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The Shifting Terrain of Interfaith Relationship

A TIO Interview with Eboo Patel


TIO: As a second-generation American Muslim, raised in Chicago, with a doctorate from Oxford, you are an examplar of meeting the challenge of growing up in one culture and navigating the culture we share today. Your books unpack the complexities of ‘growing up Muslim in America’ beautifully, vividly. And today you relate to thousands of young people in American universities and colleges, coming into constant contact with second-generation religious minorities. Could you share the biggest challenges they face collectively?

Eboo Patel: In my book, Acts of Faith, I call this the challenge of standing at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery and trying to look both ways at once. The question is, How do you identify shared values or resonances between different cultures and find the dimensions of the various traditions you belong to as mutually enriching instead of mutually exclusive?

TIO: In what sense is the second-generation challenge an intrafaith as well as interfaith quest?

EP: When we say interfaith or religious diversity these days, it cannot only mean Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and the other ‘major’ religions. In other words, the Will Herberg ‘Protestant, Catholic, Jew’ paradigm was useful for the 1950s when it was created. It was certainly an improvement from the idea of America as only a Protestant or only a Christian nation. But religious diversity today is dramatically more complex than the presence of so called historical religious communities in one country.

It also has to include the various ways people affiliate vis-a-vis religion, meaning including secular humanist, agnostic, and spiritual seekers. It has to include, as your question suggests, different theological and doctrinal aspects within traditions – Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Evangelical, Theravada and Mahayana. And finally, it has to take into account intersecting identities, how religion intersects with other identities like race, class, sex, and gender. This is all to say that an interfaith leader’s radar screen for religious diversity has to register far more than just Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.

TIO: Are there ‘signs,’ signals that a person is successfully managing the cultural synthesis, or is that too simplistic? What special gifts do second-gens bring to the interfaith culture at large?

EP: I think we see this profoundly in the arts. We see this in how hip-hop and bhangra combine to form something extremely interesting and vibrant. These are examples of second and third generations meeting each other in cross-cultural spaces and developing a vocabulary that integrates the various dimensions of those spaces.

TIO: Finally, given the times, how should religious communities respond to the romantic seduction of young people tempted to fight and kill for their cause?

I write about this also in my book, about how religious extremists’ movements are exceptional youth organizers. Part of what makes them exceptional at this is that they tell a story that puts young people in a position of power. Interfaith movements need to come up with something better for young people to do than design the t-shirt for an annual convention. We need to be able to articulate a narrative that says to young people that the choices you make and the things that you do will make a profound impact in the world, and we trust you to do that.