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A Q&A with Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel

As the founder and president of Interfaith America, Eboo Patel is perhaps best positioned to advise future leaders, activists, and everyone who wants to make sure their actions have a positive impact. An American Muslim and the son of immigrants, Patel grew up in the Midwest and spent his formative years denouncing white supremacy and critiquing the system. A challenge by a mentor to build the change he wanted to see shifted his direction and approach to accomplishing change. As he writes in his latest book, “Uncompromising methods are not the only strategy for social change. There are moments for stridency and moments for melody.” Patel has spent the last twenty-five years constructing one of the most impressive civic institutions of our time. As an organization, Interfaith America is dedicated to engaging the great challenge and opportunity that is American religious diversity and moving the needle toward more widespread interfaith cooperation.

The product of his years spent creating alliances, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy lays out how to approach movement building with empathy and a new form of self-awareness—emphasizes the power of listening, learning from what you hear, and being unafraid of missteps in the journey towards collective growth. Beacon Press senior publicist Bev Rivero caught up with him to chat about it.

Bev Rivero: You have over twenty-five years of fieldwork experience, and in many ways, this latest book is a roadmap to navigating this work. What is one practical lesson you would like to see people who work in advocacy take from We Need to Build? And one for those who just want to make a difference?

Eboo Patel: Always remember: the goal is not a more ferocious revolution; the goal is a more beautiful social order. Those of us in advocacy have signed up to be the architects of a better society, not just tell other people what they are doing wrong. We need to defeat the things we do not love by building the things we do. What does a better school look like? What does a working grocery store in a food desert look like? A public health agency that takes care of the poorest and most marginalized? Let’s get busy building those things where they do not exist and running them well where they do exist. You can protest bad things out of existence, but if you want good things, you have to build those.

My advice to people just starting out: Be part of something positive that builds things up and brings people together. Become the assistant coach of a team, participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, help out at a community theater, tutor kids. And then think about how to start a team, or a theater, or a Habitat for Humanity program in a place that doesn’t have one and really needs it.

BR: As a Muslim American who has led a public life working for interfaith cooperation, what has been one of the most hopeful changes you have seen over the past years? How do you feel about the future of civic leadership and faith in progressive movements, and more broadly, in American culture?

EP: There are so many more Muslims who hold visible roles and are involved in public life now than there were ten or fifteen years ago. I love hearing the name Leila Fadel when I turn on NPR! There are two great Muslim foundations, Pillars and the El-Hibri Foundation, that fund great work. Zaytuna is an accredited Muslim college. There are a lot of Muslim American social entrepreneurs and a handful of remarkable Muslim civic organizations, like the Inner-City Muslim Action Network that proudly serves a much wider community than just Muslims. There are novelists like Ayad Akhtar and great nonfiction writers like Haroon Moghul.

This is all a part of the emergence of Interfaith America, which is both the name of the nonprofit institution I run and the era of American history that we are in—the chapter after ‘Judeo-Christian’. There is still Islamophobia and other forms of religious prejudice, of course, but I’m grateful that more and more people are recognizing the dangers such bigotry poses. We Muslims have to love Islam more than we hate Islamophobia. We have to be guided by the positive light of our faith, not driven by anger at those who are ignorant or even malicious. Overall, I’m quite hopeful.

BR: In your epilogue, which is a letter to your sons, you underscore: “I do not want you to feel like the only story to tell about your brown skin, ethnic heritage, and Muslim faith is a story of marginalization.” What advice would you give to those who feel challenged to look beyond the narratives of marginalization?

EP: The last time I called myself oppressed, I was in a taxi with my dad in the city of Bombay, India. I told him how marginalized I felt as an Indian American at Oxford (I was a graduate student there at the time), as if the British Empire were oppressing me the way it colonized our ancestors. My dad’s response was to point to a leprous child, missing one arm and sticking his other hand out asking us for pennies, and saying, “If you’re oppressed, what would you call him?” It was a humiliating moment for me. Because, of course, that beggar child and I do not at all occupy the same category. India is full of leprous beggar children. There are probably tens of millions of them. And I’ve traveled enough to have seen abject poverty in many other parts of the world: Nairobi, Casablanca, Johannesburg, Amman, Mexico City—hell, Chicago, Memphis, and Los Angeles.

