An Interview with Eboo Patel
Todd Green conducted the following interview with Eboo Patel on August 7, 2014.
1. Why do many non-Muslims in the West have such strong feelings about Islam even though they know very little about Islam?
I think the easy answer is what you know about something defines your view of that something. I gave a talk in Kansas City some years ago, and somebody stood up and said, “What the heck is wrong with you Muslims?” My response was that if the only thing that I knew about Kansas City was the first minute of the local news every night, I would say, “What the heck is wrong with you people in Kansas City?” If the only thing I know is the murders and rapes I hear about on the evening news, then I have a very skewed view of who you are.
There is a reasonable explanation for why many people fear Muslims and Islam. It’s because their knowledge base is both narrow and deep. The narrowness is the bad stuff, and the depth is the bad stuff that they hear or read about day after day.
2. What is the best way to address the media’s negative portrayal of Islam?
Here’s the deal. There are Muslims in the world who are doing terrible things. We now know that the reason that the media is getting hold of those things is because those Muslims want the media to do it. Why do extremist Muslims videotape suicide bombings? Not only are they committing a horrific act, they are doing a video of it precisely because their goal is to create that view of Islam; creating that view of Islam tempts other people to think that there is a clash of civilizations going on.
The point that I’m making is that the things that the media reports actually happen, and the people who make those things happen have an agenda that the media also reports. There are plenty of people doing charitable things in the world who don’t send videos of their generous deeds to CNN, but many Muslim extremists do.
One of the things I write about in Sacred Ground is two major religion media stories of 2000 and 2010 – Muslim extremism and Catholic pedophilia. Why in the massive Faith Matters survey of 2006 and 2007 were Catholics rated the most favorably viewed religious community in America, similar to Jews and mainline Protestants? That’s stunning given what was in the news about Catholicism in that time concerning pedophilia and the Vatican’s intransigence, and frankly an unpopular pope. But Americans still held very favorable views of Catholics. Why is that? It’s because people had positive relationships with Catholics. It’s really that simple, and the social science data bears that out. Personal relationships with people trump media images. Basically what the human mind does is to say that the pedophile priest is not representative of Catholicism, because my friend Bobby is a Catholic, and most Catholics have to be like my friend Bobby.
Of course, Muslims don’t think Muslim extremists represent Islam. We know a whole lot more about Islam and Muslims, so we look at the suicide bomber on TV as an extremist. We contextualize that person in the breadth of our knowledge, but this is what is missing among the non-Muslim majority.
3. What is the one thing you wish more people in the West know about Islam?
I want people to know that Muhammad Ali is a Muslim. Here’s why I say that. I think the way the human brain works is it doesn’t have a primary relationship with abstract ideas but with people that we admire. To take people that are broadly admired for athletic prowess or personal integrity, and to lift up a dimension of their being that is central to who they are but is not often thought about – this changes people’s perspectives. There’s lots of examples of this, such as Sandy Koufax and Judaism. A group is viewed very negatively, then there is somebody on the pantheon – in athletics, in the arts, in politics – who becomes broadly admired, and it comes out that this person is part of a group that is viewed negatively. So it’s most important to me that people know that Muhammad Ali, Dave Chappelle, Mos Def – people who are broadly admired – are also Muslim.
4. What can Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
I have a great example of this. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is somebody I admire, someone I’m friends with, someone who is a mentor to me. He is probably the most widely known Muslim preacher in America, maybe in the Western Hemisphere. He tells this story of scolding Muslims for not being more involved in American society. After 9/11, when many Muslim scholars and imams were telling their congregations that you ought to smile more, well think about the white Methodist neighbor who looks over the fence one day and thinks, “Oh look, Abdul has teeth. You never smiled for twenty years, now all of the sudden it’s 2002, and you’re smiling because you think you’ve got to be a good neighbor. But dude you should have been smiling for the last twenty years.”
