Eboo Patel, a scholar and Muslim social activist, may be the kind of person who stands in the middle of an intersection, renames it a meeting point, and calls for a potluck supper on the spot.
Patel, 42, born in Mumbai, and reared from infancy in suburban Chicago, still remembers being bullied on the school playground as a “curry-maker” Muslim, yet feeling somewhat disconnected from his Islamic religion. But after college at the University of Illinois and a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, a visit to his grandmother in India was a turning point for Patel. She gave him a lifelong vision of what mercy means when he saw her shelter and support poor women fleeing domestic abuse. “I do it because I am Muslim. This is what Muslims do,” she told him.
He recalls, “I realized this is not just a religion of secret prayers apart from the rest of your life. It ought to be the inspiration for profound engagement with the rest of the world.”
Engage he has. Patel has devoted decades to an expansive and optimistic vision. He spells it out in his new book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity & the American Promise (Sept., Princeton University Press and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). He writes, it’s “a sacred duty” to work for a nation “where diverse identities are respected, where relationships are formed between communities, where promises are made to protect what is held in common.”
Now, as a married father of two and living in Chicago, Patel regards the hyphen in Muslim-American “as a bridge, not a separation.” He is not dissuaded by waves of Islamophobia or by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding limits on immigration that President Trump repeatedly touted as a “Muslim ban.”
Patel tells PW, “I play the long game. I am thinking more about 25 years, not 25 days, into the future, not worrying about a 24-hour news cycle.” To build toward that future, he founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 1998 to develop interfaith leadership on 500 college campuses, served as a faith adviser to President Obama, and has written about his Muslim-American life in books such as (Acts of Faith, 2007), on pluralism (Sacred Ground, 2012) and on Interfaith Leadership (2016) as well as in a blog, Conversations on Diversity.
Out of Many Faiths is the third book in an ongoing current affairs series of books by scholars addressing issues of diversity. Series editors Earl Lewis, president of the Organization of American historians and director of the Center for Social Solutions at University of Michigan, and Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers-University-Newark, say they had Patel in mind from the outset to do a religion book. Cantor calls Patel one of the central scholars working across generations and communities to face “the challenge we share out of many faiths to create a sense of mutual empathetic citizenship.”
Despite what Patel describes in the book as the fear-generating “Islamophobia industry,” he says in an interview he draws comfort from “founders and early giants of the American tradition of religious diversity.” He looks back to the example of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which responded to American anti-Semitism in the 1930s by constructing and promoting the idea that the nation stands on a “Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Patel says, “The NCCJ engaged the Trump racists of their time and won. We inherit that 1930s victory. Today, we have to ask what it means to write the next chapter in the great tradition of diversity,” one that stretches to include Islam and others. “The response to prejudice is not anger, it is a long-term vision, leading us to a place where all of us can thrive. We are a potluck nation and the only way we can feast is if we all contribute.”