Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Common Ground News Original Features for republication August 14, 2007

Faith in acting: a review of Eboo Patel's Acts of FaithMatthew Weiner

NEW YORK CITY - There is a growing phenomenon within the Muslim community in America that will change the history of Islam. Young Muslims, mostly the children of immigrants, are publicly reflecting on their identity. Many are becoming, or have become, Islamic scholars and activists on behalf of a civic Islam. Often, these young men and women were raised in fairly secular households and so as they become self consciously Muslim, they must re-imagine what being Muslim, as Americans, means. Certainly, this growing and internally diverse group will change how Americans understand Islam, and how Muslims across the globe understand Islam. Pay attention. A star of this group is Eboo Patel. Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel not only represents this new face of Islam, but he does so specifically by reaching across religious lines. His being Muslim is centrally focused on embracing difference - and what could be more important in this day? As he tells his story, it is his very encounter with difference that leads him to understand his own faith better, and to become a good Muslim. Patel's story is an important one if for no other reason that it shows how interfaith initiatives, that is reciprocally working with religious others, need not lead to a kind of religious Esperanto or a purely liberal understanding of religion, but rather can enforce and deepen one's own faith while building an appreciation of the other. Patel's book is at once easy to read and informative. The story line is simple without being simplistic: a young Muslim growing up in Chicago learns that he is different from many around him. Some are good to him, others are racist, and he has a choice about how to deal with this racism: go inward and become racist reactively, or begin working with those different from him in order to make a difference. That could be a tag line for this book because, of course, Patel chooses the latter, and reflects that this choice was perhaps less about him and more about who his parents and teachers were. For Patel, this becomes the central argument for why we need to foster positive relations with young Muslims in America and around the world. At this heightened point in time, Muslims can go "good" or "bad", depending on whom they are influenced by. Of course the picture is more complicated, something Patel as an activist-scholar acknowledges. But these are "troubled times", as the sociologist Anne Swiddler argues. Such times require an intense response. We need heroic figures and Patel, in his young life, is undoubtedly moving in that valuable direction. Besides being a story of victory for tolerance and embrace, Patel's story is one of journey, and the narrative line here is again both clear and moving. As Patel self awakens, he travels the globe, meeting the likes of the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ariyaratene (both Buddhists), and is inspired by the likes of Gandhi (a Hindu) and James Baldwin (a Christian and openly gay African American). He likewise rediscovers his own tradition, with such Muslim luminaries as Rumi. Patel does not spend too much time in his autobiography reflecting in an overt way on the more intolerant side that Islam (as well as all other religions) can manifest, although it is implied. Besides not focusing on Islam gone awry, he also does not focus on defending Islam. For me, this is another highlight of Patel's work. Almost everything published about Islam these days is either "pro-Islam" or "anti-Islam" as opposed to a book that looks at Islam in a natural way, finding both the glories and dangers within any lived tradition. Hats off to Patel for refusing to see Islam as an either/or phenomenon, and instead painting a real and complex picture. This is a book that everyone should read, not just glean from a review. Patel explores the interfaith world, realises a major moral gap in that there is no good setting for youth involvement - because it is youth who are easily swayed to intolerance or fostered to justice - and decides he should create the "Interfaith Youth Core".He does, and the rest was just written as history. It is a history worth reading, and I am looking forward to the next chapter.


* Matthew Weiner is the program director for the Interfaith Center of New York, and a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 14 August 2007, permission has been obtained for publication.

~Youth View~
Face to faith
Samantha Kirby
CHICAGO, Illinois - During a recent four-month stay in Morocco, I was faced with the challenge of genuinely adapting to a new and drastically different cultural context. The delicate balance of honesty and selectivity, the issue of disclosure and exposure, was never more in question than during my first encounter with my host brother. After asking my name and birthplace, he inquired if I was religious. My immediate response shook me as the words passed through my lips: "No, not really."Before I embarked on my journey to Morocco, friends and family wondered how I would reconcile my Jewish identity with this Muslim society. They wanted to know my strategy for navigating sensitive issues and seemingly inevitable conflicts. I was the least concerned of all; I thought that when the time came, answers would flow. I had faith in the power of cross-cultural exchange to facilitate understanding and dialogue.Once actually faced with the question of faith, however, my immediate reaction was to hide my Jewish identity.As time progressed, this suppression became more difficult. Before long, it was Passover and I was faced with a dilemma. It would be impossible to eat with the family in traditional Moroccan style, using bread to scoop food out of the communal tajine (or clay dish), because Jews do not eat leavened breads during Passover. I had to decide whether to break Passover or finally trust my family with my religious identity. I was terrified that the bonds we had finally formed, despite the communication barriers, would instantly be broken. However, I decided that as people of faith, they would understand the significance of the holiday.It was time to come out. I took a deep breath and pulled my host mother, Nezha, into my room. I told her, in my broken Moroccan Arabic, "This week is a holiday for my religion. I don't eat bread or pastry." I paused. "Ana yehudia." I am Jewish.I showed her my box of matzo, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten during Passover, which I had hidden in my luggage. She looked at me. The three words she voiced shocked me as much as my own had, but in a radically different way. "Wakha. Meshi mushkill." Ok. No problem.Then she disappeared into the kitchen to prepare the late afternoon meal. I exhaled.When she came out, she brought the usual tray, laden with a silver teapot full of sweet mint tea, bread, jam and butter. She disappeared again and emerged with something special: a small silver tray, with just two shallow bowls of jam and butter. She placed the tray in front of me, and motioned for me to get my matzo. In Morocco, I was often inspired by the profound faith surrounding me. But nothing was as inspiring as my family's instant and unconditional acceptance of my religious identity.This summer, I am completing an internship at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago, Illinois. The IFYC is an organisation working to empower young leaders and bring them together through service work, recognising that shared values such as service and hospitality are common among all religions. We have diverse conversations at the IFYC. They are not about Palestine, Israel and the true nature of God, but about common action for the common good: making the world a better place -- one project, one leader, one story at a time.I intern alongside two Jews, a Christian and a Muslim. We don't agree on everything, and our meetings can be quite dynamic. But here we are, together, serving at the soup kitchen downstairs. Here we are, together, discussing what it means to be a Christian/Jew/Muslim at age twenty-one. We are building relationships with each other, so when we engage in challenging conversations, we can walk out of the room together and look forward to our daily lunch hour picnics. Similarly, in Morocco, though I was initially worried that the bonds with my family would be broken if I were to tell them about my religious identity, it was the relationship we had formed which allowed us to share and observe our respective religions under the same roof.I waited too long to be honest with my host family. I am ready to engage fully in those difficult conversations for which I used to hold my breath. I am ready to collaborate with my diverse peers to bring a new kind of peace to the world through pluralism.I won't wait any longer. I am ready now.


* Samantha Kirby, a native Californian, is a senior at Northwestern University studying religion and psychology. She recently returned from Morocco, where she studied Arabic and Moroccan culture.This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 14 August 2007, Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.