“Not All Based on Merit”: An Interview with Dr. Eboo Patel

 /  Oct. 14, 2018, 3:52 p.m.

Eboo Patel

Dr. Eboo Patel is the president and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm through programming on college campuses throughout the country. Patel received his Ph.D. from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and was a member of former president Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel is a member of the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam. He was a Winter Visiting Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Author's note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation I had with Eboo Patel while he was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics. Eboo happens to be my uncle who I connect with on a bimonthly basis. We habitually meet at the Medici in Hyde Park and discuss philosophical topics including religion, identity, power, and politics over turkey burgers and Mexicana milkshakes. Oftentimes, questions relating to personal fundamental values or core religious beliefs percolate through my mind after our conversations as I reconcile Eboo’s thoughts with what I learn in the classroom and from my peers.

When I heard that Eboo would be a Winter Visiting Fellow, I thought it was a good opportunity for us to have a deeper discussion through a formal interview in an academic setting on the topics that we grapple with during our dinners at the Med. The questions that I prepared before the conversation consider Eboo’s various identities, including his Ismaili, Muslim heritage: a historically persecuted sect of Shi’a Islam that has rapidly modernized and is led by the Aga Khan, a hereditary leader whose family lineage can be followed back to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Gate: What did you write your doctorate at Oxford on?

Patel: The specific topic I wrote on was how the Ismaili-Muslim community, the faith community to which we belong, adapted to modernity through a new set of education programs during the late twentieth century. It was a great opportunity to do that in part because I got to see three processes at once. The first is, of course, the process of modernization, which was done more through study than anything else. What happens when air travel, communication, a whole set of forces, bring people from different backgrounds into frequent contact? What are the implications of that? The second thing that I got to pay a lot of attention to is how a faith community holds on to its historic identity while not shying away from the forces of modernity. It attempts to affirm both its particularity and its relation to others. The third thing is the role that education plays in helping to shape identities and keeping people connected to their history while also widening their horizons in contemporary times. It was a terrific opportunity.

Gate: What does being an Ismaili American Muslim mean to you?

Patel: I realize, literally every day, just how deeply Ismaili I am. Why is that? I believe strongly in traditions but not especially in orthodoxies, and that is the Ismaili way—that there is a tradition, but it is internally flexible. There is much individual choice within that tradition. That means that there is a personal dimension to the faith, but also multiple acceptable ways of practicing the faith. The tradition adapts to time and place, which is to say that it seeks continuity but doesn’t get ossified into orthodoxy. My new way of thinking about the importance of traditions versus orthodoxies is Bob Dylan. In the early 1960's, folk music was ossifying into this orthodoxy of acoustic-ness above all else. During a tour of England, Bob Dylan comes out for his set with an electric guitar and the crowd is angry and someone yells out “Judas” (referring to Dylan as a traitor to the folk music movement) and Dylan responds, “I don't believe you, you’re a liar,” and he tells his band, “play f***ing loud,” and they go into “Like A Rolling Stone.” And I think that's Dylan putting the tradition of folk music over the orthodoxy. He was doing folk music in a different way, and he didn’t have time for someone narrowing him into orthodoxy. That's how I see the Ismaili tariqah [doctrine], as one that believes in a continuing tradition but eschews orthodoxy.

Another thing that makes me very, very deeply Ismaili is the belief in institutions. Our goal at IFYC, at the end of the day, is to build an institution in the world of education, particularly in how education shapes the identities of young people. Think about what the Aga Khan has done with the Aga Khan Academies in East Africa, with the Aga Khan University in Karachi, with the University of Central Asia. These are long-term institution building projects whose fruits you see, not in mass, obvious ways, but in incremental change over time. They focus on young people; they focus on a humanistic education and they focus on leadership. And I think it’s baked deeply into my bones that those things matter and that they take time and that it’s okay to give it that time.

