patel:

So let me tell you one of the stories. So, Waj, you know Yasir Qadhi, right?

Wajahat Ali:

Yeah.

Eboo Patel:

Probably the most, at least for a time the most well-known, what you might call a Salafi Muslim in the

United States. It's kind of a Puritan form of Islam and Yasir probably disagrees with me on virtually everything when it comes to Muslim theology, especially me being an Ismaili. He's always been polite and friendly to me, which I appreciate. But for a time, he was a faculty member at a Presbyterian College run by a Jewish President named Marjorie Hass, Rhodes College. I just had lunch with Marjorie. She's now the President of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Eboo Patel:

And I said, "Hey, what was your relationship like with the Yasir Qadhi?" And she was like, "It was a great relationship. He's a terrific faculty member when he was at Rhodes and every once in a while, I'd feel the phone call with somebody who read something crazy about Professor Qadhi and complained about him. And I would defend him fulsomely and talk about our friendship together." That's American pluralism, okay? Presbyterian College founded by Presbyterians where a very theologically conservative Muslim is a faculty member, the President is Jewish and there are positive cooperative relationships.

Eboo Patel:

And I actually think that that is way more than norm and I would much prefer us tell a positive story and ask the question, "How do we spread this?" Rather than find the terrible things happening and shout into the abyss, right? You can call this "The build the Tesla model," right? Gas powered cars that guzzle gas are a bad thing. We can we should protest those automakers but really, I prefer to build a Tesla. Build something better. Build something-

Wajahat Ali:

Without Elon Musk's ego. But yes, I understand what you're saying. I want to bring in Josh, also and this, I ask both of you guys this question because if we that bridging model, right? I echo that growing up.

Wajahat Ali:

I went to an all boys' Jesuit Catholic High School, where I was probably the only open practicing Muslim, even though there were others afterwards. I had a wonderful education. We studied the Bible. Men for others was the creed. We had to do 100 hours of community service to graduate. Went to mass for the first time. I had no idea what a Eucharist was. I'm like, "What is this white thing that they're putting on?" I'm like, "All right. I'll try it out." Great values, right? And shared values. Diverse communities coming together in service of others

Wajahat Ali:

It's one of those things where I think it was a beautiful example of how something can flourish in America, right? And I think you would agree with me and I think both of you would agree with me that the only way really, to make this experiment called America work is to stretch and expand and include all of our communities. It's the only way. Otherwise constriction, as we're seeing right now, it's just not going to work. It's not going to happen. One of these ways that you're saying is spread the good stories, I agree with you, despite my initial cantankerous cynical question is that sometimes that story is not being told or that story is not being heard, by the community that we need to reach.

Wajahat Ali:

And I'll give you a personal example. And this where I want Josh to come in also, is I've heard from many Muslims and not just Muslims. I've heard from Black and even Latino Christians, Jews, that this one community that we really need to crack in America that has not listened to us is the white evangelical Christian community. They're like even more so than Jewish, believe it or not. People think all Muslims and Jews are at loggerheads and Eboo, you can push back against that your entire career. But the one community really where people are saying, "Man, if I could really get an intro into that community, because that community, right now, the way they look at us as Muslims, especially, there seems to be very few openings."

Wajahat Ali:

So for both of you, Josh, and Eboo, when it comes to the white evangelical Christian community, and I don't need to sit here and talk to you guys about the politics behind the community. You guys know. We've seen the data. How do we promote this message to that community where some of those leaders seem to be very resistant to this idea of a multicultural America that Eboo has kind of expressed? Or rather, I'm not trying to demonize white evangelical Christians here for a second, Josh. What I'm saying from a political landscape, and I can only say from my communities that seems to be a nut we can't crack.

Josh:

Well, my view on that is that the work Eboo was doing, and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core is so compelling because it's helping religious communities to have a language for the reality of pluralism, for the reality of religious diversity in the world, for the fact of changing demographics in the country. And even though those changing demographics can make people psychologically fearful and uncomfortable, and turn inward, they can if we have a better language of pluralism, also help people to come across lines, and do things that are constructive against the reality of our increasing tribalism and polarization, right?

Josh:

So, to me, the real problem is that, at least in my tribe, I'm Anglican but white evangelical, in my tribe, if say there may be at 80, 85 million evangelicals in the country, so Wheaton Colleges says you can look up different studies. Increasingly, politics is the foundation and religion is the icing on the cake, rather than the opposite and that's true for a whole host of reasons. I invite you to read Peter Wehner and David Brooks and Mike Gerson, a whole lot of other people on this question. But that is a problem when your identity is really politics and people are choosing to become "white evangelical or evangelical" because of the common politics, even if they share none of the faith, inspirations and reality.

Josh:

So to me, where you stand depends on where you sit. And Eboo mentioned earlier that sometimes you can have a Jew and a Muslim coaching a little league together and that's wonderful and true. Although it is increasingly the case, that while 50 years ago, you wouldn't let your kid marry someone of the opposite race. Today, you wouldn't let your kid marry somebody of the opposite political party. And that dynamic around sort of political polarization politicization of so much I think is behind the question you raised.

Eboo Patel:

Yeah, I have two answers to this question and at some point in this, I want to kind of get to the IFYC model of pluralism, so to speak. We've distilled it down into we hope easily men are memorable, almost bumper sticker type things. But I have two interesting question, Waj. One is there's very clearly a set of white evangelicals - Michael Gerson, Pete Wehner, two people Josh mentioned, obviously, David French, Russell Moore, Beth Moore. There's a set of white evangelical elites, if you will, who are very clearly carving out a different kind of identity that ought to be paid attention to, right?

Eboo Patel:

But maybe more importantly, I actually spent quite a bit of time in actual white evangelical communities, because I go to a lot of college campuses - Wheaton, Calvin, Bethel, Messiah. And what people actually do civically is different what they say politically. I am not saying what they say politically doesn't matter. I think it does matter, but I think the manner in which people interact in civic spaces, also really matters. And this was actually the great Obama idea, right? He was like, "We are much kinder to each other. We are much more cooperative with each other in real life than we are on cable news." And back then, of course, social media wasn't as much of a thing. It was, social media has just quintupled the ugly, the kind of ugly avatar fight, right?

Eboo Patel:

I am not interested in the worst version of people. I'm interested in the best version of people. And frankly, I think that Muslims ought to be even more sensitive to this, because we have so often been caricatured that you read pieces on the caricature of Muslims or you see videos. You think to yourself, "I don't actually know people who act like that, or at least not that many people." If we have suffered caricature in the form of narrative and media, why wouldn't we be sensitive to other communities being caricatured also, right?

Eboo Patel:

There's a beautiful line by Dorothy Day and Josh has provided this quote by Dorothy Day, I'll read. We'll state one of her other lines. "How do we create spaces where it is easier for other people to be good?" And I actually think it is part of the Muslim ethic coming from the Quran, that it is our job to be the kind of people where other people can be their best self. A rejoinder to that might be oppressed people should not have to take on that responsibility. I don't consider myself oppressed. I consider myself the luckiest person on planet Earth.

Eboo Patel:

And I think of that not just because I'm free in America, and not just because I'm materially comfortable, but because I'm Muslim. And I believe we have the final revelation, and I believe we have God's last Prophet. And I believe we have a message that says we are to be God's servant and representative on a diverse creation and we have responsibilities and gifts that are given to us by God. And I think one of those responsibilities and gifts is to be the kind of individuals that other people are better when they are around.

Wajahat Ali:

That's the prophetic model that we hope to embody where if you look at the prophets that we all share, for those of you who don't know, Muslims share pretty much all the same prophets in the Bible or we just believe that Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. But if you look at the prophetic model, the prophets suffered and the prophets were rejected, and the prophets were humiliated, and the prophets were mocked. And yet, they treated people with kindness and love and mercy, right?

Wajahat Ali:

Oftentimes, though, what I've seen and heard from our own communities, and it's very similar to what Josh was describing in the evangelical community is politics supersedes spirituality and religion, where prophets get kicked not to the driver's seat, they get kicked to the backseat. And politics and identity becomes the driver, the vehicle if you will, unfortunately. I think all of us agree that that's done much more damage than good.

