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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

Alan Wolfe in the September 11, 2011, article “Evildoers and Us,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education,writes that

Those who plan and carry out political evil no doubt have malevolence in their hearts or malfunctions in their brains. But it is not their insides that ought to concern us; it is their acts. Whether they are twisted by hatred and envy, exemplars of depraved human nature, stunted in their development because they were abused as children, psychotic or sociopathic, unwilling to allow a savior into their lives, suffering from delusions of grandeur, obsessive-compulsive in their personality disorders, the product of poor genetic heritage, or seriously dependent on their meds to get through the day is a matter of scant interest to us. . . . We need not reform them, stigmatize them, or show them the path to salvation. We need to stop them, and in order to do that we have to focus on the political causes that attract them and their followers. Acts are easier to change than people. (http://chronicle.com/article/EvildoersUs/128910/)

In his book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo Patel’s project—in contrast to Wolf’s aim as stated above—is to convince readers that we should be very concerned about the “insides” of people when seeking to prevent terrorist acts. More specifically, his focus is on the religious identities of young people in a world of many religious and secular outlooks; furthermore, programs and people can make a difference, he argues—they can influence young people in significantly positive ways:

How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission and other ordinary young person’s commitment to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism? The answer, I believe, lies in the influences young people have, the programs and people who shape their religious identities. (p. 12)

Patel sets out not only to convince us that persons and programs can shape students’ lives but also gives readers insights into ways that programs and initiatives can be successful. He presents his own personal life story, which focuses on his faith development during his childhood, college life, teaching experience, and founding of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that he continues to lead.  Interwoven in these stories are Patel’s reflective reactions to the world he finds puzzling and challenging as he struggles to harmonize the contrasts among his individual, social, family, and religious identities that are indistinguishably linked to his growing pains.  Treading a pragmatic path, he grapples to make his ideas and values fit with his experiences—though often it is far from a clean fit.  Always looming in the background is a continuum of religious attitudes—at one end is pluralism and at the other end, intolerance. The relentless question underlying his narratives is “How is a person’s identity shaped so that he/she practices religious pluralism rather than religious totalitarianism?”

Family and Peers

Growing up as an Ismaili Muslim (of the Shia branch of Islam) in the US, Patel often reluctantly participated in the religious rituals of his parents’ faith. As he grew older, Patel struggled to “fit in as a brown kid in a white world” (p. 23). Like a typical youngster, he was concerned about what his peers thought about him. He recounts his sensitivity about his religious background and ties: During

religious holidays, I would look at the sea of brown people. . . mouthing Arabic prayers with their eyes closed and their bodies swaying, comically wagging their hands while telling stories in Gujarati, and I would feel as if they were an inferior breed.  I was no longer only wondering what the white kids at school would say about these people.  I had adopted their sneer. (p. 23)

Not only did skin color mark him as different from his fellow White students, but also the eating restrictions of his Muslim faith singled him out from his peers and caused him excruciating embarrassment. For example, his principal called him in front of snickering friends to come get his “special piece of pizza” (no pepperoni) at a school camping trip, and he was forced to take beef hot dogs in a plastic bag to a birthday party that would need to be cooked, his mom reminded him, in a “separate pan” from the pork hot dogs served there (p. 23).

At least three experiences helped Patel to overcome his youthful rebellion. One was his discovery about his father’s persistent efforts to help immigrants from his native country get their start in the US; these actions were his father’s way of practicing his faith through service to others—explained his mother—which had been a long-time family tradition in India.  His father had never boasted of assisting others, and Patel was surprised and awed by the news. A further decisive  experience was assuming a leadership role at the YMCA Leaders Club, which included one week of training at Leaders School. Here he developed confidence and leadership skills as well as learned how to contribute to the social good. At the Y, he found out what it meant, as he put it, “to cheer for someone other than myself” (p. 30).

An insult prompted another critical change in his early life. After his seventh grade science teacher ridiculed him for negligence in his studies, he reflected on his intellectual identity. Feeling doubts about his abilities, he decided that he did not want his peers and teachers to regard him as an inept student. The teacher, recognizing his potential, encouraged him to do independent research, and he succeeded in writing an exemplary paper, which the teacher used as a model for other students.

Fellow College Students and Activists

Patel’s desire to “cheer for someone” other than himself found expression in many forms as he grew older. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, he became interested in political topics, especially those relating to identity politics. He learned to condemn “middle-class white men” (p. 39) for what he saw as creating a culture that protected and intensified their power over others and praised those he believed “had tried to block the machinery of American imperialism” (p. 42).

