The Wheatley Institution

Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Religious Global Conflict

Eboo Patel
February 25, 2014

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Thank you I want to thank you for praying for me, for my expression. I will need that, for their understanding. For their understanding, depending on the quality of my expression, they will need that. Thank you for praying, for thanking God for the great weather; I left a city that was sixty degrees colder than this. I am heading to, of all places, Greenbay, Wisconscon on Thursday where it will be seventy five degrees colder than this. I did the ultimate wussy thing today as I said, “Are we canceling the event on Thursday?" They were like, “In Greenbay we don't cancel stuff unless it is negative 40." I'm thinking I'm going to be in Greenbay on Thursday. Anyway, pray for me there, please.

Several years ago, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote a book called The Mighty and the Almighty[1]. The big notion of the book is something that a visiting fellow and keynoter tomorrow, Doug Johnson, has been advancing for about 25 years was that religion matters in world affairs. The thing that struck me the most about that book was that when she was Secretary of State, she had literally armies of people that she could turn to when it came to non-proliferation issues, or economic issues. But there were barely a handful of people that she could turn to within the State Department or diplomatic circles in that state who were experts on religion or religious diversity. She had one of the best of the world in Doug Johnston, but there weren't that many, and there aren't that many, Doug Johnstons. Here is why that struck me: because secretary of State Albright wasn't calling for more programs or more money or even new bureaus. She was saying “I need people, I need leaders. If there is a central part of my talk tonight, it is going to be on what it means to be an interfaith leader. The identity category interfaith leader."

Let me say a few words about the power of an identity category. One of the identity categories that I kind of came of age with was the term or category, “social entrepreneur." Anybody heard that? It didn't exist 25 years ago or it was barely coming into parlance. Bill Dreighten in 1983 articulates the term social entrepreneur and says that the social entrepreneur is the animal who sees creative things in the civic or social world and builds reality to those ideas, changes patterns in the civic or social world. So, Jane Adams was a social entrepreneur, Florence Nightingale was a social entrepreneur. These are the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the social and civic world. When I first read that, it was in the work of David Bornstein and a friend of his is in the audience, he is the audience of the Deseret News. I thought to myself, “My Gosh, that's what I am!" I got no gift for making money, but I look at the social and civic worlds and think to myself, well, if we did this a little bit differently, if we tweaked that, this kind of institution is missing. And that term, that identity category, social entrepreneur, gave me a name to call myself. I have to tell you the first conversation didn't go over that great with my dad. I was like “Dad, I finally know what I'm going to be: a social entrepreneur." My dad was like, “

Plan A was Yale law school, we're sticking with plan A." But without that identity category, I, first of all, I had nothing to call myself, whether or not the term is impressive, I had no network to build. But once you start to use the term social entrepreneur, other people start to come around. Communities start to form, you start to build the knowledge base, you start to create a literature, you start to articulate a skill set. It finally occurred to me, things that we take for granted right now—the term “environmentalist,"[ for example]—at  one point it didn't exist. So that doesn't mean people didn't care about the earth, didn't think that it was precious and needed to be protected, it is just that they had nothing to call themselves. They had the energy running through their bones and their blood but they had no community, they had no knowledge base, they had no literature. There is no ability to articulate a skill set. Human rights activists, same thing. People have long believed in their hearts that every human being has dignity, and that governments, at the very least, cannot violate their dignity, and actually ought to defend and protect it, but until the term was articulated, human rights, human rights activist, no opportunity to form a community, to build a knowledge base, or articulate a skill set. Think of anything that you care about. Conservationist, civil rights worker, at some point, somebody gave it a name, gave flesh to those bones.