Wajahat Ali:

The interesting thing is, based on what you're saying, Eboo, is being the best version of yourself, being open, being kind. Oftentimes, where you do see a type of synergy and openness and kind of, if you will, a partnership with evangelical Christian communities, and traditional Jewish communities is over, wait for it, homophobia, or-

Eboo Patel:

Yeah, of course.

Wajahat Ali:

You know what I'm saying? So, it's and so this is the question I want to ask you. It might be too hot, I don't think so. But you know this and I know this that they say, "You know what? I disagree with them on all these things, but they're against the gays and gay sex and trans genders and gay marriage. Alhamdulillah, at least evangelical Christians are doing that," or "You know what? They're against this feminism. It's too much."

Wajahat Ali:

And then what happens instead is in furtherance of what people say is their religious values, right? Because it's important to people. Marriage is important to people. Sex and sexuality is important to people of faith, right? They then team up, we then animate our worst aspects of ourselves, our faith traditions to end up beating up a marginalized community. So, where's the balance here, especially from an interfaith model? Where you can hold true to say your religious values and say, "This is halal, this is haram, this what I believe, but I'm going to exercise that spiritual and moral value in my tradition, that still reaches out to these communities," if that makes sense.

Eboo Patel:

It totally does. And Waj, I'm going to keep on saying this, it happens all the time. It's right in front of our face. For whatever reason, we choose not to tell the story, right? So, here is one of the most inspiring places that it's happened. Rami Nashashibi, mid-late 1990s.

Wajahat Ali:

Chicago.

Eboo Patel:

Right. He's coming up. He is inspired by Black narratives and by hip-hop music to reconnect with his Muslim identity, right? Kind of a standard, interesting, kind of a standard late '90s, early 20-somethings story, except Rami is a very special person. And he actually decides he is going to build an institution out of this ethic. He thinks to himself, "Why is it that Christians have built these things called Community Development Corporations that house senior citizens and have free health care clinics and put together food baskets for folks. We Muslims have the exact same ethic in our tradition, why don't we have these institutions? Well, I'm going to build one, and I'm going to watch how Pentecostal churches in Chicago have done it first and build my model off of that."

Eboo Patel:

That's what I think of when I think of Muslim-Christian cooperation, right? I don't think principally of doctrinal disputes. Of course, there's going to be doctrinal disputes, right? Diversity is not just the differences you like. By the way, that's my best line in 10 years, right? Diversity is not just the differences you like. Don't expect to agree on everything, number one. Number two, diversity is not just the flashpoint disagreements, right? Diversity is also the different ways that identity communities express their shared values, and ways that we can learn from each other. So, Iman's model looks different than the Pentecostal churches down the street, but it has learned from that model. And by the way, Iman's strategic plan was first facilitated by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago.

Eboo Patel:

What's the point that I'm making? The point that I'm making is that the genius of American society is that our civil society. It's in the ways that diverse principally identity communities racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and at the center of it, religion, have built institutions out of their own inspiration - Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, et cetera, that almost always, unless they are internal to the community, almost always serve everybody.

Eboo Patel:

So, here's one of my favorite examples. The largest disaster relief trained volunteer corps in the United States is not actually the Red Cross, it's the Southern Baptists. And Waj, if a hurricane or a tornado ravaged your house, they would show up at the front door. They would not care a wit, whether you were atheist, or evangelical or Muslim or Jewish, they would give you a warm place to sleep and a hot meal to eat. They would do it out of their faith commitment in service of the public.

Eboo Patel:

And we Muslims should learn from that. We are learning from that, and that's what interfaith cooperation is about. Interfaith cooperation is not about the Muslims, and the evangelicals against gays. It's not about the areas in which we are going to have reasonable disagreements and which we should just recognize those disagreements and principally bracket them. It's about the places where we cooperate, inspired by our different identities to work together for the benefit of the civic whole.

Forgive me for being relentlessly optimistic.

Wajahat Ali:

No, it's fine, it's fine. It's good to know. You have to be optimistic and I have to call out the fault lines, right? And that's how we have the type of balanced conversation because I agree with you. I think it's something beautiful that when people knock religion, and they often do, as you and I know this. And when you when people say all religions are the root of all evils. The example I give is, yeah, look at the Red Cross. Look at Islamic Relief. Yeah, you might knock us but when people need shelter we'll be there. We'll help you [crosstalk].

Eboo Patel:

Right, exactly. Right.

 

Wajahat Ali:

We might disagree with you, but we're going to be the ones who are helping the orphans because our faith commands us and there is some beauty there that unfortunately, has been clouded by some of this ugliness, where some people say, "It's just so anti-woman, so anti-gay, so anti-Black." That oppression is also felt by many Americans who see religion as a sword, not as a shield of protection, right? And so, we have to live out the best version of ourselves.

Wajahat Ali:

But when you and Josh do this, the reality also is and we have to be honest about this, because you're also Ismaili. Within our own communities, when you go out to the synagogues and when you go out and meet the Baptists and evangelicals, they say, "Eboo is just one of those lefty liberal, nontraditional Muslims trying to placate the men." And there's a version of this, I'm sure also, I'm sure in the evangelical community, right? That, "Oh, look at them. They're just like the rhinos and the old models and they're just, they're appeasement. They're engaging in appeasement politics."

Wajahat Ali:

And so, internally within your community, Eboo, how do you still tell this story, even though there is that cynicism and pushback? When you go out there as an Ismaili, being the face of Interfaith and being the face of the best traditions of our Islamic religion and reaching out to people, your own community dismisses you. That must hurt.

Eboo Patel:

So, it doesn't hurt in part because I don't, I mean, I'm not blind to it. But I'm not representing the Muslim community. I have built an organization called IFYC, which is now the largest interfaith organization in North America, probably the Western Hemisphere. We have a staff of 50. We have a budget of $10 million. We believe in a vision we call interfaith America, which is a vision of a nation where people of a variety of different backgrounds have their fates respected. They relate well to each other and they cooperate to contribute to the common good. So, the model is respect, relate, cooperate, if you want to do a bumper sticker version of it.

Eboo Patel:

I spread the gospel as far as and wide as I can, right? So, I'm invited to speak in Muslim spaces and I'm honored by that - ISNA, the El Hibri Foundation. I'm invited to speak in evangelical spaces and Jewish spaces and civic spaces and I never say that I'm representing anything other than myself and the organization I founded. I'm inspired by the Muslim tradition. I come out of the Ismaili variant of that.

And my hope is that the vision that's put forward, frankly, is recognizable by lots of different people.

Eboo Patel:

Prince, I use Muslim language and so it's gratifying to me. I use Muslim language because I'm a Muslim, right? And so, I have a proximity and love for the Quran and the Hadith and the Sunnah, and of course, the works within the Ismaili community as well. And that is the language that I use to express a vision of pluralism. So, you've heard me talk about Attar is the Conference of the Birds. It's kind of an early medieval expression of pluralism. And then the Quranic surahs that we all quote, et cetera, et cetera. It's gratifying to me when Muslims resonate with that. And when they don't, I don't know. I trog and continue to try to put forward a positive vision.

Wajahat Ali:

You're 46 now, so you probably have the scabs. You have the scabs and the tough skin.

Eboo Patel:

I think actually, an interesting difference between you and me on this, Waj, is I, and this is probably citing a weakness of my own, right? And as I've expressed to you, an admiration for your courage on this, I stay away from divisive topics and controversy. I stay, I just do. And part of this is that my focus has long been American civil society and part of my definition of what the civic is, if I can just be geeky for a second.

Wajahat Ali:

Geek out.

Eboo Patel:

The civic is a space on which most of us agree. Most of us agree that schools are a good thing. Athletic leagues are a good thing. Hospitals are a good thing, right? And that is why there can be people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies, who gather in those spaces, who tend to cooperate, because there's an agreement that it's a good thing to have an athletic league, it's a good thing to have a gardening club, it's a good thing to have a school, and the activity guides our interaction.

Wajahat Ali:

But the cultural and political space often is where the divisions come out, right?

