Eboo Patel: Crossing the Divide— With Faith

The YES! Breakthrough 15: Arming the world’s youth to be a force for compassion.
Eboo Patel photo

“Have big dreams but focus only on what you can control: your own thoughts, words and actions. This was Gandhi’s way … in the words of Buddhist poet Gary Snyder,
our job is to move the world a millionth of an inch.”
Eboo Patel

Photo courtesy of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.


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Eboo Patel’s aspiration is simple: for people of all religions, and those with no religion, to coexist in peace. He says it is his calling as a Muslim and as an American.

Spreading this message was not always easy after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment ran high in the United States, but Patel rose to the challenge with grace and dedication. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core (ifyc.org) in Chicago in 2002, which he calls his “double full-time job.” The 35-year-old father of two is also an advisor for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

Patel grew up in a Chicago suburb. He went to the University of Illinois, then studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, taking a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. His awareness of interfaith issues goes back to high school. In one instance, Patel did nothing to protect a Jewish friend who was the target of anti-Semitic remarks. Years later, his friend told Patel he had felt betrayed. Patel told the story to his father, who said that he had betrayed Islam, too.

Parker Palmer Selected by educator and author Parker Palmer: “Eboo's personal offering of heart and mind, and his widely lauded work on interfaith cooperation, give me hope in a world dangerously fragmented by religion-driven animosities.”

“In Islam, [you] stand up for those who are suffering, especially when they’re close to you, and especially when that suffering is a result of religious prejudice,” says Patel. He decided never to be silent about prejudice again.

Patel believes religion is the most volatile cultural divide the world faces, and youth can be a force behind either violent radicalism or peace and justice. “Our long-term goal is to help make interfaith cooperation a social norm. We think that if a generation of college students is inspired to become interfaith leaders, and first change their campuses, then they will go on and change the world.”

The idea of campus interfaith groups is catching on. More than 200 colleges have participated in IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institutes.

Patel, a widely praised spokesperson for tolerance who also deals with hate comments on his blog, says there will always be people who believe we’re better apart than united.

He remains optimistic.

“I don’t want to forfeit the world that I love, the religion that I love, the country I love to the forces of division.”


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