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Eboo Patel visit creates dialogue around religious diversity

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On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.

In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.

“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”

Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.

“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”

Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County.  They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.

“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.

When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.

“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”

According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.

“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.

During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.

“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”

Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.

“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”

Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.

“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”

Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.

“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.

Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.

Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.

“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”

Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.

“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”


According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.

“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”

According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.

“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”

De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.

“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”

Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.

“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”

For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the  success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.

“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”

President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.

“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.

Battling Islamophobia, at Swat and beyond

in Columns/Opinions by

On Thanksgiving day, a taxi driver in Pittsburgh was shot in the back by his passenger because he was Muslim. For some years now, Islamophobic sentiment has been on the rise in the US. Following the Paris attacks just over two weeks ago, it has become clear that there exists what is essentially an industry of Islamophobia that is continuously gaining legitimacy. It leaves me deeply disturbed to see so many lives lost and a nation thrown into grief and turmoil at the hands of utterly senseless violence, as I’m sure it would any thinking, feeling individual.

More specifically, as a Muslim, it breaks my heart to see my religion being so grossly misrepresented by the perpetrators of such acts. What I find especially infuriating, and frankly quite frightening, is the willingness with which so many Americans blur, and often entirely erase, the distinction between ordinary Muslims and the extremist fringe. In my view, the actions carried out by these extremists are so far removed from the tenets and essence of Islam that they cannot even be considered Muslims in the true sense. And from my own experience and extensive interaction with other Muslims, I can guarantee that I am not alone in my beliefs. Those who claim that Islam promotes violence do themselves, and the rest of us, a great disservice. Such people possess neither any substantial insight nor a genuine desire to better inform themselves. By conveniently oversimplifying the issue, they merely end up generating more hate and playing right into the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS, whose express aim it is to make life unbearable for Muslims in the West.

My faith is a core part of my identity — it is something that has given me direction, support, and a sense of peace that is all-encompassing and beautifully overwhelming. In other words, my experience of Islam is diametrically opposed to the image of Islam put forth by extremists and mainstream media alike. The former manipulate Islamic teachings to aid their social and political agendas, and the latter have made it their job to further propagate misconceptions by means of clear biases, exaggeration, and selective reporting. The numbers speak for themselves; Muslims make up approximately 0.9 percent of the American population. It is inconceivable that such a small minority could pose such huge danger to the rest of the population, and yet we see a considerable amount of energy being channeled into combating the so-called Muslim ‘threat’.  There have been numerous revenge attacks on Muslims in the US in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. But what is perhaps more troubling than these incidents is the stance many politicians have chosen to adopt. More than half the nation’s governors have stated their aim to refuse, or at least make very difficult, the settlement of Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz, a Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election, has recommended that while Christian refugees should be allowed into the States, the same opportunity should not be extended to Muslims. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is in favor of closing down mosques and making it mandatory for Muslims to carry special identification cards that note their faith. Ben Carson, another Republican candidate, believes that a Muslim would be fit to be president of the United States only if he or she was to “reject the tenets of Islam”. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture. It has become acceptable to hate Muslims, and to try and pretend otherwise would be to tell a blatant lie.

Being at Swarthmore, I am lucky not to have encountered the kind of racist discrimination embodied by these statements. I don’t doubt that there may be some people on this campus who also subscribe to such views, but I have never had a negative experience. I am in an insulated, protected space; clearly, Swarthmore is not a representative sample of the US population at large. It is scary even to place myself in the shoes of the countless Muslims in America who are not part of such a safe and accepting environment. At any rate, it is unlikely that I will settle here in the long term; my problem is a somewhat temporary one. On the other hand, I can only imagine the challenge faced by Muslims who call America home. It must be incredibly difficult to have to reconcile two crucial parts of one’s identity, when those parts are so often forced to be at odds with one another.

If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t be able to immediately tell that I’m Muslim. But ask me a few questions, and it wouldn’t be long before you know. And then what? No one should ever have to feel the need to hide parts of their identity. I refuse to feel that way, and I refuse to be told what my religious identity means by someone who has absolutely no connection to it. I’m still waiting for the day that I’m not ‘randomly’ selected for a security check when flying into the US. Maybe I’m waiting in vain, and maybe I’m being naïve, but I believe it has to get worse before it gets better. And because we as Swatties know better, I think it is our job to make the necessary change, to stop sitting on the sidelines, to stand up and speak out.