Eboo Patel:

That's right. And a big part of what I think my project is and the project of IFYC is and frankly, the project of religion is, okay, it's in expanding the role of the civic. So, I don't want to be, if I was a band, I wouldn't be the Sex Pistols, I'd be U2, right? How do you write music? Frankly, with the progressive inclusive message that lots and lots and lots of people love and do it in a way that doesn't water things down, right? But the music is beautiful and complex, but it is meant to be accessible. It is meant to get lots of people saying, "Boy, I love that," right? I don't run away from controversy, but I run towards areas in which people are more likely to cooperate.

Wajahat Ali:

I think that's it.

Eboo Patel:

The goal of social, the model of social change is "Let's figure out what's going well and spread that."

Wajahat Ali:

Yeah, yeah, I think that's compelling, in part because of a conversation some of us had with Faith Angle a couple of days ago with a journalist from Poland, who was describing how increasingly hollowed out is our society becoming, and so is Hungary and so is some other place. And we often think about pluralism as applying to religion, to a confessional diversity, to a religious diversity, but it also applies to institutions. I remember a mentor talking about that at some length. That hospitals and schools and charitable associations of various kinds and congregations and the like are also part of pluralism institutional. Is that a piece of what you're building?

Eboo Patel:

Its definition. This is the whole, this is the entirety of the IFYC scripture right there, okay? Which is the manner in which diverse religious communities cooperate in civil society, in disaster relief, in athletic leagues, in academia, in healthcare, that is the American genius, and that is the definition of pluralism. And because it happens so frequently, we just take it as a given, when actually, it is a remarkable achievement.

Eboo Patel:

So, let me give you this example. So, this was front page, New York Times 3, 4, 5 years ago, right? The article begins this way, "When there is a fire on the Catholic side of town in the city of Mostar, the Muslim Fire Department does not respond." Just think about that line for a second, right? We don't have Muslim Fire Departments in the United States, right?

Eboo Patel:

In fact, we have universities founded by religious communities, who almost in all of them welcome people from different faiths. That is such a profound achievement, right? That we don't think of religious identity, that our civil society is formed by identity communities building civic institutions that serve everybody and that are reasonably accommodating of religious difference. So, when you said you didn't eat pork at your Jesuit Catholic school, they made sure you had something else to eat, right?

Wajahat Ali:

Well, there were options. There was a diversity of options. You can eat what you want, so tuna sandwich. I've had enough tuna sandwiches for 16 lifetimes.

Eboo Patel:

So, Methodist Hospital in Dallas, when somebody, when a patient says that she's halal, they have food options. In other words, a hospital founded by a particular religious identity is proactively accommodating people from multiple religious identities and nurturing cooperation between them, right? The point that I'm making is, that's the beating heart of American pluralism. It's built by diverse religious communities, it takes place in civil society. I would like that model, to spread itself into culture and politics. And it's a very Obama vision, right? This is what Obama and Obama is like, "Why can't Congress find ways to cooperate the way that people in Little Leagues do?"

Wajahat Ali:

It's about expansion, I think there's a recurring theme here about stretching and expanding America to accommodate all of us. It's the way it's always been, at least on the ground level. In our communities, in our little leagues, in our schools, the way we treat each other, oftentimes, we're very civil, we find some common ground despite our differences in politics and culture. And I would also add, that religion, in some form, plays a very important part in the lives of many Americans.

Wajahat Ali:

And I think, the way, we've talked about culture and politics, I think, Josh, here and everyone, everyone would agree with me on this, the way we talk about religion in this country, it's always fascinating to me. You could disagree with me on this, Eboo, is like why do we fail so miserably at understanding and talking about religion in the United States of America, when religion plays such an important part in the lives of millions of people?

Eboo Patel:

I don't know. So, my poetic metaphor for this as it's William Carlos Williams' Red Wheelbarrow, so much depends on it and you only pay attention to it when you really need it, right? So, here's the mental exercise I invite people to do now when I'm doing a talk. I say, imagine if all the faith-based institutions within 3 sq. miles of where you're sitting, disappeared overnight? Let's do a walk around and see what would be gone.

Eboo Patel:

So, we're sitting here in the center of DC, Georgetown would be gone. How many hospitals would be gone, right? How many social services? So, let's assume a bunch of mosques, synagogues, and churches would be gone, but how many social service agencies would be gone, right? How many places that feed people would be gone, right? How many schools would be gone? All of these places that make up our civil society would just evaporate, right?

