Monday, December 07, 2009

Eboo Patel's "Acts of Faith"

Acts of Faith is the biographical story of a man growing up American, (South) Indian and Muslim. Patel's Ismaili Muslim parents moved from Bombay to the United States in search of a better life, and so Patel grew up between worlds. If the coming-of-age story sounds familiar, Patel enlivens it with well-chosen anecdotes and an interesting cast of characters, including a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The book is also an argument for religious pluralism over what it calls "religious totalitarianism." Its main thesis is that behind religious terrorists, who are almost always young people, are charismatic leaders and established institutions who have reached the youths in a way that mainstream religious organizations have failed to do. While interfaith organizations have existed for a long time, they are dominated by greybeards ad so appear irrelevant to young people. Inspired by heroes in different religious traditions, and by the discovery of diversity within Islam itself, Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core, an international organization based in Chicago, that brings together young people from different religious backgrounds for service and reflection.

The writing is thoughtful throughout, bearing the influence of literary heroes such James Baldwin. The book does not attempt an in-depth analysis of religious terrorism. Its explanation of the phenomenon may seem biased by the author's personal quest for identity, however, the virtue of combining biography and analysis is that you know where the writer is coming from, unlike other seemingly more objective tomes.

I wish Patel explored the more troubling aspects of Islam; he is a little too eager, I think, to put Islam in a good light, though that impulse, given the Islamophobia in the USA, is understandable. Patel touches on potential conflicts in interfaith discussions, emphasizing that such discussions need to focus on the idea of service instead of truth. In his experience, young people who participated in such interfaith service return to their own religions with greater understanding and commitment. He does not, to my disappointment, discuss the status of atheism, and its relationship to interfaith discourse and organizations.

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