dr eboo patel spoke at the 2010 interfaith conference here in rochester last evening. my husband and i had been invited to his talk followed by a private dessert reception in order to meet him one on one. dr patel is the founder and executive director of the interfaith youth core and is a member of president obama’s new faith advisory council. i already knew him from some of his writing. i was excited.
dr patel spoke about his passion, his belief in interfaith. he is especially dedicated to the idea of creating interfaith leaders – young people who will take us into a future of pluralism and mutual respect. he listed 4 global trends which make interfaith leadership a priority:
1) religious revival throughout the world
2) youth bulge: most of the world’s population consists of young people
3) media ubiquity because of which people who are vastly different are now being flung together
4) global socio-economic breakdown which is creating high levels of unemployment/underemployment and frustration
the bad news, he said, was that those who have been able to recognize and exploit the energies b/w these trends are extremists – large numbers of young people are being mobilized by strong extremist movements that are sweeping the world.
however, the good news is that these extremist movements can be deconstructed and replaced with pluralistic social models. this is where young interfaith leaders come into the picture. they can transform religious diversity to plurality, not conflict. they can make a positive engagement with difference possible. since leaders define reality, it’s important to get the vision right. young interfaith leaders can be trained to use their knowledge base and vision to offer the world another paradigm. interfaith projects would be a big part of this new world-view, this new engagement.
throughtout his speech dr patel invoked martin luther king jr. he sees him as the ultimate blueprint for interfaith leadership. MLK was obviously inspired by his christian faith but also by gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in india. dietrich bonhoeffer, the lutheran pastor who stood up to the nazis and was involved in an assassination attempt on hitler, is also one of patel’s interfaith heroes.
altho patel reveres these larger-than-life, courageous men (MLK, gandhi, bonhoeffer), he fails to understand that their work was strongly anchored in politics. they weren’t just talking about plurality, they were demanding it by asking for justice and equal rights for all and they were willing to risk their lives for such radical demands. if these are the men we must be inspired by and emulate then we must be brave enough to engage in politics and ask for equal human rights for all. u cannot separate MLK from the civil rights movement or gandhi from the quit india movement. if this is what we require from interfaith leaders then how can we not talk about american wars and occupations, about guantanamo, about extrajudicial killings courtesy of drones?
in his speech patel made the argument that all extremists (whatever their religious denomination) belong to the same religion – the religion of extremism. during Q&A a couple of students revisited that concept. one of them asked patel to elaborate on what he meant by that and also if it wouldn’t be more appropriate to view such extremists not as belonging to a separate cult but as being part of the human race, like the rest of us. patel’s answer was quite definitive. he said that some people are enemies of pluralism and they need to be put away. as an example he cited someone who would throw acid in a little girl’s face because she went to school. u can’t talk to such people. they need to be destroyed.
i found it interesting that this example, altho horrific and certainly heinous, fits the american govt’s narrative of brutality and barbarism originating mainly in the third world. there is no context of how the brutalization of a society as a whole can affect its internal structure, family dynamics, or gender issues. there is no mention of secular barbarism such as the use of white phosphorous and depleted uranium on civilian populations. i read an interesting article where the author argued that the use of depleted uranium is in fact slow genocide on account of how it curtails the growth of “unwanted” populations. i longed for more context, for more balance, for more honesty, for more reality.
to me the entire premise of global conflicts stemming from “religious revival” is problematic. one of the students in the audience said as much. he asked patel to comment on how even tho people might use religion as a rallying cry, their struggles are about other political or socio-economic issues. patel never addressed that question.
what really put me off tho was that towards the end of his speech, patel raised obama to the level of MLK and gandhi, presenting him as the new interfaith global leader of our time. what gall i thought, how misguided. but then patel went further – he mentioned clinton, he mentioned tony blair. that was it. i told my husband we should leave and forgo the private dessert invitation with patel.
no, i’m not rancorous. i don’t hate eboo patel. he is young (still in his 30s) with an already impressive bio. he is good looking, immensely articulate and speaks beautifully – with a voice and cadence that are nothing short of mesmerizing. it’s impossible not to acknowledge the man – his calm, his knowledge, his seeming truth. frankly, he’s a lot like his boss, like mr obama. and their tragedy is also the same: with all their gifts, they’re still very much part of the system. they ain’t no MLK.
apr 12, 2010