It is a part of American citizenship and Islam that you are positively disposed to basic community affairs, and that means everything from smiling at your neighbor to being involved in the PTA to coaching Little League. If you are going to be a beneficiary of American society, everything from its good roads to its civil rights laws to its Little Leagues and PTAs, you ought to contribute. Now there are folks who don’t participate actively, like the Amish, but you ought to make a decision. Are you going to make that radical of a decision? There are a variety of ways of understanding Islam. One is contributing to a community that is diverse, another is secluding yourself. But to the extent that you are a part of a diverse society, you have a responsibility to be a part of it. If you benefit from it, you have to contribute to it.
5. What can non-Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
Let’s take two groups. Let’s take a group of people who don’t know that many Muslims and who don’t not have much knowledge of Islam, but their hearts are in the right place. The second group is people who know a lot about Islam. So here is the one thing I would say that is common to both. Do not castigate your run-of-the-mill Islamophobe. Castigate the Islamophobe who knows what they are doing. Castigate Pam Geller, David Horowitz, and others who are playing Wizard of Oz and who are creating Islamophobia. But your run-of-the-mill person who reads the newspaper, watches the news, has a kid who served in Iraq – they are making reasonable judgments based off their knowledge base. It serves no purpose to call them racist.
To the novice group, I would say to be proactive in your engagement vis-à-vis both Islam and Muslims. What are the things that you genuinely find beautiful in Islam? Don’t just learn the Five Pillars. What is it about the Shahada that you find beautiful? What is it about zakat that you find beautiful? Don’t be afraid of sounding naïve. Learn things that you appreciate, and be positively curious.
What I would say to the expert group is be strategic about how prejudices are formed and dismantled. I’ve heard a hundred anti-Islamophobia speeches that amount to scolding some people in the audience. But nobody changes by being scolded. People change when they are introduced to beauty, or when they are introduced to people they admire. You’re not any better than the people on the other side of the desk. You just happen to have a broader set of reference points when it comes to Islam and Muslims. My bet is those people on the other side of the desk have a broader set of reference points when it comes to a bunch of other things that you have prejudices about. Maybe it’s the military, maybe they know a hundred people in the military and you don’t know anybody. Right? Your job is to preach to the choir who is in the room, and what I mean by that is to sing a song that those who harbor anti-Muslim prejudice are going to find beautiful. Your job is not to scold them for being out of tune. Your job is to teach them a song they’re going to find beautiful.
6. Are you hopeful that Muslims will face less discrimination and hostility in a generation from now?
There are two things I’m relatively sure of, one is good and one is not so good. I don’t how these two things intersect. First, I do not think the news about the Muslim-majority world is going to get better. I think that many parts of the Muslim-majority world are going to be in some version of a civil war for the next thirty years. The reasons for this are many. Theology is one. Land is another. How much of that civil war is going to affect people on the outside, I don’t know.
Here’s the second thing I’m pretty sure of. People in the West will come into contact with Muslims that they know and admire more and more on a regular basis. That’s just how diverse societies work.
It would be great if these two things interacted in a way similar to Catholicism – that is, the news might be terrible, but my civic relationships are with people who are different and they probably represent the majority of the tradition. That would be a good thing. Of course, there are some differences when making this comparison to Catholicism. For one, Catholics are Christian, and Catholics are 25 percent of American society, third, Catholics have massive institutions that serve other people: hospitals, schools, etc. The chances of you running into a Catholic and forging a relationship are pretty high. The chances of you benefitting from a Catholic civic institution that has helped you or your family are pretty high.
Muslims in America are 1-2 percent of the population. Muslims in France or England are 5-10 percent of the population. Muslims are in a very different social stratum, especially in Europe. The chances of you having a Muslim doctor here in the U.S. are relatively high. The chances of you running into a Muslim in France or England whose views and actions in the world are different than your own are very high. I think that there’s a difference between Europe and the United States because of issues related to class and education. But what I don’t know is how the relationships that people have with Muslims living in the West is going to interact with how the West views Islam in light of the civil wars taking place in the Muslim majority world.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based organization devoted to interfaith work and partnerships among young adults. He is the author of two books: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon 2007), which won the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2010, and Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon 2012). He has served on the Faith-Based Advisory Council for the US Department of Homeland Security and on President Obama’s Advisory Council for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. US News & World Report named him one of America’s Best Leaders in 2009.