By David Bornstein
November 29, 2016
This month, the F.B.I. reported that hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 reached their highest level since 2001. In New York City this year, hate crimes are tracking one-third higher than last year; against Muslims they have more than doubled.
The election of Donald J. Trump has highlighted religious tensions in America, particularly with Trump’s proposals to bar Muslims from entering the country and to create a registry of Muslims living in the United States. But these tensions did not begin with Trump. In America, virtually every form of faith or belief has at some point suffered unfavorable reception by others; the victims include Roman Catholics, Mormons, evangelical Christians, Jews and atheists, alongside Muslims.
Four years ago, I reported on the Interfaith Youth Core, which trains leaders to build relationships and respect between diverse faith communities. The work has expanded considerably. The organization now has more than 350 active campuses in its network, and more than 1,000 colleges have used its resources. This year its founder, Eboo Patel, explained in a book, Interfaith Leadership, what this type of leadership entails and why he considers it vital in today’s world. Patel, who is Muslim, recently spoke with me about democracy, the responsibilities of citizens, and his fears and hopes after this year’s election. Here are excerpts:
Bornstein: What’s the big question on your mind today?
Patel: How do we build a healthy religiously diverse democracy? It has great relevance to the current moment.
Democracy is not just a place where you elect representatives; it’s a society where you can make personal convictions public. And diversity isn’t just the things we like. It isn’t just samosas and egg rolls. Diversity is also the things you don’t like. We have to recognize that expressions of some identities will injure others.
A religiously diverse democracy is even more intense. Because, as the theologian Paul Tillich said, religion is about ultimate concerns. People can make public opposing views about concerns like: How are we created? What is a good life? What happens after we die? And frankly, this could be a recipe for civil war.
B: What is the role of an interfaith leader?
P: If the question is: How do you have a healthy religiously diverse democracy. I think the answer is that we have to recognize that people can disagree on some fundamental or ultimate concerns, and work together on others. An interfaith leader creates the spaces, curates the conversations and forms the activities for these kinds of relationships to emerge.
The typical metaphor for this is bridges. But bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground. The ability to disagree with people on some fundamental things and work with them on others isn’t natural for the human psyche or civil society. Leaders have to create that, and we have to be strategic about creating those leaders.
In my book, I tell a story about Ruth Messinger, who ran the American Jewish World Service and was Manhattan borough president. In the 1960s, Ruth was assigned to build a foster care network in western Oklahoma. While taking her baby for walks she saw signs on houses saying ‘Church of Jesus Christ.’ So she knocked on the doors, introducing herself, and got invited to attend evangelical church services.
Some of the things said during the services were insulting to her. Sometimes a sermon mentioned Jews as Christ killers. Many of the people didn’t think women should be working outside the home, and they were pro the Vietnam War, which Ruth strongly opposed. But Ruth talked about the kids who needed help and, afterward, when the pastor stood up and asked: ‘Who will partner with Ruth Messinger to help these kids in need?’ half the church would stand up and sign their names. And Ruth said that if she had let what they said about feminism and the Vietnam War prevent her from forming that partnership, hundreds of kids in western Oklahoma would not have had caring foster homes.
That’s an example of somebody who had the ability to disagree on some ultimate concerns and work on others. Because of the relationships and trust she built she was later able to have civil conversations about other disagreements, including their views of Jews.
B: What skills are needed to do this work?
P: Imagine you’re in a room of 12 people who have just voted differently in this past election and your job is to get them to see themselves as a cohesive group. This means you’re going to need excellent facilitation skills. It means you’re going to have to be able to identify shared values and tell a compelling narrative about the importance of a diverse community. It means you’re going to have to find inspiring activities for them to do together.
When groups have deep differences — say, Reform Jews and evangelical Christians on the question of abortion — people say if you don’t address the conflict you are ignoring the elephant in the room. My response is: If all you do is pay attention to the elephant in the room, you miss the other animals in the zoo. There are other things that Reform Jews and evangelicals can engage on together that are fundamental and inspiring; working against sexual trafficking is an excellent example.
There’s a knee-jerk reaction that the intensity of the difference somehow has to be greater than the possibility of commonality. My response to that is: Stop focusing on boring commonality. You have to do the work of identifying commonality that feels as inspiring as the disagreement is intense — and that doesn’t magically appear.
An interfaith leader brackets disagreements temporarily. By ‘bracket’ I don’t mean you never return to disagreements, I just mean don’t get hung up on them. Don’t let them prevent you from doing other fundamental things.
B: Is this possible with everyone?