I want to do that tonight for interfaith leader, and I want to define it thus, “an interfaith leader is somebody with the framework, knowledgebase, and skill set to build understanding and cooperation between people who orient around religion differently." See, I went to grad school, right? A sentence-long paragraph. I'm going to say it again, “an interfaith leader is somebody who has the framework, knowledge base, and skill set to build understanding and cooperation between those who orient around religion differently." We can have a whole set of geeky conversations about what I mean, but that mouthful, “those who orient around religion differently," suffice it to say means everything from Muslims and Jews to internal divisions within Islam like Sufis and Salafis, to believers and non-believers, to the various political orientations within the Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical, whatever community. In other words, it means the variety of ways that people orient around religion, politically, socially, theologically, etcetera. Why does this matter now? I want to cite a modernity theorist named Peter Burger who is at Boston University. He says we live in the late modern age, the late 20th and early 21st century. He says the signal characteristic of the late modern age is interaction between people who are different. The world has always been diverse: it has never been this interactional. What that means is that, 500 years ago, there were Muslims and Jews and Christians and various stripes of Christians, but those people weren't bumping into each other all the time.

The creation of world cities, the advent of air travel, communications technology, migration flows, means that in the smallest town in America, if you tap somebody on the shoulder in the town square and say, “Tell me about a Muslim" they might never have met a Muslim, but chances are very high that they've heard stories, probably mediated through communications technology, and they will give you a pretty good description of what they know from those stories. Now, this means all sorts of things. First of all, it means that we moderns live a very complex psychological life. If the only people you meet are ones like you, you never have to ask yourself the question, “why do I do what I do?" If your whole world goes to church on Sunday, well, that's just what happens on Sundays. But as soon as a Muslim kid moves in or a Jewish kid moves in, or an atheist kid moves in, and goes to Jumaa on Fridays or to services on Saturday mornings, or doesn't go to church at all, all of a sudden, at least implicitly, you're asking yourself the question, well, if she doesn't go to church on Sunday, that means it's possible to not go to church on Sunday, which means, why do I go to church on Sundays?" We are constantly justifying our lives to ourselves all the time in the modern world. The second big question of course is how do you relate to people who are different from you? So, after you go through the psychological of why we should go to church on Sundays, the next question is, how do I deal with or treat the kid who doesn't go to church on Sundays? Our entire lives, Burger says, are defined by this set of processes. This is what characterizes the era in which we live. All of you grew up in an era in which you heard things like “diversity is our strength, diversity enriches us, we ought to celebrate diversity, etcetera." How many of you have? This is what you grew up with right? So, I'll take a sip of water before saying this. Baghdad is diverse. It is true. It is also a civil war. Belfast is diverse, it is also a barely cold conflict. Bombay is diverse. On a good day, things are ok. On a bad day, there is a bomb somewhere in that city, largely between people who orient around religion differently. Diversity is not necessarily a good thing. In many parts of the world, it's not a very good thing at all.

Harvard Scholar Diane Eck articulates this well when she says, look, diversity is simply a fact. It is a demographic reality; it is neither good nor bad. It is simply the fact of people with different identities living in close quarters with each other, interacting with each other. The question is: what do we do with that diversity? Diversity can just as easily become a civil war as it can become something beautiful and positive, the kind of thing that your elementary school wanted to think it was. What do we do with diversity? So, here is a challenging reality that sociologist at Harvard, Robert Putman, discovered when he ran a set of empirical studies on diversity. He found that diversity and social capital were actually inversely correlated. What does that mean? That's fancy grad school speak for, in diversities there is actually less trust. People report lower rates of volunteerism, lower rates of voting. Diversity, left to itself, often creates what Putnam calls “a hunkering down effect[2]." People feeling more isolated. The challenge there also is that it leaves a vacuum for extremist and divisive forces to begin playing in that terrain, hence, Bagdad. What do we do with diversity to turn it into something positive? This is what Diane Eck calls pluralism[3]. Our definition of pluralism at interfaith youth core has three parts. Pluralism is a situation where people's identities are respected, there are relationships between diverse communities, and there is a commitment to the common good. Here is another way of defining an interfaith leader: an interfaith leader can take religious diversity and build from it religious pluralism.