At the same time that his undergraduate experiences were shaping him to be a political radical, he retained what he felt to be a crucial connection to the past: volunteering. At the homeless shelters and tutoring programs where he worked, he attempted to talk about the structural changes that underlay the problem of homelessness with his mentors and fellow volunteers and was particularly interested in learning about how to effect systemic changes in contrast to temporary solutions. He admired, for example, Habitat for Humanity because the organization encourages participants from varying backgrounds to offer diverse viewpoints and options in meeting challenges (p. 44).

What else was he learning about the various types of social activism at this time? One of his friends in his residence hall organized different types of small groups, including theater troupes and political discussions. When Patel asked his friend why he organized so many small groups—his friend replied, “Because the most important thing you can learn is how to turn an idea into reality” (p. 45). Patel quickly wrote this idea in his journal.

At this time he became acquainted with the success story of the Catholic Worker movement established by Dorothy Day. He had read her autobiography and admired her determination to “change the social order” and not be merely content with helping to satisfy individuals’ basic needs (p. 50). In one of the most poignant passages of the book (p.50), Patel reveals his frustration with radical politics that he thought “deified the individual” because the motivation of all the radicals he knew in helping others seemed to come merely from their “own minds” (p. 53). Having been influenced by his fellow radicals, he now realized that his motivation to change the world had been his own anger while he found the Catholic Workers movement was driven by love and compassion for the other:

I was tired of raging. It left me feeling empty, and what did it achieve anyway? I wanted to improve people’s lives because I loved humanity, not because I hated the system.  Sometimes, I thought, my activist friends hated the system more than they loved humanity. (p. 50)

As a consequence, Patel made the Catholic Worker house his own “community.”  He found those in the movement to be, in his words, “more radical than the Marxist intellectuals I knew, more gentle than the social service types I volunteered with, more intelligent that the professors who taught my classes, and more effective than the activists I protested with” (p. 52).

Building an Interfaith Movement

After graduation, Patel turned his attention to teaching students at an alternative school in northwest Chicago. Despite the pervasive gang violence in their lives, many of his students experienced success as a result of his determination to teach them skills they needed, while recognizing and helping them to overcome the obstacles they faced. Yet he confessed that he was undergoing a “lonely existence” because he missed being part of a community of searchers like himself (p. 65).

It is at the point in the book that two important projects in Patel’s life are brought into clearer focus: his search for a personal identity and the early formation of a groundbreaking, grassroots interfaith youth movement. His desire to share his experiences and ideas with those who had similar social justice goals led him to form a cooperative of activists who lived together in Chicago and pooled their resources. A Catholic monk, “Brother Wayne,” invited Patel and a Jewish friend to speak at interfaith events, where persons of diverse religious backgrounds came together to share their perspectives and seek common ground. However, Patel and his friend found that young people rarely attended the meetings where they spoke. They were disappointed that the occasions were long and boring with no social action initiatives to energize and unite the participants.

Attending the United Religious Initiative (URI) Global Summit at Stanford University, however, proved to be an entirely different experience and helped to clarify his vision “to create a project where religiously diverse young people [come] together for one year in a residential community where they would live together and take part in community service projects” (p. 73). The vision materialized into the Interfaith Youth Corps, soon to be the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), where three pillars of  practice comprised the core of the movement: intercultural encounter; social action; and interfaith reflection. Following the summit, 16 young adults, representing four continents and six religions, met in the Bay area to discuss the basic principles of the burgeoning IFYC movement. For examples to follow, Patel directed his attention to three exemplar movements: Catholic Worker, service learning, and multiculturalism, while incorporating the advice of URI conference facilitator Anastasia White: “articulate the core idea clearly, develop a spread strategy and then identify and network the best people doing the work” (p. 115).

By June 2002, with an Oxford degree in hand and an eye toward expanding the movement to which fellow activist Jeff Pinzino had laid the groundwork, Patel pursued the advice of Chicago’s experienced social action leaders and thinkers.  The harsh reality of having to raise money was his greatest frustration.  Business and other community leaders were reluctant to support a religious, rather than a secular cause, and religious leaders were inclined to promote only their own faith because, they lamented, they had little time to “reach” their own young people, and it was not a “high enough priority to spend that precious time exposing them to others” (p. 164). People were frightened, Patel observed, that “mass conversions” would occur as a result of youth’s exposure to other religions (p. 160). Others feared that the goal of IFYC was to teach young people that all religions were basically the same.

