I am co-leading a book discussion tomorrow evening at the Troy, MI public library on Eboo Patel's excellent book -- Acts of Faith. With that in mind, I thought I'd re-post the review I wrote and published some time ago. It's a book that is helpful in its effort to promote the involvement and organization of young adults and youth in interfaith work -- service rather than talking is his approach. So, here it is. Read, consider, and maybe take up the cause:
ACTS OF FAITH: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. By Eboo Patel. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007. xix + 189 pp.
A once seemingly homogeneous religious landscape has become increasingly pluralistic. No longer can we simply describe this landscape in terms of Protestant, Catholic and Jew. This change in landscape has led to much anxiety and even fear. But it has also led to many new ventures at interfaith conversation and cooperation. After 9-11 communities across the country hosted interfaith services and the subsequent conversations helped defuse some of the tension, though recent political events underline the fact that these tensions remain with us.
As helpful and hopeful as these interfaith efforts may be, there are areas of concern. Indeed, if one looks globally one will see that the majority of foot soldiers of religious extremism are young people. Even as mainstream religious groups struggle to retain the loyalties of their young people, religious extremists have proven themselves quite capable of drawing in young people.
Extremists such as Osama Bin Laden offer one possible trajectory for the world’s young people, but there are other possible options. Eboo Patel, a young Indian-American and Ismaili Muslim, offers another possible trajectory. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Acts of Faith is his own autobiographical story of how this youth movement evolved and how it and groups like it could offer a potent antidote to the hatred and violence engendered by religious extremism.
Like two strands of thread woven together, Patel tells his own story – how he came of age in America and discovered his own religious heritage in conversation with young people of other faith traditions – and the story of the religious longings of the world’s young people. Like many American young people, his introduction to his own faith tradition was haphazard. His parents were Muslims, but they weren’t demonstrative about it. He grew up with little understanding of his faith – he said prayers and attended religious festivals, but other things seemed more important. As a young person he understood that he was different. His first girl friend was a Mormon, who had dreamed of marrying a good Mormon boy. He thought about conversion, but in the end that relationship didn’t have a future. Another girl friend would be Jewish – and on the story goes. In the midst of these relationships he began to understand that he needed to discover his own religious heritage and own it. Through a number of events he begins to discern that heritage and owns it.
The other strand here has to do with the global scene, and the fact that religious extremists have been quite apt in attracting young people to their causes. As he began to discover his own faith in the midst of interfaith relationships he felt a call to interfaith work. To his surprise interfaith leaders and leaders of the faith traditions were reluctant to engage young people in interfaith work. He also discovered that young people were not attracted to the kinds of interfaith conversations taking place at the highest levels. Rather than talking, young people wanted to do something important. Here is why the extremists have been so successful. They understood that young people are more interested in doing something than talking about things. They also seem to understand that young people, those aged from about sixteen to thirty are going through crises of identity. They don’t know who they are and are seeking guidance. Thus, they are ripe for picking.
What is ironic is that for the most part those young people who have become extremists, like the London bombers, were ordinary young people. They were bright and good young people. They weren’t thugs and hoodlums. And yet having experienced prejudice and discrimination, they began looking for a sense of purpose in life. They became open to the manipulations of those who had a darker purpose. Patel writes of the Muslim leader in London that sent these young men on their mission of terrorism.
“Sheikh Omar is a master institution builder and youth organizer. He understands precisely what buttons to push to harden a young Muslim’s fluid religious identity into a terrorist commitment” (p. 6).
Patel saw in his own experience the possibilities of being drawn into the same kind of movement as these young bombers.
“A gut-wrenching feeling of being excluded from mainstream society, in the form of a constant barrage of racist bullying. A vague sense of being Muslim from my mother without any real grounding in how that was relevant or useful to my life. A growing consciousness, through my father, that people with whom I shared an identity were being horribly treated elsewhere, often by people who looked like the ones who were bullying me here” (p. 11).
Religious extremists have learned to capitalize on religious and cultural disaffection. At the same time, and this is I think important, mainstream religious leaders have not learned how to invest in their youth. There is, he believes, a most distressing generational disconnect that has allowed the extremists to exploit these young people.