After Chapel Hill, conflating anti-theism and atheism

in Nothing to Declare by

One week ago, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man named Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three of his neighbors in a condominium parking lot. While many people insist that this was simply a dispute over parking that ended in unnecessary violence, there’s are also people who insist that this was a religious hate crime, as his victims were observant Muslims while Hicks was an atheist. While the idea that a Muslim family would be the target of a religiously motivated hate crime in Bible Belt North Carolina is sadly not all that surprising, the one confounding element is that Hicks, as an atheist, was not the person anyone would expect to be the perpetrator of that kind of crime.

Because he was overtly irreligious himself, many people don’t know how to talk about what happened. I’m against the idea that this should be a “wake up call” for atheists, as some articles on the topic have been stating. Whatever that “wake up call” would entail, I genuinely have no idea. Atheism isn’t really something that has a concrete community or ideals and dogma behind it the way religion does—it’s simply not believing something—and I personally don’t think it should be. In the religious South, the idea of an atheist community is more plausible, but I don’t know if sharing atheistic posts on Facebook really qualifies a man as being a part of it. Even so, the more notable and outspoken atheists have gone on the record condemning this action. While I don’t think they should have had to do that, atheists are still the least trusted group of people in America, even behind Muslims, so this mass condemning of the shooting comes across more as a way for an already disliked group to keep afloat during this rough period.

I’m not sure if this was a hate crime, and I don’t think anyone will ever be sure. Islamophobia is not an isolated incident in America by any means, but, then again, neither are parking disputes that end in people dying. They’re a surprisingly and sadly common occurrence in this country. Either explanation, in that sense, seems perfectly plausible. So automatically labeling it as a religious hate-crime when the motivations are, at best, unclear, I don’t think is helping that much. I also don’t think those on the other side are being all that helpful either. It being “just” a parking lot dispute that ended with three people dying doesn’t make it any better. You could argue that it makes the situation worse.

Going under the assumption that Hicks was not just an atheist, he seemed to also be an anti-theist, which is what many people are failing to call attention to. Atheism and anti-theism are not the same thing. They can often go hand-in-hand, but they’re ultimately separate. Even if anti-theism is the main component of this crime, I’m weary to write off anti-theism as a whole. Just from personal experience, one of the main reason the people I know who label themselves as anti-theists give themselves that label is because they deplore the violence often done in the name of religion.

What’s difficult for me to put words to, though, is how I still think this is different from something like Charlie Hebdo or the Army of God from the 1980s targeting abortion clinics. In those situations, people were committing violence overtly “for God,” with religion and the words of religious texts being their justification for violence. You could argue that they bastardized the religious texts to interpret them in a way that encouraged violence, but when something is presented as the divine word of God, that just makes malicious interpretations all the more dangerous. I ultimately think they’re different things simply because there is no “word of God” for anti-theism. There are no tenants and rules that anti-theists (or atheists, for that matter) are told to follow. There’s no one book that is presented as the definitive word of what people who call themselves anti-theists should believe and do. And if Hicks read “The God Delusion” and got those violently anti-theistic ideas in his head, Dawkins could come out and condemn him for it, unlike with older texts that are open to be interpreted however the reader wants. If there were only one concrete interpretation of a religious book, sects wouldn’t exist. The people who say that their religion doesn’t encourage violence ultimately just have a different interpretation than the people who say that their religion tells them to kill blasphemers. I’m glad that there seems to be more people in the first camp of religious thought than the second one.

All that being said, if people want to challenge extremist anti-theistic thought without conflating it with atheism or automatically deeming anti-theism as a whole to be an inherently hateful idea, I’m all for that. As someone with vaguely anti-theistic leanings myself, I’m often put off by how many anti-theists equate non-constructive insults toward religion with legitimate criticisms of religion. As with any other topic, poorly spoken people with loud opinions are incredibly unhelpful toward building any kind of conversation or common ground. I think the people who utterly dismiss the idea that the Chapel Hill shooting could have been anti-theistically motivated attack are just as unhelpful as the people who refused to acknowledge that Islam had anything to do with the shootings in France earlier this year.

This should not have happened, and no matter what the shooter’s reasons for doing it were—religious or otherwise—it’s a deplorable situation that happens far too often. Hopefully, though, it at least brings some light to the myriad issues at hand.

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