National Activist Reflects on the Power of Interfaith Efforts for Antiracism

Eboo Patel headshot
March 15, 2021

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s is widely acknowledged as the seminal effort to end racism in the United States. But it was also a powerful interfaith movement that stretched across multiple lines of race and beliefs in the quest to demolish segregation.

“It was people coming together, inspired by their own traditions, but also taking what they learned from other traditions, to move against one of the great evils of the last century—the American Apartheid,” said Eboo Patel, D.Phil., a nationally known interfaith activist, during a virtual keynote speech, “Antiracism: An Interfaith Response to Oppression,” he delivered on February 25. The event was part of St. John’s University’s series, “Racial Justice Conversations: Becoming Agents of Change.”

When the series was introduced at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, organizers explained the conversations were created to provide a space for the St. John’s community to think about its role in the fight for racial justice and to advance as an antiracist institution. The creation of the Racial Justice Conversations follows an Antiracism Statement released last June in which St. John’s senior leadership expressed their commitment “to doing the work necessary for St. John’s to become an antiracist institution.”

The University’s Campus Ministry Interfaith Council and the Racial Justice Conversations Committee cosponsored this event.

Dr. Patel said the theme of his talk was borrowed from a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks, a former US Poet Laureate: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

He reiterated that line in his response to a question posed by a participant of the event, who asked, “What is the one thing that we can do for each other at St. John’s to all work together in our effort to become an antiracist institution?”

“We belong to each other. That is what we have to remember,” he added.

A Muslim American, Dr. Patel is Founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a national, nonprofit organization that strives to equip the next generation of citizens and professionals with the knowledge and skills needed for leadership in a religiously diverse world. Partnering with educational institutions and civic organizations, IFYC is dedicated to making interfaith cooperation the norm and building an interfaith America in the 21st century.

A frequent keynote speaker at universities around the nation and a former member of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council, Dr. Patel founded the IFYC with the concept that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. He is a respected leader on national issues of religious diversity, civic engagement, and the intersection of racial equity and interfaith cooperation.

“I think a huge part of the opportunity before us in the early 21st century is crossing lines of race and faith, learning from each other, and moving toward these beautiful higher ideals,” Dr. Patel told his audience, adding, “We have a better chance for antiracism now than we have had for decades.”

He questioned the practice of “calling out” or vocally criticizing others who make comments or take actions that promote racism and other forms of intolerance and oppression. “I think that the approach of constantly calling out people when they do wrong misses the times when they do right,” he explained. “The Achilles heel of the calling out approach is, what happens when the fingers are pointing at you?”

Acknowledging there are times when anger, or a “controlled burn,” is a useful strategy for enacting social change, Dr. Patel suggested that the more likely path to antiracism is highlighting the best, instead of the worst, in people. This can be accomplished through finding qualities you can admire in a person and then seeking ways to cooperate with that person, he said.

“Yes, there are some people who are purely evil, who are outside of that circle,” said Dr. Patel. “But then there are people whom you disagree with for all kinds of good reasons whom you might still admire. I think it is a good spiritual ethic to ask oneself the question, ‘What might I admire about you with whom I disagree a lot?’”

Cooperation can be simple, yet quite varied, particularly in a higher education setting, he added. “I think one of the beautiful things about college is that you have all of these people, from all of these different backgrounds, who have all of these different kinds of opportunities to cooperate, from study groups to intramural sports to antiracism groups. Let’s find something we can cooperate on.”