Toward a new face of Islam

Can one be a good Muslim by embracing difference? For Eboo Patel the answer is emphatically yes.

Acts of faith 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Acts of faith 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 reimagine 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. 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 than that it shows how interfaith initiatives - 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 Acts of Faith 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 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, realizes 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. The writer is the program director for the Interfaith Center of New York and a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary.