The author of this year’s Common Reading book, Eboo Patel, spoke about interfaith work, the exploratory nature of college life and other ideas from in his book to a large audience in Cohen Auditorium last night.
Patel’s book “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” was sent to all incoming first-years and transfer students as part of the Common Reading Program. The program was sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Students and the University Chaplaincy.
Patel’s memoir discusses the author’s religious renewal founding and heading the Interfaith Youth Core, leading the call to action for religious pluralism.
Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Students John Barker delivered an introduction, saying that the event sought to spark discussion about these issues outside the classroom.
Patel started his talk by listing examples across disciplines where faith is crucially important but often misunderstood. He referenced Madeleine Albright’s lamentations about the lack of religious experts in the State Department and conflicts between doctors and patients when religion conflicts with treatment.
“The bottom line is interfaith leadership frameworks, knowledge and skills are an absolutely essential set of tools that you will need to be a leader in the 21st century,” Patel said.
Patel went on to explain the necessity of interfaith cooperation.
“One of the areas we need leadership in the most is what it means to be in a healthy, religiously diverse democracy,” Patel said.
He elaborated on “religiously diverse democracies,” clearing up common misconceptions about the terms “democracy” and “diversity.”
“Diversity is not all samosas and egg rolls,” Patel said. “Diversity is not just the differences you like. It’s the ones you don’t like.”
After presenting religious problems and solutions, Patel offered some practical advice for becoming an interfaith leader.
First, he discussed the development of an “interfaith radar-screen,” which he defined as an awareness of religious issues. This awareness can be developed by going through New York Times articles and noting all of the articles relating to faith — something that Patel said he does daily.
After picking out all the religious pieces, there isn’t much left in the paper, he said.
Patel also advocated for developing a knowledge of interfaith history — not simply listing instances of religious warfare — and curating an appreciative understanding of other traditions.
He recounted a story in which an audience member at one of his previous lectures asked a question along the lines of, “What the hell is wrong with you Muslims?”
“You only know that version of Islam [that is in] the first minute of the evening news,” Patel said in response to the audience member. “You know nothing of the poetry of [Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi]. You know nothing of the courage of Malala Yousafzai. You know nothing about the fact that the Sears Tower was designed by a Muslim architect.”
For Patel, this interaction underscored the necessity of building knowledge about other religions.
Patel concluded his talk with a note of optimism for the first-year audience members.
“I want to close with just how exciting it is to be at the beginning,” he said. “The world never felt as new or as open or as possible as when I was 17 years old in my first classes.”
After the talk, Patel held a question and answer session and a book signing.
One student asked about Patel’s emphasis on religion over racial, cultural and socioeconomic diversity.
Patel responded that while all kinds of diversity are important, religion is the one he feels is left out of mainstream conversation most often.
Many students, such as first-year Hunter Silvestri, said they enjoyed the presentation. Silvestri said he wished Patel had spoken more about his personal experience but that he was happy he had engaged with the material.
“It made me think of things that I hadn’t thought about before,” he said.