Let me emphasize again. Religious diversity can just as easily, if not more easily, turn into a conflict situation than a situation of pluralism. Let me encourage you to do an exercise. For the next week, read the international section of the New York Times, page A1 to A8, cut out the stories that have something to do with religion, put them in two piles, the ones that have to do with religion and conflict, and the ones that have to do with religion and something else. Then, see how much of the international section you have left and see which pile is higher and ask yourself the question, what is religious diversity most likely to lead to? And then ask yourself the question about the urgency of interfaith leadership. Frankly, interaction between people who orient around religion differently can turn into four things. It can turn into bubbles of isolation, harder and harder to continue in the modern world, to be a bubble of isolation, can turn into barriers of division where people emphasize their differences and divides with other people, it can turn into bombs of destruction, those of the extremist movements that you will see when you do your exercise in the New York Times, or, four, it can turn into bridges of cooperation. But here is the crazy obvious thing: bridges don't fall from the sky. They don't rise from the ground. People build them. You build them. Madeleine Albright circa 1996 was looking for people in the state department as she was dealing with the Balkans, as she was dealing with Northern Ireland, as she was dealing with the Middle East, as she was dealing with south Asia which came this close to a nuclear conflagration in the late 1990s. Averted, thank God, by the Clinton administration at the time. She was looking for people who could deal with the situations of religious diversity and make of them religious pluralism. This is, without a doubt, one of the great challenges of the 21st century.

I want to put this into two quick categories. One is emerged states or emerged democracies. I lived in Europe for three and a half years. Half the story in European domestic social politics was around religious diversity, largely the presence of a Muslim population. Even in emerged and established states, like the United States where, I would say, half of our domestic issues have significant religious implications and there are significant religious actors on multiple sides. How you deal with religious diversity in emerged and established democracies is a major issue. For the most part, blood doesn't flow in the streets as a result of these issues. We negotiate them through the political process. We hold protests which are guaranteed by free speech, we elect candidates, we support non-profit organizations that advocate for the causes we believe in, we take cases to the Supreme Court, but these are still some of the great issues of our time in these states, and in emerging democracies, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq. These are life and death issues, to the tune of 50, 60, 70 people a day dying because of that. Here is the issue in Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq, amongst other states. People looking at those who orient around religion differently from them, Iquani secular Muslims, in Egypt, Tajiki Muslims, and Pashtun Muslims in Afghanistan, Sunnis and Shiias and Kurds in Iraq, and they say “I will not share a society with you. I refuse to let the people you elect to govern me. I'll kill you instead." Anybody in this room who plans to have a career in an international aid organization or in the state department world, in any sort of world of defense, diplomacy, or development, better be able to deal with those issues because I don't see them going away until the end of the century.

What does it take to be an interfaith leader? What is the framework, the knowledge base and the skill set? I just want to say a couple of things about this tonight. Things that are frankly, informed by being here at Brigham Young University, a university that I have wanted to get to for very personal reasons which I'll share a little bit later, for really over twenty years. The first thing that I want to say is that I think it's important to have what I call a theology of interfaith cooperation. I'll tell you something, religious extremists have a theology. They can quote you chapter and verse why they have a gun to the head of somebody they think is praying the wrong way. Those of us who believe in a world in which religious divides are bridged and are committing ourselves to build those bridges, ought to be able to articulate our own theology or ethic, if you're a secular humanist and don't want to use the term theology, which I think is perfectly fine, some of the best interfaith leaders I know are secular humanists, the ability to articulate that theology. In other words, you are to your fellow Christians or Muslims or Jews, I am an interfaith leader, not in spite of being LDS but because I am LDS. It is encoded in the DNA of the tradition. What is your theology of interfaith cooperation? Ten years into this, when you realize, as the Buddhist poet, Gary Snyder said, that the most you can hope for is to move the world a millionth of an inch[4], and as smart as you are, and as beautiful as you are, and as talented as you are stuff is just not moving that much faster than a millionth of an inch. Every once in a while, I have to tell a really talented college graduate that what Bob Dylan sang the whole world's gonna be different when I paint my masterpiece, it was irony. You have to think that what you're doing has its effect now, God willing, in the long run, but also, that it's holy, that it's sacred. That it's deep in your bones. That it is how the universe or God, or whatever your cosmology might be, wants it to be. The work you ought to do. So what is your theology of interfaith cooperation? I started to ask myself this question, back in the Muslim sources and scriptures, and I found this story.

