Eboo Patel's American Story

Michael Utzinger

I am preparing for a new course on religious autobiography next semester.  One book I intend to use is Eboo Patel’s memoir entitled, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).  The story is ostensibly about the creation of the Interfaith Youth Core (IYC), an organization dedicated to engaging young people with the virtues of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. 

Meditating on W.E.B. DuBois’s famous claim that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line, Patel claims that great divide of the twenty-first century is and will be the "faith line."  On either side of this line are religious totalitarians and religion pluralists.  Further, argues Patel, today’s youth are the key in this struggle of the faith line.   When one considers recent terrorist attacks (done by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, among others) he reminds his readers of the very young age of most of the attackers; almost all were younger than thirty.  Why?  Patel claims that religious totalitarians (religious individuals who believe that those of other faiths "need to be cowed, converted, or condemned or killed" (p. xv)) have become expert institution builders to recruit of the young.  However, he also tells his readers the story of Whitwell, Tennessee middle-schoolers, who promoted and created a Holocaust memorial, with the support of the local Methodist Church.  He notes that faith commitments propelled this project promoting tolerance and religious pluralism. Patel's thesis explains why the youth can have such radically different religious experiences: "influences matter, programs count, mentors can make a difference, institutions leave their mark" (xvi).  All of this interesting as a thesis and worthy of reflection in itself.   However, the autobiographical material the weaves through this sustained argument for religious pluralism is just as much a part of this truly American story, and, for this reason, merits use in the class.

As one might expect Patel's memoir is about the creations of identity, particularly the role of ethnicity and religion in that process.  The story is movingly American: a young Muslim kid of immigrant parents trying to fit in imperfectly among his peers within the Chicago suburbs.  His experience often left him with feelings of estrangement from the religion of his birth as well as American culture in which he lived.  Much of the early story could be the story of any adolescent struggling to grow up, but the differences that made Patel a target were his religion and ethnicity, both of which are often misunderstood by teachers and bullies alike.  Patel's parents worked full-time to give their children a good life, and they bequeathed to their son an American dream of equal access to success.  However, every barrier to that dream created a profound sense of alienation that arose from the gap between the promised American ideal and his reality.  A college education further exposed this gap for Patel.  As he tried to explore his anger, he began to forge a new identity by embracing his parents' heritage.   This, to me, is where the autobiographical storyline became most interesting.  

With no model of what it meant to be Indian or Muslim, Patel turned to black American writers, who seemed disarmingly prescient about his experiences.  He read with interest Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, and these writers helped him understand and name his American existence.  Much later in the memoir, Patel visits India to connect to his roots, only to realize that he was profoundly American.  In one humorous line, he summarizes the moment of his revelation: "if you cannot tell a bus driver that he has to stop the bus so you can take a leak,  the land you are in is not your home" (p. 83).  Baldwin and his trip to India helped him reclaim his Americaness by embracing its pluralism.  "I realized that it was precisely because of America's glaring imperfections that I should seek to participate in its progress, carve a place in its promise, and play a role in its possibilities. And at its heart, and at its best, American is about pluralism.  In a strange way, Baldwin's writing on America helped me understand my relationship with India.  I relieved India the burden of being my haven, and I relieved myself of the burden of being the reincarnation of Gandhi" (p. 89).   Patel's tensions with his American and Indian identities provides a useful antidote to studying communities as if they were tightly circumscribed and necessarily separate.  Patel's world is porous and fluid.  One of the advantages of looking through the lens of an individual is to see this messiness in wonderful detail, and I would suggest that such revelations outweigh the risk of inferring too much from his autobiographical idiosyncrasies.  
His story is also a narrative about finding religious identity in a sea of religious options.  Patel rekindles his own vision of Islam as a faith that can promote and thrive in a pluralistic context through his interactions with various religions.  His faith does not fade or falter but grows and changes.  He struggles with relationships with women who do not share his faith: one Mormon, one Jewish.  He also had an important mentor in a Roman Catholic monk, Brother Wayne, who honored and promoted Patel's religious search and shared his emerging vision of religious pluralism.  His best friend is Jewish and they both travelled, through Brother Wayne's connections, to meet the Dalai Lama, who exhorts them to be the best Jew and Muslim each can be.  He credits the Catholic Worker movement as the organization that changed his religious life.  "I always found myself standing at a right angle of the core symbols of the Christian faith--the Cross, the blood, the Resurrection--and I never felt any desire to convert.  Nobody in the Catholic Worker movement ever suggested that I do.  They saved me just the same" (p. 53).   He notes that his religious experience was widely diverse but the Catholic Worker helped him envision how diverse religions might work together through faithfully cooperating in acts of service.  Even his Interfaith Youth Core employs as a key leader a committed Evangelical Christian from Wheaton College (IL).  The pluralism that Patel experiences is dizzying, and, while must remind oneself that Patel had the educational and financial means to have these experiences, the narrative is one of constant religious encounter and sharing.    