Eboo Patel:

In Chicago, when I do this on Michigan Avenue, Northwestern hospital would be gone. It was founded by Methodists. The Loyola Law School would be gone. It was founded by Jesuits. The Downtown Islamic Center would be gone. They run a turkey drive. The synagogue a couple of miles north would be gone. They make sure that the kids at the local elementary school have food in their backpack, so that they can eat over the weekend, right. That's the role that religion plays in our society.

Eboo Patel:

It's the Southern Baptists, who train disaster relief volunteers. I don't agree with Southern Baptist doctrine. I don't agree with Southern Baptist politics. They train 100,000 disaster relief volunteers. I have a lot of respect for that and I am going to choose to relate to Southern Baptists based on the parts of their expression that I respect. That's the choice that I'm going to make, right? That doesn't mean I'm not going to engage in other parts of the conversation where I think it can be fruitful.

Eboo Patel:

Fruitful is not going to be is Jesus a prophet of God or is He Lord and savior? That's a doctrinal dispute. It's been going on for 1400 years. We're not going to solve it. Probably going to stay away from that. But there's other things that I think we can have a fruitful dialogue about. But I'm going to choose my instinctive, I'm going to choose the first engagement, the area of cooperation. The area of where I admire the other person.

Wajahat Ali:

So, Eboo back to what you were describing earlier about building and bonding, bridging capital, not just saying things with edge that get a reaction as it's so rewarded on Twitter and sometimes even in our contemporary politics. What's the magic ingredient for that? We were a part of a group that was talking about this idea of creative minorities. And being part of the creative minority means that you have instinct. You have... excuse me.

Wajahat Ali:

Being part of a creative minority means you have reason to want to be a part of the broader whole, reason to play music like U2, not with such edge. And in the Black community, for example, if you were to look back at major heroes in the country for the last four decades, you've got Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama. How is it that we ought, as more groups are becoming part of creative minorities or at least demographic minorities, to appeal to all or to appeal more broadly?

Eboo Patel:

So, maybe I'll answer this question. I'll begin with kind of our lead image for a diverse democracy, right? In the early 20th Century, the lead image was melting pot, so minorities were given the opportunity to melt away their ethnicity and religion to be accepted as Americans, which for back then, might have been a step forward, right? That's the [inaudible] idea. That's not a good model for now. The better model is potluck nation, right? And what's a potluck? A potluck is a space that welcomes and proactively invites the best of people's distinctive contributions. That ought to be the guiding image of our nation.

We are a potluck nation, not a melting pot. Okay?

Eboo Patel:

So, how do you have a potluck work? You have to have respect for diverse identities and contributions. You have to have positive relationships with people. You have to agree tacitly to cooperate on something. People arrange their dishes. They clean up the space, they make sure not to make a mess. They are polite when people say, "Is that vegan? Does that have pork?" Right? There's a lot that goes into making a potluck work well. And my favorite part about this is no governor, no general, no president commands people to potluck. It is the ultimate beautiful civic form.

Eboo Patel:

Okay, why is racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, why are they such terrible things? Well, number one, they're violations of individual dignity, but number two, they're barriers to contributions. Your potluck is less delicious, right? It has excluded a whole set of people. It's excluded a whole set of contributions. That's how we should think about diversity in the nation, right? The guiding metaphor and model, potluck. The way that that works - respect, relate, cooperate. The barriers to that are any form of exclusion or violation of dignity. It's really not that hard. It's really not that hard.

Eboo Patel:

And what it is, is it's a positive proactive vision. I appreciate critical voices, but they can't be in charge. The people who have to be in charge are the people with a positive proactive vision, who can actually make it happen.

Wajahat Ali:

I-

Josh:

Let me ask one more question-

Wajahat Ali:

Yeah, go ahead.

Josh:

Let me ask one more question, maybe an exit question from me before turning things back over to Waj, about that because one thing I'm increasingly observing in a number of Christian colleges and in a number of churches, where lots of potlucks take place, is that often you have more women than men. And I'm curious to ask a question. I have a question actually about gender. Do you guys find in the work of training and equipping people to do interfaith work that you often are training more women than men? And what is there about that dynamic that's worth considering in this larger conversation again, about bonding and bridging? How is it that interfaith work might increasingly appeal to men?