We Muslims believe that in the year 610 a merchant named Mohammad, who is known in the city of Mecca as Al Amin, the reliable, the trustworthy, made his annual pilgrimages to a cave on mount Hira in the month of Ramadan. On one of the last odd nights of the final ten days of that month, as he was praying and giving alms to the poor and fasting Muhammad was visited by an angel, angel Gabriel, and he felt this force squeeze him.The first thing the force says is iqra recite, and Mohammed says, I'm not a reciter. Then the second time, the force squeezes him and says recite! And Mohammed a second time says, I'm not a reciter, and the third time, Mohammed feels that the life is being squeezed out of him, and finally feels coming from his mouth the words, “recite in the name of your Lord who created, created human kind from a clot of blood." The first verse of the Koran.  He then went to the person he trusted and loved most in the world, his wife, for me that's a powerful example of the exalted role of women in Islam. And his wife Khadija hears the story and says to her husband, “I don't know what's happened to you, but I know that God has not forsaken you because you are too good and righteous and believing of a man for that to happen. I know somebody who can shed light on this. My uncle, Waraqa, is a man learned in the scriptures. I will go to him and tell him this story." So Khadija goes to her uncle Waraqa, sits before this man dressed in robes, Waraqa listens, nods his head, and says, “Verily, the prophet of your people has arrived." And the next time that he sees Mohammed passing through the square in Mecca in front of the Q'aba, he comes to him and looks him in the eye because he wants some of the nur of God, and he kisses him on the forehead and says, “You are the beginner of a new religious civilization." So, who was Waraqa? Who was the first person to recognize the prophet-hood of Mohammed? What does it mean to be learned in the scriptures in the early seventh century in the western half of the Arabian peninsula? Waraqa as a Christian: the first person to recognize the prophet-hood of Mohammed, the coming of a new religious civilization, was a Christian, a man who, indecently, never converts to Islam. That's the beginnings of my theology of interfaith cooperation.

I want to be clear about something. This is not proof-texting. This is identifying a deep logic in a tradition that says to you I am commanded, I am inspired, I am meant to be an interfaith leader. This is who I am, and what I do. I think, often times those moments for people come in a powerful, personal moment. I am geeky enough for it to come in part from a grad school moment. You know, late at night with Muslim sources. It also comes in deep personal moments. I think of one in particular. 1950, late winter, early spring, a young man college age, 20, 21, from deeply devout Baptist family in Atlanta Georgia, prince of the black church, daddy was a minister, granddaddy was a minster, great-granddaddy was a minister, he is now at seminary up north, and he goes to hear a sermon from the great black intellectual Mordecai Johnson on Christian love. Johnson was the present of Howard University and has recently been to India. And I keep on thinking to myself, what must have been going through young Martin Luther King junior's mind, sitting in the back of the lecture hall when he hears Mordecai Johnson give, as the embodiment of Christian love in that lecture, the example of a Hindu from India, Mahatma Gandhi. That's King's first interfaith moment. Recognizing that somehow Hinduism has created in Gandhi a Christ-like paragon of non-violence. Something that, frankly, rocks King's world up until that point, the Jesus ethic of non-violence as something that was relevant for personal relationships. Not something that you could run as a policy of the state, not something that was useful in international affairs, certainly not something one can consider doing in a social movement. But that night, at fellowship house in Philadelphia, the young student King begins to wonder to himself what can I as a future Christian preacher learn from the example of a Hindu from India? And I have his image of him back at Crozer Theological Seminary a stack of Christian books on his life, the Bible, and Tillich, and Neber, and Rosenbush, and on his right a stack of books, biographies of Gandhi. He is going back and forth between those, asking himself, what does it mean to be a Christian in the light of the knowledge of what Hinduism taught Gandhi about non-violence? Everybody knows what happens in 1955, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, a set of senior black leaders approach Martin Luther King Junior, 26 years old at the time and say to him that they want him to be president of the Montgomery improvement association and King thinks in the back of his mind, we are going to go Gandhi on this town. And for the next three hundred and eighty day–the next three hundred and eighty days–King leads the African Americans of Montgomery in a stunning set of peaceful marches and boycotts. By the way, the way that this history is taught in high school is Rosa Park's feet were tired, that Martin Luther King gave a couple of sermons, and then we elected Obama. Right? Three hundred and eighty days. I want you to think about walking to work for three hundred and eighty days.