To counteract those problems, the aim of the IFYC model was to “maintain faith identity in a religiously plural world” (p. 166).  How could this happen without one person trying to convince the other that his or her religion is the only right one? To avoid these “mutually exclusive discussions” (p. 166), the IFYC model was designed to be a pluralistic one: preserving the individuality of religious faith while learning from and sharing with other participants. Young people from different faith communities would share how common values in diverse faith communities such as “hospitality, cooperation, compassion, mercy” (p. 166) would be uniquely treated in their distinctive religions.

The IFYC model was also designed to incorporate a service-learning approach—not only were young adults to discuss how their religion would speak to a particular religious value, but they would also bring action and faith together with their involvement in a service project that would incorporate that value. These  projects could be, for example, helping to build a house for an unfortunate family or tutoring refugee children.

Roots

The meaning of the title of Patel’s book: Acts of Faith can be interpreted as underscoring the union of a profound journey and exploration of faith with the powerful expression of social action. However the title Acts of Faith can also denote, as Patel clearly conveys to his readers, an obsessive devotion to faith by means of brutal acts. Patel’s chapter on youth programs argues that two kinds of organization can provide young people with a sense of groundedness and connection along with purpose and meaning: one that is altruistic and pluralistic and the other, a destructive and totalitarian one:

Every time we read about a young person who kills in the name of God, we should recognize that an institution painstakingly recruited and trained that young person.  And that institution is doing the same for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of others like him. In other words, those religious extremists have invested in their youth programs (p. 149)

It is his own personal faith journey as a youth, so intertwined with the development of the IFYC, and which is a symbol of others’ religious treks, that must be emphasized as the foundation of the interfaith movement he helped to establish.  Patel’s yearning for a religious identity symbolizes how crucial it is for any society to invest its resources and efforts in youth programs and education so that young people can pursue their own faith journeys.

For example, while Patel found that in his life he had “community, justice, and creativity,” as a member of his early Chicago community of social activists, these elements “did not add up to identity” (p. 69). “Brother Wayne,” the Catholic monk who often served as his religious mentor, assured him that helping to bring about changes for the greater good, or, as he put it, “to have wings,” is important in one’s life, but human beings also need “roots” (p. 70), which involve exploring one’s own faith and traditions.

Another poignant passage in the book Patel describes is the return to the land of his ancestors to meet with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Early on in his life, while visiting his grandparents, he had found India to be a “land of filth, nuisance, and backwardness” (p. 78) and besides, as an American youngster, he missed the Frosted Flakes that he enjoyed in his Chicago home! However, the trip to see the Dalai Lama was a transformational one for at least two reasons: (a) the Dalai Lama encouraged him to emphasize serving others, sharing common values with those with diverse perspectives, and exploring the depths of one’s faith as the core of his interfaith project, and (b) he discovered that his grandmother’s unselfish service to others and her sense of connectedness with those of other faiths were central to her Muslim identity.

Brother Wayne’s advice that “studying other religions should first and foremost have the effect of strengthening our understanding of our own” (p. 94) and the Dalai Lama’s counsel that “as you study the other religions, you must learn more about your own and believe more in your own” (p. 96) helped to provide Patel with direction in his research at Oxford. During his education as a Rhodes Scholar, he studied Islam under the direction of Azim Nanzi, an Islamic studies professor and director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Under his mentorship, Patel learned that one can best appreciate and understand Islam as a story and tradition rather than a set of fixed rules (p. 111). At least three important facets of religious exploration helped to deepen and strengthen his’s faith journey: (a) reading biographies  of Muhammad; (b) researching altruistic movements of Islam; and (c) engaging in Islamic practices of faith.