The book clearly has an apologetic ring.  Patel wants to tell the story of the Interfaith Youth Core and promote its values of religious pluralism.  He argues one can be committed and faithful, while respecting and cooperating with those equally committed to other faiths.  This vision of pluralism wrapped in his autobiographical narrative is compelling.   However, one may question whether the pluralism he experiences and promotes typically has the result of strengthening rather than weakening religious identity.  Because he is so forthright about his goals for the memoir, one has a great opportunity to discuss the purposes and conceits of autobiography and the selection and presentation of memories.  Or perhaps, one could juxtapose the text with other religious writers who did not share Patel's religious and ethnic experience (Abraham Cahan comes to mind).  Regardless, I look forward to reading this text with students next fall.


Curtis J. Evans said…
I'd be curious to see a listing of some of the other books you are using for this course. Sounds like a great idea.
Anne B. said…
Would you recommend the book for a course on American Islam?
Unknown said…
I've taught with this book in a general US religious survey to great effect. It gets at a lot of issues surrounding the post-65 shift in US immigration. That he also tries to place himself within a larger American interfaith genealogy (the 1893 and 1993 World's Parliament of Religions) was also something the students picked up on. So I think you'll enjoy using the text.

Like Curtis, I too would like to hear the other texts you're assigning.

Oh, and I just finished Patel's new book _Sacred Ground_. It's much less of a memoir and much more about IFYC, but it's much better written.
JM Utzinger said…
Curtis--The syllabus is still in process but I plan to use Carlos Eire's _Waiting for Snow in Havana_ as well as the Dalai Lama's autobiography, Dorothy Day's _The Long Lonliness_, Victor Frankl's _Man's Search for Meaning. Augustine's Confessions will be a must. I have some plans for autobiographical essays too. W.E.B. DuBois's essay about the death of his son in the _Soul's of Black Folk_ wrenches my heart every time I read it. I also plan to talk a lot about memory and the ethics of remembering. I'd love to know what you might use.

Anne, I would use this for a course on American Islam, especially since it would not be the only text you used. It would be especially disarming if you have students with a lot of media-inspired presuppositions about Islam.

Christopher--I'll have _Sacred Ground_ on that summer reading list. Thanks for the recommendation.
I've used this book a few times. Besides what Chris said, the students have also liked/been amused by how Patel dates his way through women from different religious traditions.
Trevor Burrows said…
Thank you for this post - I've had the pleasure of seeing Eboo Patel speak but had not considered using the book in the classroom in any way.

And thanks for tacking on some of the other books you'll be using for your religious autobiography course. I'd be interested in hearing what other autobiographies folks have used (for any religion-related courses). I've been spending a lot of time with late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century "liberal Protestant" autobiography for a project I'm working on, and it's had me thinking about the possible pros and cons of using autobiography in a classroom setting.

Anyone have any other favorites?

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