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University News

Muslim adviser to Obama urges interfaith cooperation

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

In his lecture Wednesday night, Eboo Patel urged interfaith cooperation and pluralism in America, especially in response to last summer’s tension between the Muslim and Christian faiths. Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago and was recently appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

He spoke to a half-filled but spirited crowd of students and community members in Salomon 101.

Patel’s lecture, titled “Acts of Faith: Interfaith Leadership at a Time of Global Religious Crisis,” was part of the Catalizing Conversations on Diversity series sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity.

Patel began his discussion with a description of the current rise of bigotry in America against Muslims. Today, “Muslims are afraid to be Muslims,” he said.

Following 9/11, the national debate about the planned interfaith center near Ground Zero and the recent controversy over a proposed Quran-burning in Florida, “forces of bigotry have built a hate machine for the past 10 years,” Patel said.

However, Patel added, the next 10 years will change.

Patel outlined steps that needed to be taken to cement interfaith cooperation in the United States.

He advocated for a new definition of “us and them.” Instead of making “us” one religious group and “them” another, “us” should be those who support pluralism, and “them” those who support extremism, he said.

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Patel reminded the audience that we can either “live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Patel also promoted making interfaith cooperation a social norm. Patel referenced the interfaith cooperation that arose as a response to the threat of Quran-burning in Florida. Leaders from all religions joined to denounce the burning, Patel said.

If we can make this response a social norm, like environmentalism or human rights, Patel said, we can defeat bigots by making them immediately marginalized.

Patel also encouraged believers of every faith to find the theological basis for interfaith cooperation in their religions.

He described an anecdote from his childhood in which he neglected a Jewish friend that had been bullied for his faith. When his father realized this, he told Patel that he had “failed as a Muslim.” His Muslim faith, Patel said, called for him to stand up for his Jewish friend and partake in interfaith cooperation.

Today, some Christian children are being taught that hatred towards Muslims is part of Christian theology, Patel said. These teachings are extremely detrimental to interfaith cooperation, he added.

“We need to give our kids the tools to positively engage in a world of theological diversity,” Patel said.

In order to further enact the movement to interfaith cooperation, Patel said, we need to understand the tradition of America as a pluralist nation.

Recent behavior would have been a “slap in the face on our founding fathers,” Patel said. “We cannot let America be defined” as only Christian, he added.

“American tradition is a tradition that speaks to pluralism,” Patel said. “The world needs to see from America that this model of pluralism can work.”

Patel urged members of different religions to find common ground in their theologies. He pointed to the golden rule and the cannon of mercy as two common points between various religions.

Patel closed his address by calling on Brown students to apply interfaith cooperation in the University and in the Providence community. If students do this, Patel said, they can become a model for interfaith cooperation for the nation.

“What better moment than now? What opportunity is more right?” Patel asked the crowd.

In the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked Patel about the recent controversy over the community center near Ground Zero and whether the mosque took into consideration the sensitivities of 9/11 victim’s families.

While he thought these sensitivities were important, Patel said, he thought that the sensitivities of families of Muslim victims were also important. These families should be able to go to the burial site of their loved ones with head scarves and walk a few blocks to pray without fear, Patel said.

Patel also added that the center would not be a “mega mosque” as extremists described, but would instead be “an institution that serves common good and is inspired by faith.”

He noted that the controversy over the mosque was not caused by the acquirement of the property near Ground Zero, but by extremist bloggers.

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