Growing up, Patel had not paid much attention to his own religious and cultural distinctions. As an Indian-American he tried to blend in and essentially become white. In college, however, he discovered that such a denial of identity was discouraged. He speaks of the Balkanization that discovered on his college campus – each group separating along racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious lines. Skin color became important. At the same time, he found meaning in volunteering – in doing something important for others. One prayed by doing!
This journey of self-discovery led him to work with the Catholic Worker community, in which context he participated in communities that combined faith and social action. Still, he knew little of his own faith. He was essentially one without an identity. A trip to India helped form that identity – as he encountered others from his own faith community. He went to India after deciding with a friend to start an interfaith social justice group. Having been encouraged to seek the blessing of the Dalai Lama he learned more about his own Ismaili tradition. He also began to appreciate more the American context. What is most important, he discovered that if one is to truly benefit from interfaith dialogue, one must understand and own one’s own faith tradition. In discovering that tradition, he also learned that faith leads to service.
For Patel this journey of self-discovery required that he engage his Islamic heritage. He went looking within his own tradition for examples of service and of pluralism. He found help in such places as the poetry of Rumi and his own family’s engagement in social service. He turned to the Qur’an and found guidance there that would lead to an ethic of service.
“Under the guidance of Azim Nanji, I learned that Islam is best understood not as a set of rigid rules and a list of required rituals but as a story that began with Adam and continues through us; a tradition of prophets and poets who raised great civilizations by seeking to give expression to the fundamental ethos of the faith” (p. 111).
By discovering his own roots, he was enabled to create an effective interfaith youth movement.
The final chapters contrast the efforts by religious extremists and religious totalitarians to build youth movements on principles of tribe and hatred. He points out that the shock troops of religious extremism are they young people. Al Qaeda is essentially a youth movement. Bin Laden learned his extremism as a young person seeking to serve his faith. At the same time, mainstream religious leaders seem to be ignoring the yearnings and the questions of their youth. The totalitarians are putting their resources to work among young people, while the mainstream groups and the religious pluralists are not. Mainstream groups seem content to do their interfaith work by talking at the highest levels, leaving behind young people who want to do something important.
It is out of this journey that the Interfaith Youth Core is born. It is a movement that seeks to bring young people of various faith traditions together to engage in service projects. As they work together both deepen their own faith and learn about the faith traditions of others. IFYC is built on the principle that common values emerge from different paths. He understands the fears of religious leaders who know that many of their young people do not know or understand their own faith traditions. They fear that interfaith engagement will undermine their own faith commitments. Patel, however, insists that the point of IFYC is not to undermine one’s faith or assume that all faiths are the same. Instead, participants are encouraged to discern the roots of their own faith and share how their own service to others is rooted in that faith. In the end, the participants become more deeply rooted in their own tradition and gain greater respect for the faiths of others. They broaden their commitment even as they gain empathy for the other.
Patel writes in the conclusion:
“I thought about what the young religious extremists we read about in the news every day could have been if different influences had gotten to them first. I thought about the meaning of pluralism in a world where the forces that seek to divide us are strong. I came to one conclusion: We have to save each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves” (p. 180).
Having engaged in interfaith work myself over the last ten years, I know the temptation to talk at high levels is a strong one. It’s actually a very easy avenue to take. Much more difficult is the path that engages young people where they’re at. It is a path that understands that young people are going through great changes in life. They are struggling with their identities, not sure of who they are or who they should be. They are vulnerable to any number of influences. The question is, will we who believe in pluralism get to them first? Will we be willing to put our resources in service to this cause?
Patel’s book is a clarion call to action. As one wanders with him on his own journey of self-discovery, one is invited to look within to discern one’s own path of self-discovery. His book is a welcome contribution and perhaps is even prophetic. To conclude, this review, I turn to words found in his introduction:
“Pluralism is not a default position, an autopilot mode. Pluralism is an intentional commitment that is imprinted through action. It requires deliberate engagement with difference, outspoken loyalty to others, and proactive protection in the breach. You have to choose to step off the faith line onto the side of pluralism, and you have to make your voice heard. To follow Robert Frost, it is easy to see the death of pluralism in the fire of a suicide bombing. But the ice of silence will kill it just as well” (p. xix).
My hope is that as people read this book they will make the intentional commitment to engage in pluralism, and that we who are people of faith, who treasure our own faith traditions, will truly understand that if we are to survive, we must make this commitment to one another.