The point is: we should not be in a conspiracy against our own agency. Yes, systems need to change, but it’s not like anybody reading this is totally helpless, at least not the way that beggar child is helpless. Half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day. We have a lot more power to improve our own lives than most people do. If you are physically healthy and college educated in America, you are one of the luckiest people in human history. Let’s embrace our privilege and ask ourselves what responsibility we have to help others. A responsibility that I believe includes building better institutions.

BR: In your chapter “Be Careful Turning Identity Categories into Ideological Categories,” you write: “Telling someone else who they are—or more accurately, who you want them to be—is the height of presumptuousness.” It often feels like there are a lot of pervasive assumptions about identity and experience made on behalf of others. How would you advise us to move out of that tendency either linguistically or in one’s own frame of reference?

EP: We have to remember that people are not like Russian nesting dolls. You can’t assume a person’s politics or aesthetic preferences or how they feel about the police simply from their race, gender, religion, or sexuality. All the survey data tells us that identity groups have profound internal ideological diversity.

Kwame Anthony Appiah had a great essay where he essentially said we need to stop using the formulation ‘As A’. That simple phrase can be highly dangerous when it is used as a way of positioning yourself as a spokesperson for a community of millions and millions, a community which almost certainly did not elect you to represent them. Furthermore, ‘As A’ and similar phrases can be a subtle way of creating a standard of authenticity—‘This is the right kind of politics for an immigrant to have, and if you feel a different way, you are not a real immigrant.’ I think all people, progressives especially, should have enough respect for other individuals to allow them to decide what’s the right way of being for themselves.

BR: People speak often about the best qualities a leader can have. What about the qualities that builders should seek to attain? Is there a difference?

EP: There are many types of leaders, and a builder is one type of leader. It’s the type that I happen to be. Builders create and operate institutions. I think the good society is defined, simply, as a society with a network of good institutions. To be the builder of one of those institutions, you need to have a vision for its purpose and function, a blueprint for how to build it, the ability to work with others to make it happen, and the skills to build yourself. In my book, I walk through the process of how we built the organization Interfaith America and highlight the leadership of many other builders as well, most notably Reverend Jen Bailey, who built the Faith Matters Network, and Jane Addams, the architect of Hull House.

BR: You’ve spoken about how even those on the margins of faith have a role in religious diversity, by building awareness about those around them, to best serve their needs, and work in cooperation with them. In some ways, We Need to Build reads like a vision for this to be applied to our cultural vision of democracy. What does this look like in practice?

EP: If you’re a doctor and you’re an apatheist—you don’t have a tradition yourself, and it’s not important to you—but you’re working with a Muslim who says, “I need to leave for ten minutes for the midafternoon prayer,” or you’re working with an Orthodox Jew who says, “I can’t eat anything unless it’s kosher,” or you’re working with a Hindu who says, “I can’t eat anything unless it’s vegetarian,” and you’re treating a Buddhist patient, to be good at your job, you need to have a radar screen for religious diversity. You need to make sure your colleagues can eat and pray. You need to make sure that your Buddhist patient’s religious convictions are being cared for. Diversity is not just the differences you like, or even the identities you think are important. Diversity is engaging the identities that other people think are important. This is what it means to live in Interfaith America. It is wonderful—and it is challenging!



About Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America, the largest organization engaging religious diversity in the United States. He is the author of five books on diversity and democracy, including We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, a regular contributor to the conversation on the role of religion in public life, and a frequent keynote speaker. He lives in Chicago with his wife Shehnaz and two sons. Follow him on Twitter (@EbooPatel).