Finding Common Ground at Ground Zero

Interfaith activist Eboo Patel on the Ground Zero Islamic Center controversy

People argue over proposed Muslim community center
People argue over proposed Muslim community center

A few months following the September 11 attacks in New York City, Eboo Patel—like countless other Americans—visited ground zero and prayed in memory of those who were murdered. Nearly a decade later Patel—a Muslim-American who is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) —now sees that prayerful moment through a different lens. “It’s a little bit shocking” he says “for me to think that my prayers, because they happen to be in Arabic, would have been unwelcome by some people.” His reconsideration of that memory was catalyzed by the current controversy surrounding the proposed construction of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

Patel’s interest in interfaith relations has its roots in his experience working and living at several Catholic Worker houses during his college years. He went on to obtain a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. Since then he founded IFYC, a Chicago-based institution dedicated to building the global interfaith youth movement. Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel is also a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as well as the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and a Washington Post blog “The Faith Divide.”

BH: What do you think Americans are missing regarding the discussion about religious moderates in Islam?

EP: Well, it’s not that moderate Islam doesn’t exist. Clearly, it does exist. But the previous big question was, Where are the moderate Muslims? — and that Islam is being defined as being inherently extremist. And that just seems to be wrong, inaccurate and totally dangerous. Why would you want to state outright that one and a half billion people on the planet are extremist enemies?

BH: Why do you think people project this sense of a unified whole on Islam?

EP: I think that people look at other religions through the lens of their own, which makes perfect sense, so you would say, where’s the Muslim pope, but there isn’t a Muslim pope.

There are actually many, many different Muslim communities, just as there are many different Catholic communities, and there are leaders in those communities, but there is no single unified figure, unlike Catholics have, for example. Unfortunately, some of the loudest voices within the world of Islam are extremist and hateful voices, and the rest of us, the vast majority of us, are constantly saying, “Those people do not represent us, and they don’t represent the tradition. In fact, they’re antithetical to the tradition.” But, you know, when you kill people and videotape the beheading, it seems too hard to resist for the media, so the media plays that videotaped beheading, and then a group of Muslim haters point at that videotape, and say, “See, that’s what all Muslims are like.”

[At a Catholic Worker House,] that was the first time that I saw this seamless garment of connection to this cosmic idea of good, and consistent application of that… So I basically explored a lot of religions and ultimately ended up coming back to the religion of my birth, which is Islam, but with the eyes of Dorothy Day, so to speak.

BH: Right after 9/11, I was very aware that many Muslim Americans took great pains to show their patriotism by having American flags in their places of business. I’m wondering if being a Muslim American is still a very conflicted existence in this day and age.

EP: Well, it’s clearly come back. There’s a group of people out there who think that Muslims can never be Americans, and that the principles of Islam are somehow in direct opposition to the principles of America. Frankly, it sounds a whole lot like people 80 years ago saying Catholics are papists and therefore can never be American. It literally mimics anti-Catholic bigotry up and down the line — which is a suggestion that the core tenets of Catholicism are somehow in opposition to the core tenets of the Constitution.

BH: I see some parallels between the Tea Party movement and the discussion of the Islamic center near ground zero in terms of a free-floating anger, anxiety and frustration. Do you have any sense of that?

EP: It would be my guess that there are some links, but I can’t say for sure. I do know that there is an industry of people that I would call Islamophobes. There’s an industry of people who have websites and books and speaking tours and campaigns whose purpose is to state that your American Muslim neighbor is your enemy. And with this Cordoba House issue, they have found an issue that resonates with a wider swath of the American public.

BH: The president has been pretty outspoken defending the right for this Islamic center to exist. Have his comments helped?

EP: I think that we expect American leaders to stand up for American’s highest principles. And I think that the president did that. I think that Mayor Bloomberg did that. I think that Jon Stewart’s done that. I think Fareed Zakaria has done that. I think Ted Olsen did that. There are a lot of righteous people, at great risk to themselves, who are saying, “Hey look, we don’t discriminate against people from other religions. In America, we are not going to be divided by faith. In America, there’s a place for everybody. In America, we are better together.”

I actually think this ugliness, this religious division and religious prejudice that we’re seeing right now is going to galvanize that other movement, and it’s going to make them say, “Wow, we ought to really prioritize our focus on interfaith cooperation.” It’s not just a nice marginal thing anymore. It’s now central and key. How do you combat religious divisions except with religious pluralism?

BH: It seems to be an opportunity for interfaith education. How do you think that could happen?

EP: I think it’s an opportunity for at least two types of education. One is that what this particular Muslim group is saying is that within the tradition of Islam, there’s an inspiration toward interfaith cooperation, and they want to start a center animated and inspired by their tradition that does the work of interfaith cooperation. And that’s an interesting question for all of us to ask about our own religions. I view Catholic universities in a very similar way. Within the Catholic tradition, there is an inspiration and an animation toward building an institution that would bring people from different backgrounds together in service and learning. And it’s great that we have a country that invites that type of contribution, in which Jews established hospitals based on the service and healing ethic within their religion, and the hospital obviously serves people from all different backgrounds. Catholics established universities for the same purpose. You know, what’s happening is, as there’s a critical mass of Muslims in America, Muslims don’t want to just establish their private institutions, mosques and schools that just continue the tradition of their own faith. They want to establish institutions that are animated by their traditions that serve the common good. And that’s what I think the big idea around Cordoba House is.

BH: In the United States there hasn’t been a groundswell in Muslim institutions, yet, like the ones you’re mentioning from other faith backgrounds.

EP: Muslim immigration really didn’t really begin in America in any significant way until after 1965. That was around the same time that you had larger numbers of African Americans converting to Islam so there just hasn’t been a critical mass of Muslims in America, and for enough of a length of time so to speak, for those institutions to be built. And they’re starting to be built now.