Eboo Patel on the Promise of Interfaith America

After an inflammatory video, anti-American protests are spreading around the world. In the midst of the tension, we talk with Muslim leader Eboo Patel, who argues Islam and America are mutually enriching and not mutually exclusive, on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Patel's book: Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

And then I got a call from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Born Mark Hanson, he had changed his name when he converted to Islam as a young man. Shaykh is a title—not unlike rabbi—bestowed on an individual deeply learned in the tradition. Shaykh Hamza earned it during his many years of Islamic study in West Africa, and since returning to the United States, had become the Muslim community’s most popular preacher and public intellectual. Tens of thousands of Muslims flock to attend his keynotes at conferences, eager to see a white man speaking perfect Arabic, eloquently holding forth on the harmonies between the glories of Islam and the promise of America, proving it by quoting the Qur’an and Bob Dylan with equal flow.
 
I was one of those admirers. I bought CDs of Shaykh Hamza’s teachings and watched his sermons online. Like Imam Feisal, he was one of those intellectual and spiritual lights who viewed Islam and America as mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive.  

 
I met Shaykh Hamza at a program of American Muslim leaders focused on bridging the divide between Islam and the West a few years after 9/11. My assigned seat was next to his. He spent the entire day whispering somewhat irreverent commentary on the whole affair to me under his breath. After that, Shaykh Hamza took me under his wing, introducing me to other Muslim scholars and vouching for me in more traditionalist circles. Occasionally, I’d get a phone call from him. It was always out of the blue, and it was always short. He would tell me what he had to tell me, usually about a book he thought I needed to read or a conference I had to attend, and then he’d say, “Salam alaykum” and hang up. This time, he wanted to talk about the madness surrounding Muslims in the summer of 2010. I expected him to be despairing or angry, like me. But to my surprise, he had a very different view.
 
“Eeebooooo,” he said in that unmistakable California drawl. “Salam alaykum. This is your brother Hamza. Ramadan Kareem.”
 
“Wa Alaykum As-Salam, Shaykh Hamza. Ramadan Kareem.”
 
“How are you doing?” he asked me.
 
Shaykh Hamza was never shy about offering his opinion if he thought something was going wrong, whether it was with his country or his religious community. I was happy to commiserate with him. “I’m angry, Shaykh Hamza,” I told him. “I’m angry at what they’re doing to Imam Feisal and Daisy. I don’t know what’s happening to my country. I feel like America wants to believe the worst things about Muslims, to fall for the ridiculous hatred of a handful of bigots.”
 
Nothing could have surprised me more than what Shaykh Hamza said next: “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. The traction they’re getting is only temporary. God bless Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal, they have helped lift up a national discussion we’ve needed to have. These are the moments that 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.”
 
Shaykh Hamza was telling me to believe in America and do my best work? What was he talking about? “Salam Alaykum,” I heard him say. And then click, he was gone.
 
 
This book began in that moment—in 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. It’s only when the poison of prejudice emerges out in the open that it can be confronted directly.
 
This book is about the promise of American pluralism. In his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” the great African American writer Ralph Ellison spoke on “The irrepressible movement of American culture towards integration of its most diverse elements continues, confounding the circumlocutions of its staunchest opponents.” That statement is true only because people have made it true. There are many times in American history when the staunch opponents of American pluralism have won the battle. They didn’t win the war because irrepressible people refused to forfeit their nation to these forces. Simply put, it is people who have protected the promise of pluralism from the poison of prejudice.
 
The first section of this book examines the battle over Cordoba House in the light of this history. Part of what gave Shaykh Hamza hope were the people who, at great risk to their own careers and reputations, came to the aid of Muslims in that dark hour. Yet part of what shocked me was the number of prominent figures only too happy to ride the wave of prejudice for personal gain. The first section profiles both types and traces a line from present times to past chapters in American history in which the forces of pluralism squared off against the forces of prejudice. Shaykh Hamza was right: Our nation was shaped by those battles.
 
Shaykh Hamza had told me to pray to God that I do my work well. His framing the challenge positively was a gesture of kindness. He could just as easily have pointed out that the Cordoba House episode showed that I had not done my work well enough. After all, the purpose of Interfaith Youth Core is to build understanding and cooperation between different faith communities. That went up in flames during the Cordoba House episode.
 