One of the nights when King was preaching in a church, his friend Abernathy could see that there was something wrong and he calls him over and says, Ralph, what's going on? Abernathy says “your home has been firebombed." And King says, “Are Coretta and Yuki, the baby, ok?" Abernathy says, “We don't know." So they drive King to his home and he doesn't know if he is going to see his wife's corpse on the floor. That was the Montgomery bus boycott. And when it was over, and a journalist asked King “You know, honestly Dr. King, think about what a great sacrifice you had to endure for a small victory. I mean, you get to sit front to back on the busses of one provincial city in the American south. Aren't  you angry? Don't you seek revenge?" And King, through that reading of Gandhi, and the different kind of Christian he had become says, “This isn't the time for revenge. This is the time for reconciliation. This is the time for redemption. This is the time to build the beloved community."

Martin Luther King Junior was many things. He was, I think, the greatest American of the 20th century, he was a civil rights hero, he was an African American hero, he as a paragon of non-violence, but amongst all of those things, King was also an interfaith leader. In 1959 he preaches from his pulpit on palm Sunday, “Father, we call you this name. We Know some call you Allah, we know some call you Brahma, we know some call you Elohim, we know some call you the unmoved mover." That's the second to last line in that Palm Sunday sermon in 1959. The last line, “We open the doors of the church for those who would come to the front and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior." Martin Luther King Junior, deeply appreciating the religious traditions of other people, lifting up the holy names that other people call God, and knowing exactly who he is as a Baptist Christian. That's what an interfaith leader is. Someone with roots, and wings. Somebody with the theology or ethic of interfaith cooperation that says, I am a Muslim and it is precisely because I am a Muslim, or a Mormon, or a Jew, or a secular humanist, that I build bridges between people who orient around religion differently.

I want to tell two more stories. Here is the other thing we do with diversity. We pretend that diversity means interesting ethnic restaurants. What diversity really means is disagreements on fundamental matters, especially religious diversity. Religion, past hilik, is about ultimate concerns, fundamental things. Diversity is not about colorful people who all agree with you. Diversity is about profound disagreements. So if you were dealing with religious diversity and you encounter somebody who you disagree with on a massive issue like abortion, marriage, or where to draw the line in the Middle East, and you look aghast and you say, “I can't believe you see that differently!" you're in the wrong business. You can't have water without the wet. If you walk into a room and everybody there is eating interesting ethnic foods and is of a variety of colors and they all agree with you, it is an interesting space, it is not a diverse space. Dealing with religious diversity means being able to deal with people who disagree with you on fundamental matters. And how else do you have a diverse democracy unless people who disagree on fundamental matters are able also to work together on other things. And how else does that happen unless you have a vanguard of leaders who are creating spaces, who are articulating a language, who are employing a knowledge base, who are applying a skill set it takes a set of leaders to bring those folks into a room to recognize that they already have disagreements but to focus their attention on areas in which they can work together. Again, how else do you have a diverse democracy unless people are willing to do that, and unless you have leaders creating space for them to see those possibilities?