Gate: What role does Islamophobia play in American society today, and has it changed since the start of the Trump Administration? Lately, Muslims like Hasan Minhaj have gained prominence on the national stage and attracted a large following. Are they the best ambassadors of Islam? Do you think they’ve managed to normalize Muslims in the media world?

Patel: I think it is among the most interesting dynamics right now, which is actually the subject of a chapter in a new book I wrote, called Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise [forthcoming from Princeton University Press]. One of the things that strikes me is that a relatively large number of “social Muslims” have come to the fore in American life. I would probably be considered a “social Muslim.” I am distinguishing “social Muslims” from “traditional Muslims,” and here's the distinction: What “social Muslims” do is interpret the Muslim social experience.

I’m not commenting on anyone’s piety, nor their closeness to God, or anything like that. The authority that I have when I speak is based on being a sociologist and founding a religious diversity organization. It's not based on my memorization of the Quran, it’s not based on my leading of prayers, it’s not based on any of those things. But for decades and decades, the discourse of and around Islam has only really happened in spaces of Muslim institutions that were built by “traditional Muslims.” So part of what's happening right now is that “traditional Muslims,” whose focus has been on the Muslim sacred tradition and whose authority derives from fluency of that tradition, suddenly have to deal with all these other people: Mona Eltahawy, Reza Aslan, and Hasan Minhaj, for example. All these people gain their authority from interpreting the Muslim social experience and marginalization.

I am fascinated by what that dynamic means with the emergence of “American Islam.” This similar dynamic has happened in a range of religious communities: American Catholicism, American Judaism, etc. I think that a fascinating fact of this is that Aziz Ansari wouldn’t be talking about being Muslim, if it wasn’t for Donald Trump. In other words, Islamophobia and the response to it by Muslims is shaping the Muslim community in the United States. I think that’s a fascinating dynamic. This is exactly what happened with Catholics in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States. Anti-Catholicism shaped the way Catholics engaged with each other and understood their faith. It's the same thing with Anti-Semitism in the United States. It’s not new, but it is interesting.

Gate: What is the status of the Muslim community in America today? Has progress been made between the community and the nation since divisions were sowed after 9/11?

Patel: On the surface level it’s bad, it’s ugly. I think that the fact that you have a president who is openly Islamophobic just makes it worse. There's no doubt about that and yet, on a deeper level, I see a different and more hopeful dynamic at play. Here's the example that I would give you for that. When Muhammad Ali died in June of 2016 during the Trump movement, he was publicly celebrated for his Muslim faith and his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War on the basis of his faith. His life was celebrated everywhere from major news networks to major sports networks: he basically got a state funeral. Two months later, who is the biggest star of the Democratic National Convention? It’s Khizr Khan. And what was Khizr Khan in part celebrated for? He was celebrated for the fact that he is a Muslim father whose son, Humayun, perished as a hero in the Iraq War.

What's the point that I'm making? That, deep in the American consciousness, you can make a hero of a man whose Muslim faith caused him to refuse to go to war, and you can make a hero of a man whose Muslim faith, at the very least, created a set of parameters that facilitated his service in a war. Any time a community within a society is allowed to be complex like that, it is approaching being accepted by the larger society. Ralph Ellison has a great line, “The irrepressible movement of American culture towards integration of its most diverse elements continues, confounding the circumlocutions of its staunchest opponents.” In other words, the way America works is that it widens to a variety of identities. It doesn’t mean that the process is easy; it doesn’t mean that there is not a lot of ugliness along the way. Part of the response to Donald Trump’s Islamophobia is this outpouring of open and welcome support for Muslims. Some of it I find quite ironic. I’m walking around the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, where I was for a conference at Seattle University. It’s a bohemian neighborhood where there are all sorts of coffee shops and gay bars and adult shops, and I see in the windows of these gay bars, signs that say “Immigrants and Muslims welcome.” I just have to laugh because that sticker is there as a recognition of the social marginalization of Muslims, but there are all kinds of traditional Muslim leaders that are like, “Wait a second—what do we do about the welcome that is offered based on social marginalization from groups we view as violating the tradition of Islam?” So I find all of these intricacies fascinating in America.