P: I do think there’s a line, and it’s somewhere around the K.K.K. If the K.K.K. is hosting a bake sale to support education, I’m probably not buying a cupcake. But discerning between the K.K.K. and the average citizen with whom I disagree is a basic quality of a rational person.
For me, if you support a Muslim registry because your knowledge of Muslims comes from the first minute of the evening news and your Facebook news feed, and there is a significant possibility that different conversations and information about Muslims would shift that idea, I would absolutely engage constructively with you. And I think this describes many Americans.
What I’m very wary of is what I would call an educated bigotry that seeks to manipulate.
B: What gives you hope?
P: The virtual evaporation of anti-Catholic prejudice in America over the past 40 years.
In 1959 and 1960, vast swaths of America feared that the election of J.F.K. would mean that the flag of the Vatican would fly in Washington, D.C., and the Pope would descend on the White House. Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, famously said that the deepest bias in the American people is anti-Catholicism.
Last year, I was one of thousands of people holding a Vatican Flag on the south lawn of the White House as Pope Francis appeared with President Obama. It’s a stunning shift in history. And people have almost no memory of the anti-Catholic bigotry from two generations ago. A lot of Catholics don’t even remember it.
Why? As the social science tells us, when people of different identities mix positively with one another, they come to like each other, and that is the great genius of American civil society. Interfaith leaders pay attention to the prejudices that have disappeared in the past and recognize that those same dynamics can be put into place again.
B: What practical things can citizens do to relate better with others?
P: Develop a list of people you disagree with whom you admire. It’s an excellent tool to keep you honest. For me the list includes responsible Republicans like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ross Douthat and a set of intellectual evangelical leaders with whom I would disagree on some issues but who I admire in a whole set of other ways.
Or identify unlikely and powerful partnerships in history. A classic civil rights example would be Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. It seems straightforward now, but 50 years ago it was uncommon for an Orthodox Jew to march alongside a black Baptist.
Another one: Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi in the Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) movement. At a time of great Muslim-Hindu tension in India, this Muslim from Afghanistan marched and worked with Gandhi for the freedom of the subcontinent.
B: How can religion help heal divisions?
P: Religions have stunning illustrations of reconciliation and a wider sense of ‘we.’ It’s a sacred thing in many religious traditions to partner with people with whom you have deep differences. The Quran says argue with them in “the best of ways.” There’s a recognition that there are going to be deep disagreements, and you are instructed as to how to engage with those.
B: Who do you fear most?
P: People who say things like: There’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim. Moderate Muslims are only failed radicals. Or: We are in a war against Islam, and they know it and we don’t. Or: American Muslims are a Trojan horse within.
By the way, that’s everything that was said about Catholics.
B: How do you feel personally? How are you talking about the election with your children?
P: I’m scared out of my mind. My kids have Muslim names. There are famous Islamophobes who are getting senior positions in the Trump administration. Hate crimes against Muslims are through the roof. That’s crazy to me.
My wife and I are adamant that we are not going to blame all Trump supporters for what some extremists are doing. Our kids met some neighbours, other 9-year-olds, who casually said they’re Trump supporters. We told our kids: You’re still going to be friends with them. We didn’t support Trump for president, but it’s good that you know people who did. And you should still play football and baseball with them — the 9-year-old version of fundamental concerns.
We talk a lot about being proud of being Muslim and being Indian and of the contributions of our communities to America. It was a Muslim from Bengal, Fazl ur Rahman Khan, who created the architectural form of skyscrapers.We buy Muhammad Ali books. We talk about Mahatma Gandhi as the chief inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr. We are building pride in their identities, and they are generally surrounded by people who are affirming of that.
I don’t know how I’d feel if I lived 90 minutes outside Chicago. Where we live in the city, the Trump world is a minority. But the last thing I want to do is retreat more deeply into my urban liberal bubble.
B: What is called for today from Americans?
P: I think democracy is an intimate relationship with our fellow citizens. When you elect someone who I did not vote for and I do not like, I have agreed in advance to live under that person’s limited rule. I accept your ability to put into power somebody with whom I totally disagree. That is an intimate relationship and it requires me to do the hard work of developing a sympathetic understanding for the experiences and sensibilities of my fellow citizens. When I woke up on Nov. 9, I recognized that I had not done that, which means I had not been a very good citizen.
What are ways in which I can understand who my fellow citizens who voted differently are? What qualities do they possess that I would admire? And what are fundamental things that we can work on together?
That’s work on me to do.
David Bornstein is the author of "How to Change the World," which has been published in 20 languages, and "The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank," and is co-author of "Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know." He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.