Eboo Patel:

I'm always cautious about anything that strikes me as essentialistic or deterministic or generic, right? So, I don't know if there's anything essential to women or women's nature that draws them towards interfaith stuff. Demographic realities are our demographic realities. They ought to be pointed out. They ought to be observed. And we ought to ask the question, why is this the case it is, knowing that it could change in 10 years, right?

Eboo Patel:

One thing for sure, is that there are ceilings and barriers to women's leadership in a range of religious communities? That's not the case in civic spaces for the most part, right? And so, I think that it makes sense that women have been in leadership at IFYC for a very long time. And many of them, many of these people are religiously oriented women who might not have been able to have the same leadership position in their particular faith community. But, yeah, I will let other people opine about whether there's something essential to women versus men. I'm always very cautious about that.

Wajahat Ali:

I know you have to catch a plane and head back home. We appreciate your time, but I have you for a few more minutes, so I'm going to use it. I really do like the potluck analogy. It's the one that I've used as well. I don't want to melt into anything. I like my form, and human body. So, I think a tossed salad or a potluck is excellent, where I can bring my mom's biryani and someone else can bring meatloaf and another person can bring an enchilada.

Wajahat Ali:

But the reality is, and speaking about the particularity of being Muslim in this moment in this country, and in fact, in many countries around the world, India, China, Sri Lanka, we bring that really delicious dishes. We show up. We bring the banners. We're outside the door. We're knocking. We have a smile on our face and no one wants to eat with us. And we are students of history and we know that other religious communities have gone through this in America, Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews. But they were able to in some extent, to blend into whiteness, what we call the mainstream.

Wajahat Ali:

And as you know, Eboo, the intersection of religion and races, we are not a White, a majority religious community in America. We're Brown, we're Black, and we're White. And so, how about the rest of us, the Muslims who want to participate in this potluck, increasingly, more and more politicians are saying, "We do not want to invite you." What do we do?

Eboo Patel:

Yeah, I just think you're wrong. Just straight up. Happy to find places of overlap where I can. I just think you're wrong in this. There's a couple reasons for this.

Wajahat Ali:

I mean, there was a Muslim ban. I'm not making that up.

Eboo Patel:

No, you're not making that up. And if you want to look at the education and income levels of immigrant Muslims, they're way higher than the median.

Wajahat Ali:

Correct.

Eboo Patel:

Right? That is not the case with African American Muslims, which is a dynamic, more closely related to racism than Islamophobia. I'm not saying Islamophobia doesn't exist. I mean, I've written five books where Islamophobia is a prominent thing, right? I'm not saying it doesn't exist, right? I am saying that I don't think the specific example of the Muslim showing up with biryani and no one wants to eat with us is accurate. Farhan Latif just told me of the El Hibri Foundation that one of his concerns is that in interfaith endeavors all across the country, it's the Muslim community that is least represented and not for lack of trying.

Wajahat Ali:

Especially with Jewish spaces.

Eboo Patel:

Right?

Wajahat Ali:

Correct.

Eboo Patel:

In a range of spaces. So, I am not interested in downplaying Islamophobia. And you and I have both raised the alarm on this. [crosstalk].

Wajahat Ali:

I'm talking about at the national level, right? Just the type of rhetoric and conversation that growing up I never heard in the '80s and '90s.

Eboo Patel:

I totally agree with that. I think, so is there a way for us to acknowledge the ugliness of Islamophobia and at the same time, also point out the remarkable achievements of American Muslims, right? We punch way above our demographic weight in education, in medicine, in income level. And if that is also a fact, that white supremacy needs to put itself on steroids because it's not stopping us. It's not stopping us, right?

Eboo Patel:

And I think I am curious the terms white and people of color are invoked so frequently that you would

think that they were as obvious as like that they were handed down to Moses in the 10 Commandments.

Wajahat Ali:

I think it was the 11th.

Eboo Patel:

It could have been, right?

Wajahat Ali:

He scrubbed it.