Gate: Can American society reconcile all questions about diverse cultures or are there incompatible aspects between some cultures and our society?

Patel: I don’t know if there are full-on incompatibilities, but there are fascinating tensions. I think that two of my favorite and most frequent lines on college campuses these days are, “Diversity is not just the differences you like,” and, “How do you have a healthy, diverse democracy with 330 million people?” Many people hold views whose expression is a violation of someone else’s. Just don’t expect it to be easy. There's another great line: “Diversity isn’t rocket science, it's harder.” That is the subject of a lot of my seminars here. Which is, when you’re dealing with diversity, expect to be dealing with differences you don’t like. It's just that simple. The most fascinating dynamics of a diverse democracy are the tensions.

Gate: How did IFYC become the largest interfaith organization in North America?

Patel: A lot of hard work, some amount of vision, and an awful lot of luck. I think there are two big things. The first is that corporate consultants assisted us with strategic planning. Very few nonprofits have good strategic plans, and we were helped by a pro bono McKinsey [& Company] team. The second is that you can’t be afraid of money. To build an organization takes serious money, and you shouldn't be afraid of that. If you want to build a serious organization, then you need to articulate a vision and gather the resources required to build the kind of institution that can achieve that vision. From my observations, many people in the world who start nonprofits are shy about the issue of serious money.

Gate: What were the events that led you to creating IFYC? Did anything in particular prompt you or motivate you?

Patel: The most important thing that led me to build IFYC was how involved I was with different identity and diversity conversations in college. As I came to recognize the importance of religious identity and religious diversity, both in my personal life and sociologically, it struck me that those perspectives were not a part of the diversity conversation in college. So, in many ways, what I have attempted to do is build an organization that would help create and shape rigorous, fascinating, and dynamic conversations on religious diversity in higher education.

Gate: What advice do you have for young leaders who want to tap into what you have previously termed “social capital” through interfaith work?

Patel: I would say to imagine yourself leading a disaster relief effort in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Consider the types of institutions that are most involved in disaster relief. They tend to be faith institutions. Ask yourself the questions: what knowledge and skills do you need to have to build civic networks: the soup kitchens, the shelters, the teams of people that are going out to check on elderly folks at homes, the neighborhood watch patrols? It is going to be faith communities who provide the social capital for those efforts. And diverse faith communities. What do you need to know, and what do you need to be able to do to work effectively with a diversity of faith communities after a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, and do you have that knowledge base and skill set?

Gate: What was your role as part of President Obama’s faith council?

Patel: The biggest thing that I did was help to shape the President's Interfaith Campus Challenge which I’m really proud of. It involved five hundred campuses and gathered leaders of higher education every September in Washington D.C. to have a conference on interfaith cooperation. It helped a whole set of campuses get their interfaith initiatives started. That was my contribution on the faith council, to get that launched.

Gate: Through which identities would you describe yourself?

Patel: Frankly, my principle identity is as an American. What I mean by that is that I believe in the American project; I believe in trying to build a nation that welcomes the identities of people from a range of backgrounds, that encourages them to express their identities in ways that are true to the particularities of that identity, but that reach out and serve others. I think that faith-based institutions like hospitals and colleges are the best examples of that. There are all of these Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist colleges and hospitals founded on the inspiration of a particular faith identity that serve the broader public. I think that is a very significant part of American civil society, and it’s something that we should be deeply proud of as Americans. If I were to design a society from the beginning, that dynamic would play a major role. What I am most proud of is our nation’s attempt to be a healthy, diverse democracy. This is really the world’s first attempt at a diverse democracy. There are of course mistakes aplenty along the way. From slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, through all forms of sexism and marginalization of minorities, I still think the American project is one worthy of redemption.