What does it mean to do interfaith work well? Frankly, that is a question I had rarely asked in the decade I’d been building Interfaith Youth Core. Moreover, it was a question I don’t remember hearing very often in the fifteen years I’d been involved in the broader interfaith movement. We were constantly congratulating each other for simply doing the work, and we were positively vain about how fast the movement was growing. Conversations about effectiveness were commonplace in other fields: education, poverty alleviation, environmentalism. They were virtually nonexistent in interfaith work. Had we done our work better, could we have prevented the Cordoba House madness? If we improve our effectiveness, could we at least mitigate the next anti-whoever round of bigotry? I think we can, and the second part of this book shows how. I believe that there is a science of interfaith cooperation and an art to interfaith leadership and that if we apply these intelligently to key sectors of American life—I write specifically about colleges, seminaries, and parenting in the final section—the promise of pluralism will be much more secure.
 
Was everyone who opposed Cordoba House an outright bigot? Of course not. I can count several dozen people I consider friends and colleagues who had questions about the project. While I disagreed with them on this matter, their integrity is unimpeachable. They are most certainly the furthest thing from bigots. There is a huge difference between saying that a Muslim YMCA is really a terrorist command center and asking a set of questions about what should be built near the site where three thousand people were burned alive by terrorists. So why was this particular project under the microscope for so many? My own sense is that a large number of Americans were made uneasy by a combination of the deep pain they still felt around 9/11 and a sense of discomfort with Islam and Muslims. The carnival atmosphere around Cordoba House only increased their unease. No doubt the clear and present forces of prejudice of the Pamela Geller variety exploited the discomfort, but the reason it existed in the first place is because the movement I belong to had failed to replace the image of Muslims as terrorists with that of Muslims as neighbors. “The first job of a leader is to define reality,” said Max DePree.12 Those of us in interfaith work let other leaders define America as a nation that ought to be suspicious of one of its religious communities. That tragedy should be felt far beyond the community of people who pray toward Mecca.
 
 

I profile many people in this book, but the main character is the one I love the most—America. You will see my weakness for her at every turn. She is the nation I belong to, believe in, seek to build up. She is the ultimate composite character, a character with a complex and inspiring past, a character whose future will be determined by the many characters who call her home.
 
The strangest part of the Cordoba House debate for me was the idea of sacred ground. The people opposed to Cordoba House insisted that the blocks around Ground Zero constituted a holy area. Those who believed Cordoba House ought to stay in Lower Manhattan liked to point to the nearby strip joint and off-track betting parlor and say that that patch of land is just like any other. “Why can’t you just move it ten or twenty blocks away?” a CNN anchor asked me on air at the height of the controversy. But that would still be sacred ground, I thought to myself. A hundred miles north, a thousand miles south, two thousand miles west—it’s all holy.
 
I believe every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. I believe we make it holy by who we welcome and by how we relate to each other. Call it my Muslim eyes on the American project. “We made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another,” says the Qur’an.13 There is no better place on earth than America to enact that vision. It is part of the definition of our nation. “I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools,” sang Walt Whitman.14
 
Pluralism is not a birthright in America; it’s a responsibility. Pluralism does not fall from the sky; it does not rise up from the ground. People have fought for pluralism. People have kept the promise. America is exceptional not because there is magic in our air but because there is fierce determination in our citizens. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote. Every generation has to affirm and extend the American promise.
 
When I think of that promise, I think of the Christmas pageant at the Catholic school on the North Side of Chicago where my firstborn started his education. The school is an American rainbow: African, Polish, Mexican, Croatian, Indian—you name it, it’s there. They are all gathered at the Christmas pageant. Ms. G’s three-year-olds are standing on the rickety stage, gleefully parading about in their Santa hats. Zayd is talking to his friend Lisa, the Chinese girl with the white mom and the Pakistani aunt. I am cooing in the ear of our newborn baby when the signal comes and the class starts in on their assigned song. It’s a little wobbly at first, but they catch the swing soon enough, and when they hit the chorus, I can’t help myself—I start to sing along. I love this melody; I love the sight of my sweet kid among all these other sweet kids. I’m remembering the sheer awe I felt on my first hike in a redwood forest, the adrenaline pumping through my veins when I hailed my first taxi on the New York island. My sons will make their own memories on this blessed patch of Earth. One day they will realize just what it means that this land is their land, and that they share it with 310 million others.
 
When Zayd was a baby and woke up crying in the middle of the night, I would walk up and down our hallway singing him this song. It was a long time when I last sang it, maybe fifth grade, but the words came back easy, like they were written on my heart. There at the Christmas pageant, with my kids and my countrymen, I am bursting with pride and love. This is the American shahada—a declaration of faith to our nation, and to each other.
 
In the following video, Patel discusses his book.