Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012
Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America is a book that came out of several events that caused Patel to spend time evaluating the work of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and it’s effectiveness. His argument is that by narrowing the focus of IFYC to young people, especially college-aged students, and teaching them to have an interfaith literacy and be interfaith leaders, our country will be a better place. This will result from the understanding that religious diversity is an asset and a strength. Patel believes that young people are in a good position to teach those in their communities how to see such diversity as necessary to our vitality as a nation.
Eboo Patel begins this book with an introduction in which he describes the realization that he needed to evaluate the InterFaith Youth Core and discern whether their work was proving successful. At the time, Patel was excited about the potential of a new Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Conservative Christians jumped on the story about the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and though this story faded, new Islamophobia developed. Patel wrote this book from these experiences. It’s three sections focus on the history of the event, interfaith work, and implementation at colleges, seminaries, and for parents.
The first section of the book explores national events that were occurring between 2009 and 2011 that made it clear that there is still a great amount of religious prejudice in the United States. The first chapter features stories of two New Yorkers—Fatima Shama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg—in their process of teaching and learning religious tolerance. Patel also explores the larger-picture history of religious tolerance and intolerance, and the need for communities to focus on the greater good in order to benefit all people and not just insular communities.
In the second chapter, Patel begins to more directly explore the intersection of faith and politics. He talks about Newt Gingrich originally being helpful to Muslim communities, but then giving into conservative Evangelicals in a time of political rebuilding and propagating fear of Islam. Patel begins to explore the irony of this religious intolerance due to the history of the fear of Catholics in the United States, Gingrich being a Catholic.
In the third chapter, Patel continues to explore the history of the fear of Catholicism promoted by American Evangelicals, looking specifically at the 1960 election and the significant concern over what might happen if a Catholic (such as John F. Kennedy) was elected president. Patel points to how 50 years later, you could replace “Catholic” with “Muslim” and many of the same fears would hold true. He explores how today, most people know someone who is Catholic, and points out how this has helped dissipate fears of a Catholic takeover, but since not as many people have a relationship with a Muslim, this could be a key to changing things.
In the second section of the book, Patel explores the process of creating measurable methods to evaluate how IFYC might be successfully creating change. In chapter 4, he discusses the idea that social capital has often come from insular groups, including faith communities, and identifies the need of building bridges between communities in ways that also contribute to social capital. Patel describes the triangle needed for interfaith literacy, of which the three sides are attitudes, relationships, and knowledge.
In the fifth chapter, he reflects on the work of the Dalai Lama, and a phrase Patel sometimes hears in his own work – that he is “preaching to the choir.” He reframes his understanding of this concept, realizing that one has to preach to the choir, but in such a way that they are being taught how to go out and teach the message; in this case one of interfaith literacy and the importance of forming relationships with those from different faith traditions than our own (including those of no faith tradition). Patel acknowledges that this work can be done by not only holy people like the Dalai Lama, but also by ordinary people.
In the third section of the book, Patel focuses on places of learning – colleges, seminaries, and the home. In Chapter 7, he explores his own college experience, during which multiculturalism had become a major national issue, but did not include religion as part of diversity. He also explores the need for interfaith work and relationships to develop not in spite of faith, but from a foundation of faith. In Chapter 8, he explores the need for seminarians to develop a theology of interfaith cooperation, and the need to not just study religions, but the faith of individuals. In his final chapter, Patel reflects on his new experiences as a parent in a pluralist world, and being confronted with how to raise Muslim children who attend a Catholic school and have friends from a variety of traditions. What he is learning is that despite his own anxieties, if he uses his sons’ experiences as opportunities to learn about their own faith, this pluralism can be enriching.
Eboo Patel grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as an Indian American. In his earlier auto-biographical book, Acts of Faith, he explores his relationship with his various identities during his youth and early adulthood, including how he has tried to distance himself from and reconciled with his faith and ethnicity at different times in his life. He founded the InterFaith Youth Core in 2002 when he was in his late-20s, and the organization grew and became seen as very successful. As the IFYC grew, Patel became a known figure and leader in Interfaith work, and does address in this book some of the ways that he allowed that to feed his ego. It was not until he began being asked about measures of effectiveness that he actually paused to examine whether or not the IFYC, his life’s work, was actually producing the results that they hoped to see. This book is a product of him examining some recent events that have occurred in the United States, such as the reaction to the “Ground Zero Mosque,” alongside his work to try to build bridges between different religious groups, and explores his ideas about how this can most effectively be done.
Speaking from his Muslim tradition, Eboo Patel is motivated by a kind of generous inter-religious dialogue that is inspired by the service, compassion, and mercy that so many religions highlight. Much of Patel’s work stems from the understanding that different faith traditions share many of these same core values. The work of IFYC is largely based around service-work and the idea of people from different religious traditions coming together around some type of service project. After serving together, they discuss how their faith motivates them to serve others, exploring the teachings that their tradition offers. Other shared religious values Patel highlights are compassion, the belief that we should be concerned about the well being of others, and mercy, a willingness to help other people who we may or may not see as deserving of help.
Another guiding principle is that faith, in any tradition, is typically passed on from parents to their children, as are attitudes regarding other faith traditions. Patel includes a chapter in this book specifically for parents, and how they might work to help their children develop an understanding of different faith traditions that also does not devalue their own faith tradition.
AIM OF BOOK
Ultimately, Patel hopes that this book will be a motivator for positive, interreligious connections. As he reflects on the continued prejudice, hateful language, and even religious violence that we see in our nation, he promotes a commitment to creating large-scale change, concluding that college-students are the key demographic who will help create this change. One aim of this book is to get others on board with this idea, helping them understand why this is the demographic he has chosen and the potential they have to create cultural change. Another aim is to empower the reader to work with and equip young people to be interfaith leaders. Patel uses this book to build support for the nation he believes it is possible for us to create together, in which a Muslim community center being built several blocks away from the World Trade Center would be cause for celebration and cross-religious community building, not fear and discrimination. Patel knows we all have a role to play, but aims to show how it is our nation’s young people who will lead the way toward creating that reality.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
One of the strengths of the book is Eboo Patel’s own background, allowing him to come to the issue as a progressive-leaning Muslim with a strong knowledge of Christianity. He is able to effectively share his own story and experiences as a minority while also pointing toward the larger trends that he sees. He also has a strong understanding of the development of college students, and knows how to work with them.
One potential flaw I found with the book is that Patel seems to assume knowledge of a few key terms and concepts, which he does not define until later in the book. For example, he uses the word “pluralism” frequently, but does not define how he is using it until page 71. Likewise, although IFYC espouses that in learning about the faith of others one often learns more about their own faith, he only explores this in the third part of the book, making it unclear until that point if others need to believe that other faiths are also correct to engage in interfaith dialogue. In the chapter on seminaries he only explores Christian seminaries, but it would have been interesting to hear about similar conversations from schools of other faith traditions.
Overall, this is a worthwhile read. The book will likely mean more to those who work with youth, college students, and young adults, than to the young people themselves. It is a book that campus ministers and chaplains should truly consider reading.