After meeting activist and author Eboo Patel at Stanford University, where he was invited as the Heyns Lecturer a few months ago, I can’t help but believe that this is a man who may well have changed my life. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization which, according to its mission statement, “builds mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions.” I stayed awake late that night finishing his book, “Acts of Faith—The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.” In it, he speaks of how much of his adolescence was spent trying to harmonize seemingly irreconcilable narratives—immigrant, Indian, Muslim, American. But he also recounts the influences in his life that drew each of them together and showed him the shared value of pluralism.
Patel comes into my life at a time when I am slowly realizing the magnitude of seeing Barack Obama in the White House, how this represents one of the most astounding messages of hope in our lifetime, how people will one day be studying his speeches in high school, how these are the times that test the soul of my generation. I have never wholly identified with a community, much less a country. But I hear President Obama say that “this is a country of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers,” and I know that this is my American dream. This kind of rhetoric has been missing not only from the world’s powerful, but also most glaringly from our social justice movements. We have made great strides toward respecting differing racial, ethnic, and sexual orientations. And yet, we live in a time when the crisis of religious violence is perhaps the greatest one we face, not because it is irreconcilable, but because we have not reconciled it.
The most influential peace activists of the 20th century, however, remain those of deep faith: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Badshah Khan, and so many others. They recognized that it is precisely their religious duty to work tirelessly for others, with compassion and humility and mutual understanding. And they were all guided by the faiths of others, because for them religion was simple, even as we conflate it into a tangled web of cultural particularities. Religion, they felt, as I feel now, is the shared belief that love can be and is the guiding force in the world.
We as Indian Americans are inheritors of a common narrative of pluralism: both that of an India that enriched itself over centuries with different faiths and cultures, and that of an America which is now the most religiously diverse country in the world. Thus we also inherit the responsibility of keeping alive that pluralistic narrative in a world where too often, the dialogue on religion belongs to those who would translate their difference to dominance. We can no longer draw the faith line between faiths, or between religion and atheism, but between religious pluralists and religious totalitarians. Right now, the latter are winning. They are louder, more compelling, more attractive to their youth. If we, who believe in religious pluralism, are to “provide the lie to the clash of civilizations,” as Eboo Patel says, then we must make interfaith cooperation a youth movement for social change. We must share with one another our narratives of pluralism, and join the ranks of those addressing the great social justice issues of our time: labor laws and civil liberty, health work and minority rights, poverty and women’s rights.
Our identities are fluid things, whether or not we consider ourselves religious. They constantly fall outside the rigid roles we are taught—these sad, meaningless assignations of societies and civilizations. If at all we can gather our patchwork selves and contribute some small fragrance to this world, it is only through an intense, intimate conversation on Love. For in such a conversation, everyone participates: the Hindu, the Muslim, the nonbeliever, the enlightened. This, then, must be our new dialogue on religion: a dialogue that chooses social change over theological quarrel, the passion of youth over the power of old systems of thought, love and service over division and greed. I think that the interfaith youth movement is about revitalizing this dialogue in America and around the world. It is the dialogue that inspires a Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, to march with a young Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.—in turn moved to nonviolent action by the example of a Hindu leader, Mahatma Gandhi—through Selma, Ala., and to write later: “I felt my legs were praying.” This is the true narrative of my faith, my American promise, the story through which my lips are praying.
Anand Venkatkrishnan is a junior at Stanford University, majoring in the classics.