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Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel: A Review

By Paul Chaffee


With Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, Eboo Patel establishes himself as the preeminent voice of the interfaith movement. The book is about the “promise of American pluralism” because, “Simply put, it is people who have protected the promise of pluralism from the poison of prejudice.” Patel unabashedly notes that “the main character” in this book “is the one I love the most – America.”

Sacred Ground is a slim volume that serious interfaith students or practitioners will read, in part, for the fascinating territory it surveys: the history of religious bigotry in American politics, the sociology of nonprofits in the United States, and the “science of interfaith cooperation” and “religious diversity.” Eboo, who grew up Muslim in Chicago and did his doctorate in religion and sociology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, is well prepared for the issues. But this is not an academic tome.

At one level, it is a memoire picking up where Acts of Faith (2007) concluded. With more experience and growing wisdom, Sacred Ground is even better than its award-winning predecessor. Acts of Faith was a coming-of-age narrative. At its conclusion, the Interfaith Youth Core has become established and joined the challenge of working for a healthy, vital interfaith culture, starting with young people.

An artist’s rendering of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

An artist’s rendering of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

Then came Islamophobia, and then 9/11, and the realization that a burgeoning interfaith movement wasn’t keeping pace with an infestation of religious hatred and prejudice in our midst. Eboo was drawn to an interfaith bridge-building Muslim leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Rauf was dedicated to the idea of creating Cordoba House, not unlike the YMCA, “a place of peace, a place of services and solutions for the community.” But Pamela Geller, a “right wing blogger and well-known flamethrower,” heard that the new center would be close to Ground Zero. She screamed an alarm that went viral.

Before long Patel saw himself described on the internet as a “radical,” an “extremist,” and even a “terrorist.” It was unbelievable, a complete deceit, and made him furious. Then came a phone call from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a convert to Islam who is deeply respected in Muslim and interfaith circles around the world. Hamza has had a mentoring role with Eboo, who spilled out his bitter anger that day, only to be stunned by his friend’s response.

“That’s the wrong response, Eboo. You’re looking at this upside down. We Muslims have known these bigots have existed for a long time. Now the whole country knows… These are the moments change-agents yearn for, Eboo. Our country is molten and can be shaped. Ask Allah to help you do your work well. This is Ramadan, and our nation needs it.” Sacred Ground began with that conversation and the “realization that there is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under attack, that bigotry concealed doesn’t go away, it only festers underground.”

Subsequent lessons in the midst of ‘success’ were just as difficult. Patel became a spokesperson for the cause, won awards, and was growing a thriving organization. Yet in the midst of all this activity, he found himself flummoxed by the same question asked two different ways.

Christiane Amanpour, the distinguished international reporter, after acknowledging his tireless efforts, asked, “So, what has all your work done?” On another occasion, a major interfaith-friendly philanthropist had only one question. “How does the Interfaith Youth Core measure effectiveness?”

The solid core of Sacred Ground is how Patel answers these tough, transforming questions, not glibly or abstractly, but out of the day-to-day quest “to make religious pluralism a social norm within the course of a generation.” Answering the questions meant exploring the “science” of pluralism, strategies for being effective, the elements of interfaith literacy, and the requirements of interfaith leadership.

Best of all, this short book goes down like hot chocolate on a cold night. Eboo is a master story-teller, framing his heavy-duty agenda with his own personal story, full of passion, good humor, and a transparent vulnerability. The book concludes with a touching reflection on being the parent of an American Muslim child in these troubled times.

In a blurb on its book cover, Madeleine Albright suggests that “Sacred Ground is a refreshing, thought-provoking, myth-smashing, and deeply patriotic exploration of American identity and ideals.” Exactly, and a compelling read.