Helping young Muslims not to hate

One youth group teaches that all great faiths share non-violent values.

The day that Ontario police foiled a bombing plot by 17 mostly young Canadians of South Asian descent, and before Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq, I was eating a Low Country breakfast in Charleston, S.C., with Eboo Patel.

A youthful Muslim with a passion for interfaith dialogue and a gift for simplifying the complex, Dr. Patel has a refreshingly clear view of a world crackling with tensions between Islam and the West.

The Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford doctorate in the sociology of religion lets his shrimp and brown gravy grow cold as he digs into one of the West's core challenges: the stereotyping of Islam as a religion that foments extremism and violence.

The challenge arises from a stark polarity. On one hand, he says, stands Osama bin Laden, whose principal role is as "a talent scout." Mr. bin Laden recruits angry young Muslims, trains them in "the tools of totalitarianism," and sends them forth as terrorists, supported by "the message machine that is Al Qaeda." Their purpose: To convert or kill people different from themselves.

On the other hand stand groups like the Interfaith Youth Core that Patel founded and runs in Chicago, helping youth of different faiths build understanding and cooperation. Groups like his recruit students, train them in community building, and help them understand that "all the great faiths have similar shared values." Their purpose: To create "the new city on the hill," where steeples and minarets stand beside temples and synagogues, "respectfully sharing space and collectively supporting the common good."

Question: Which group has more money? The answer is obvious. Al Qaeda, with ample resources to lure the disaffected, has little difficulty attracting young Muslims to a thesis of mayhem, which, Patel feels, is contrary to Islam but masquerades in religious garb. But where, Patel asks, are the alternative voices teaching his young coreligionists "what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world"? Compared to the polemics of Al Qaeda, why do the voices "encouraging young people to be the architects of pluralism" seem so muted?

In one sense, the answer is obvious. In contrast to the raw, simplistic urgency that Al Qaeda generates against those it demonizes, interfaith dialogue can seem pretty tepid. But it is just such dialogue that promotes an appreciation of nuance and subtlety and that builds a willingness to listen and cooperate. Such conversations remind us that the world's toughest issues are never merely right-versus-wrong but always right-versus-right. That's a far cry from the rancorous, hateful, black-and-white world view of radical fundamentalism - where, if I'm right, what can you possibly be but wrong?

But there's something deeper at work. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, Patel found that while "diversity was all the rage," nobody wanted to talk about religion. "Everybody was talking about what made them different," he says, "but nobody wanted to talk about what brought them together."

In his own quest, however, he found that the religious exemplars he most respected, from Christians like Martin Luther King to the Muslims battling South African apartheid, were committed to a core of shared values that included compassion and justice. He also realized that "religious and ethnic diversity was leading to bloodshed" in much of the world - though not in America.

For him, the remarkable thing about the United States, which he calls "the most religiously diverse country in the world," is its high degree of religious belief. "We mix both reverence and tolerance," he says admiringly.

That mix is probably unique in the world. What makes that possible? At bottom it has to do with the set of core values shared by the different faiths.

That sharing may appear (to use his word) as "tolerance." More accurately, I think, it's alignment.

It's one thing to tolerate the mosque on the hill beside your church or synagogue. It's something else to understand that, contrary to bin Laden's message machine, the values taught there - honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect, compassion - are perfectly aligned with your own.

The West needs to understand that peace among nations is intimately connected with a recognition that each faith tradition abides by a set of values it shares with all others. It needs to help young people of all faiths grasp a values-based alternative to hatred and violence.

Doing so makes it harder for Al Qaeda's recruiters to prosper - and easier for Muslims around the world to stand up against the perversions of their faith that lure young radicals in Canada, and middle-aged terrorist leaders in Iraq, into mayhem.

Rushworth M. Kidder is president of the Institute for Global Ethics and the author of 'Moral Courage'.

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