Gate: What were the questions of social justice that provoked you as a college student to get involved with activism on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

Patel: I would walk by homeless people on Green Street. And, of course, I have walked by homeless people before, but there is something about being seventeen years old on a college campus and walking by a homeless person and thinking to myself, “Why are you rattling pennies in a can on the street while I’m a student at this great university? What happened?” I got interested in this question, not only as one of scholarly inquiry, but also as a question of social justice and I think that the pattern of observing something in the world and asking questions and rigorously following those questions is what college is about. I've been lucky in my life to turn following those questions into a career. But frankly it starts with seeing homeless people on Green Street and thinking, “How did you get where you are versus how did I get where I am?” The answer to that is not all based on merit. It can't just be that I'm smart and worked hard. Other things happened.

Gate: What made you want to enter interfaith work?

Patel: I was involved in all these diversity conversations in college, yet very few of them had to do with religious identity and diversity. I took a personal interest in religious identity in diversity, and it’s like my own little secret. I’m reading Dorothy Day and going to Catholic worker houses and looking at the religious dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. and I was finally like, “Why isn't this conversation in my head connecting with the campus diversity conversation?” So that's where it started for me. I also have this mentor named Brother Wayne Teasdale who involved me with the broader interfaith movement. I went to all of these conferences and thought to myself, “Why aren't there any young people at these conferences? Why isn't there more social action?” Again, it's observing something, forming it into a question, pursuing that question, and trying to create some kind of concrete expression or institutional manifestation of that. For the last eighteen years, it’s been the organization that is now IFYC.

Gate: Who are some faith leaders who inspired you to enter your current line of work?

Patel: Dorothy Day was hugely important to me. Dale White who founded the Wilgespruit Fellowship Center in Johannesburg, South Africa. Of course I admire the King’s and the Gandhi’s and Mandela’s of the world, and I’ve read plenty of their work. Jane Addams is another big influence of mine. People who saw a problem in a society, saw a vision of a solution, and built an institution over a period of time to make that solution manifest from Bill Drayton of Ashoka to the Aga Khan. Those tend to be my heroes. I have a lot of respect for people who quietly and behind the scenes go about the work of institution building without being in cable news fights all the time. Geoffrey Canada who built the Harlem Children's Zone. Wendy Kopp of Teach For America. Really a number of these people have gotten significant public attention but having known some of these leaders, its by happenstance, not because these leaders particularly sought it.

Gate: As a Chicago native, where have you found inspiration in the Chicagoland area for the work that you do?

Patel: If I had to name one American hero, it would be Jane Addams and the Hull House. My friend Rami Nashashibi, who built IMAN, the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, is hugely inspiring to me. When I first came back to Chicago from Oxford, I was selected to do the Muslim prayer at the mayor's prayer breakfast. And I'm like twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, and I'm sitting at the table with the mayor. Mayor Daley took an interest in me and then starts to talk to me, and I tell him about Interfaith Youth Core and I ask him for a meeting, and he grants me a meeting. I'm this twenty-seven-year-old kid who has this new idea for a nonprofit—I can’t rub two pennies together at this point—and here's the mayor of Chicago taking a meeting with me. It’s a very Chicago thing that the mayor of this city was accessible enough to take interest in a young guy starting a non-profit organization. Community organizing launches in Chicago, Barack Obama gets his start in Chicago. I very much feel like it’s part of the ecosystem in this city. Lots of interesting, new things have started here. From reversing the flow of the river to Sears Tower.

Gate: You’ve written four books on interfaith leadership and the work you’ve done in the field. If you had to write a book on any unrelated subject, what would it be?

Patel: Probably on education. Probably on identity, democracy, and education.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license. The original was taken by Steve Morgan and can be found here.

Zubair Merchant


<script type="text/javascript" src="//downloads.mailchimp.com/js/signup-forms/popup/embed.js" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"mc.us12.list-manage.com","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>