So here is my favorite story about this. One of my heroes and mentors is a woman named Ruth Messenger Ruth was the Manhattan borough president for many years in New York, ran against Giuliani for mayor, found her next vocation leading the American Jewish World service, and was encouraging to Interfaith Youth Core from the beginning. By the way, the people you will never forget are the once who believed in your crazy dreams when you were 19, and that was what Ruth Messenger was for me. So somebody in Interfaith Youth Core once asked her, “How did you start off as an interfaith leader? What got you into this?" Ruth tells the story that her first job after graduating from grad school happened to be for the state government in Western Oklahoma working for the foster care division. And her job was to find foster families, especially for orphans from Native American backgrounds. Now imagine, here is a Jewish New Yorker, working outside the home, working for the state government, graduate school educated, western Oklahoma. Just start imagining the differences and disagreements present in that situation. And the group of people that Ruth found who were most ready to immediately provide foster families for these kids who were languishing in orphanages were Southern Baptists in Western OklahomaAnd I think to myself, how many millions of disagreements must Ruth Messenger and those folks, especially the people in the pulpit, must have had. Early, mid-nineteen sixties, youth revolutions all over the place, revolutions that were not particularly looked upon kindly by those folks and Ruth Messenger and those preachers recognized their disagreements and decided to focus their energies on working together to provide foster families. I imagine that sitting in the back of those prayer gatherings and song circles and wood frame churches on Sundays, Ruth heard a lot of things that probably offended her. Welcome to the disagreements around religious diversity. And she kept her focus straight as an interfaith leader. How many thousands of kids have foster families as a result of Ruth and those Baptist preachers in Western Oklahoma deciding that they were going to build bridges instead of bubbles or barriers. That's interfaith leadership. Recognizing there is a wide swath of things on which you disagree, deciding to have the discipline to focus on areas of work together.

Here is my final story. It's a personal one, and I think that ultimately people come to this work out of some kind of a personal story. Maybe you've experienced religious discrimination, you saw a friend experience it and you were just like, "look, I just don't want that to happen to anybody else.“ Maybe like Martin Luther King Junior you have found somebody from a different religion that you admire deeply whose way of being Buddhist, or Hindu, or Mormon, has changed your way of being Jewish, or Muslim. So here is my story. When I was a junior in high school, I fell in love with a Mormon girl. And somehow God was working with me, and He encouraged my expressiveness, I don't know how well God did that tonight, but He did a good enough job of it when I was a junior in high school to convince one Lee Spence to begin to date me. And maybe a week into our relationship, Lee sat me down and she drew a stick figure of herself, and she drew a circle around about 85% of her body and she said, “everything that is in the circle is no-go." I was a 17 year old male, caught up in the various biological and culture processes of the time, and I looked at that circle, and I looked at Lee, first thing I thought was like, “is there any wiggle room here? Is that a dotted line?" It was not a dotted line. And it was my first experience of somebody willfully following a discipline based on a cosmic order and it was amongst the best things that has happened to me. To fall deeply in love at 15, and to be able to prosecute that love through dimensions other than the ones I might have chosen at that time. And the first time that I thought to myself that the cosmic order is what I wanted to be a part of and discipline is something that I wanted in my bones, and that it didn't actually, originally come from me, it came from elsewhere, and I wanted to align with elsewhere. And it is because of Lee Spence, a Mormon girl, that I met when I was 17 that I recommitted to Islam when I was 23, and I don't think I'd be a Muslim, or an interfaith leader, without her. Thank you.


[1] Albright, Madeleine Korbel., and William Woodward. The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

[2] Putnam, R. D. (2007), E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30: 137–174. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x

[3] Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.

[4] Mckenzie, James. "Moving the World a Millionth of an Inch: An Interview with Gary Snyder." The Beat Diary (1977): 140.

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