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How interfaith activism could change the world

The col­lege campus is the quin­tes­sen­tial set­ting for pro­moting reli­gious tol­er­ance and nur­turing inter­faith leaders, said Eboo Patel, Northeastern’s inau­gural inter­faith lead­er­ship fellow.

“Higher edu­ca­tion is the place where America throws its hardest prob­lems,” he explained in an hour­long lec­ture on Monday evening in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room. “If our col­lege cam­puses aren’t nur­turing a crit­ical mass of interfaith leaders, we simply for­feit the ter­ri­tory to people who would deal with it in an ugly and neg­a­tive way.”

Patel’s address, “Inter­faith Lead­er­ship in a Time of Global Reli­gious Con­flict,” kicked off the university’s cel­e­bra­tion of World Inter­faith Har­mony Week, a U.N. res­o­lu­tion aimed at pro­moting coop­er­a­tion and under­standing. It was co-​​sponsored by the Center for Spir­i­tu­ality, Dia­logue, and Ser­vice; the Office for Stu­dent Affairs; the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties; and the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center.

In his lec­ture, Patel focused on inter­faith activism on the col­lege campus. He praised Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to diver­sity and inclu­sion, saying, “the uni­ver­sity is a place where inter­faith lead­er­ship is flour­ishing,” and later chal­lenged the campus com­mu­nity to help trans­form the wide­spread belief that “vio­lence and con­flict is written into the DNA of world traditions.”

Named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel is the founder and pres­i­dent of Inter­faith Youth Core, a Chicago-​​based orga­ni­za­tion that seeks to build the inter­faith move­ment on col­lege cam­puses. He served on Pres­i­dent Obama’s inau­gural Advi­sory Council on Faith-​​based and Neigh­bor­hood Part­ner­ships and holds a doc­torate in the soci­ology of reli­gion from Oxford Uni­ver­sity, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.

In short, his body of work exem­pli­fies his com­mit­ment to building a cul­ture of inclu­sion, mutual respect, and under­standing across reli­gious traditions.

“Eboo is an expert on inter­faith part­ner­ship, an agent for pos­i­tive change in a dif­fi­cult world,” said Lori Lefkovitz, the Rud­erman Pro­fessor and director of the Jewish Studies pro­gram, who offered opening reflec­tions on the study of religion. “He’s a friend, an inspi­ra­tion, and a brother in this work,” added Alexander Lev­ering Kern, the exec­u­tive director of the CSDS.

Patel’s solu­tion to over­coming the fac­tious nature of reli­gion in the U.S.—the world’s most reli­gious indus­tri­al­ized nation—is to foster mean­ingful inter­faith part­ner­ships. “Do not define diver­sity as eating inter­esting ethnic foods alongside people you agree with,” he said. “Define diver­sity as working along­side people with whom you have pro­found dis­agree­ments on fun­da­mental matters.”

In the Q-​​and-​​A, Patel fielded ques­tions from a sec­ular humanist, a spir­i­tual adviser at North­eastern, and the pres­i­dent of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. The spir­i­tual adviser asked him for advice on expanding her inter­faith literacy.

“If I could inject one piece of inter­faith lit­eracy into everyone on the planet, it would be to find some­thing you admire about the tra­di­tions you dis­agree with,” Patel told her. “It could be some­thing about how they run their com­mu­nity or about the insti­tu­tions they build to serve the world.”

In addi­tion to his lec­ture, Patel’s two-​​day fel­low­ship included a Tuesday after­noon meeting with a score of stu­dent leaders, some of whom par­tic­i­pated in activ­i­ties at the IFYC Inter­faith Lead­er­ship Insti­tute last year.

One such stu­dent is Afif Rahman, S’14, co-​​president of Northeastern’s Islamic Society and member of the university’s Inter­faith Lead­er­ship Council. Tuesday’s meeting with Patel, he said, focused on the IFYC’s model for enhancing interfaith coop­er­a­tion, and has helped reshape the council’s imme­diate goals.

“I think it’s time to push our­selves fur­ther and see what other socially con­scious ini­tia­tives we could create for both North­eastern and the com­mu­nity,” Rahman said. “If we are aware of the role inter­faith coop­er­a­tion plays in solving religious con­flicts around the world, it will increase our urgency to come up with more programs.”

– By Jason Kornwitz

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