Audience

 Two significant interdependent elements of Acts of Faithaction and religious/spiritual experience, have a wide-range appeal for many kinds of readers. Two specific examples are mentioned below:

1. The book can serve as a model in process for founding and organizing a social justice or religious organization.       Some advice that I outline below might be adapted by readers as useful for their own situations and projects:

  • The organization should be primarily driven by leaders’ love for humanity, not solely out of rage at injustice (p. 50).
  • Different types of small groups with particular goals help “to  turn an idea into reality” (p. 45).
  • A small organizational model should be perfected, tried, and tested before expanding it (p. 157).
  • A solid funding base should be built as early as possible (p. 158).
  • Leaders should keep in mind that initially securing financial support for operations can be very frustrating (p. 158).
  • A staff  person central to the operations should have these qualifications: (a) love and devotion for the mission, (b) superb organizational skills, and (c) visionary insight. To help encourage the person’s creativity, organization leaders should “Give him or her anything he or she wants in terms of salary, title, and perks” (p 162).
  • Leaders should be involved in the day-to-day operations “in the early stages of their development” so that they will know the organization’s daily weaknesses, frustrations, and how to deal with them (p. 16).
  • Leaders should be continually open to learning from others and seek ways to improve the organization (pp. 181-2).
  • Providing a specific goal that incorporates active engagement, ways to strengthen one’s spiritual growth, and connection with fellow participants and the larger social community helps to bring communities, action, faith, and service together by means of purposeful challenges and rewards.

2. The book can be very useful as a reading assignment in youth programs such as those in religious organizations, as well as campus interfaith projects and practices. However, its coming-of-age story, filled with accounts of the struggles and disappointments of youth, would be appropriate as a text for first year programs students’ reading also. The angst and triumph of youth, the fear of failure, the navigation of one’s conflicting identities have universal appeal and need not be restricted to the reading experiences of those in religious campus communities.

Pluralism

While the usefulness of Acts of Faith is readily apparent, one seeming limitation might be pointed out. Patel writes that “Pluralism—even religious pluralism—is everybody’s business” (p. 182), and the primary purpose of Acts of Faithis to convince readers that religious pluralism is an outlook that should be embraced by everyone. He describes religious pluralism as “neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent of communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole” (p. xv).

While many liberal thinkers praise pluralism for its inclusiveness, there is a certain paradox about inclusive worldviews: for example, critics might say that religious pluralism is only one type of religious worldview, and to have an inclusive worldview is actually paradoxically an exclusive worldview in that its very definition excludes non-pluralistic views. Patel does not appear (in my reading of his work) to address the issue that pluralism is paradoxically exclusive although the criticism is often brought up in various works that criticize liberal worldviews (see Glanzer & Ream, 2009, for example). Also to affirm this worldview without anticipating criticisms from non-pluralist thinkers seems to be presumptive in that it uncritically affirms this worldview as the only correct one.  Not only must religious pluralists deal with diverse religious views (regarding the differing beliefs of each religion), but also they must deal with the non-pluralist viewpoint itself—a philosophical issue that is not necessarily the same kind of issue as tolerance/intolerance of other religious outlooks. It would make the book even richer if it offered a critical discussion of pluralism’s unavoidable boundaries.

Mutual Transformation

I would also like to have seen Patel discuss with more emphasis the possibility of mutual transformation of those engaging in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.  A living faith is dynamic, opening us up to the possibilities that our faiths may well be transformed in profoundly different ways and such a transformation means the possibility of rejecting our faith, adopting new aspects/tenants of our present faith, or even adopting a new faith entirely.  Face-to-face dialogue invites us to become attentive to difference as well as commonality—and to take such difference seriously, we must allow ourselves the freedom to change and know that we might in turn change others. This does not mean that we enter dialogue with an agenda to convert others, but that some sort of mutual transformation cannot only happen, but if we want to be better persons and have a stronger living faith, mutual transformation is desirable. A focus on mutual transformation as well as mutual understanding would have, I argue, added more depth and complexity to the work.

Conclusion

Patel has received much acclaim, on the one hand, for the book’s honesty in portraying his struggles and successes as a youth searching for meaning and purpose, and, on the other, for its sublime and ambitious goal: to propose a means to transform the destructive religious conflict that pervades our diverse world into a movement of interfaith cooperation.The Interfaith Youth Core is now a highly successful movement, and it is fascinating to read how both author and movement developed and matured—each influencing the other.  The writing is so well done with quotable passages that challenge the reader to dream great dreams and act on them, and perhaps the following is one of the most inspiring:

The question of the faith line cannot be answered by drawing a line between the religious and the nonreligious. . . . We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspiration and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to. (p. 182)

Eboo Patel is currently working on a new book that will be published in August 2012.

References

Glanzer, P. L., & Ream, T. C. (2009). Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolfe, A. (2011-September 11)  Evildoers and us.  Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed at
http://chronicle.com/article/EvildoersUs/128910/

 

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