Eboo Patel:

But it's, Waj, percentage of the world would qualify as people of color?

Wajahat Ali:

Gosh.

Josh:

Vast majority, right? Maybe they 70% or something.

Wajahat Ali:

Seventy.

Josh:

Ninety, 80%, or 90%, yeah.

Eboo Patel:

Okay, so, let's say 80% of the world would qualifies people of color. What a stupid category that would contain 80% of the world and think of that as a coherent group. That's 6 billion people. What can you reasonably say about 6 billion people? By the way, 50, 60 years ago, a guy named Michael Novak wrote a book called, The Unmeltable Ethnics. Pols, Italians, Jews, Slavs, right? In which he said, "These people will never be white." Well, 50 years later, 60 years later, we think of them as just being white.

Eboo Patel:

My friend Paul Raushenbush just said in 1848 there was a War of the Races in which every combatant on every side today, we would just call white. In 20 years, do we not think that a whole set of people who currently we understand as North Indian or Palestinian or Chilean or Costa Rican, but mostly be thought of as white? I mean, I think about my wife, Shehnaz and I, our kids, 30 closest friends. Twenty of those 30 families are in mixed marriages, right?

Eboo Patel:

So, the point that I'm making is racism is a corrosive, deforming, ugly, poisonous, powerful force. Islamophobia is a corrosive, deforming, ugly, poisonous force. These things exist. They should not be ignored. We should talk about them as violations of dignity and barriers to contribution. I don't think basing a set of analytic categories around them like oppressor and oppressed, like White and people of color is especially useful, because the definition of White has changed so dramatically in just a few decades, suggesting it will again.

Eboo Patel:

The definition of people of color currently incorporates 80 to 85% of the world. Half of those countries have gone to war with each other, India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, China and Japan, China and India. Should we go on? Right? I mean, what use does it serve to assume that all of these people have something powerful in common, right? So I'm just, I would much rather see myself, I mean, June Jordan says it in a poetic way, right? "I'm a stranger learning how to worship the strangers around me." It's very roomy like, but in kind of an American identity diversity way.

Eboo Patel:

I'm an American, an Ismaili Muslim of Indian descent, who seeks to bring my dish to the great potluck of American civil society is looking forward to enjoying other people's dishes. Will stay away from the pork and the alcohol. Will mix and match, otherwise. Will try to contribute to this wonderful thing called a healthy religiously diverse democracy in America. Will do my best not to stereotype people based on their physical or otherwise observable attributes. I will recognize the importance of group identities and communities. Will marvel at the genius of American civil society. And while otherwise, trying to be a pretty good dad, husband, Muslim, et cetera.

Wajahat Ali:

And then some. As you're heading out to the door, I'm going to do a plot twist with my final question. What is giving you hope today?

Eboo Patel:

You know what's giving me hope? I think that's a great question. I am meeting more and more people who, I would say I'm a progressive with moderate instincts or a progressive who seeks to attain my civic and other goals through moderate means. And I meeting more and more progressives, moderates, and conservatives, who are with the same kind of temperament. Who resonate with the vision of a potluck nation who think of themselves more as builders than critics. Who don't want a more ferocious revolution. Who are invested in building a more beautiful social order.

Eboo Patel:

Who are down with the kind of respect, relate and cooperate model of diversity. Who are kind of giving the side eye to everybody being either an oppressor or the oppressed. And I hope that we are at the cusp of a new era, in which cooperation becomes the norm and I want to be a part of that.

Wajahat Ali:

Amen. Thank, Eboo for your time. Thanks for... I know you're exhausted and you're about to rush to DCA and you stepped in for this conversation. And thank you as always, Josh, for inviting me to participate.

Josh:

Appreciate it.

Eboo Patel:

Well, I just As-Salaam-Alaikum and [foreign language] to you. I appreciate you. You're an American treasure and I am proud you come from the Muslim community.

Wajahat Ali:

Thank you, man. I'll Venmo you your money right now. I appreciate it. [foreign language].

Josh:

Take care, guys.

Josh:

Faith Angle exists to connect leading journalists including from the coastal elite, with leading scholars and practitioners, including from the heartland. Thanks for listening.

 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.