In high school, Eboo Patel failed to support a friend facing anti-Semitism. Now, the Chicago interfaith youth organizer believes honoring diversity means having the courage to actively speak up for it.
I am an American Muslim. I believe in pluralism. In the Holy Quran, God tells us, “I created you into diverse nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” I believe America is humanity’s best opportunity to make God’s wish that we come to know one another a reality.
In my office hangs Norman Rockwell’s illustration Freedom of Worship. A Muslim holding a Quran in his hands stands near a Catholic woman fingering her rosary. Other figures have their hands folded in prayer and their eyes filled with piety. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder facing the same direction, comfortable with the presence of one another and yet apart. It is a vivid depiction of a group living in peace with its diversity, yet not exploring it.
We live in a world where the forces that seek to divide us are strong. To overcome them, we must do more than simply stand next to one another in silence.
I attended high school in the western suburbs of Chicago. The group I ate lunch with included a Jew, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Catholic and a Lutheran. We were all devout to a degree, but we almost never talked about religion. Somebody would announce at the table that they couldn’t eat a certain kind of food, or any food at all, for a period of time. We all knew religion hovered behind this, but nobody ever offered any explanation deeper than “my mom said,” and nobody ever asked for one.
A few years after we graduated, my Jewish friend from the lunchroom reminded me of an experience we both wish had never happened. A group of thugs in our high school had taken to scrawling anti-Semitic slurs on classroom desks and shouting them in the hallway. I did not confront them. I did not comfort my Jewish friend. Instead I averted my eyes from their bigotry, and I avoided my friend because I couldn’t stand to face him.
My friend told me he feared coming to school those days, and he felt abandoned as he watched his close friends do nothing. Hearing him tell me of his suffering and my complicity is the single most humiliating experience of my life.
My friend needed more than my silent presence at the lunch table. I realize now that to believe in pluralism means I need the courage to act on it. Action is what separates a belief from an opinion. Beliefs are imprinted through actions.
In the words of the great American poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
I cannot go back in time and take away the suffering of my Jewish friend, but through action I can prevent it from happening to others.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization fostering the international interfaith youth movement. He lectures worldwide on youth and religion, including giving a keynote address at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Unte Magazine named Patel one of “thirty social visionaries under 30."
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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