February 22, 2011

Acts of Faith

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This Monday, I had the privilege of eating lunch with Dr. Eboo Patel — a Rhodes Scholar, an Ashoka Fellow and author of the book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. After spending nearly two hours at lunch discussing interfaith cooperation at Cornell and abroad, and hearing Patel speak later that night about interfaith cooperation during the Civil Rights Movement at his Martin Luther King Commemorative Lecture, I can confidently say that he is one of the most inspiring individuals that I have ever had the privilege of meeting.

Patel’s foundation, the Interfaith Youth Corps, seeks to build interfaith coalitions of young people on college campuses across the country to demonstrate that individuals of any faith, tradition or moral philosophy can come together to pursue common values. IFYC works to develop and socialize an alternative discourse to the idea that certain religions are destined to fight due to differing identities — a belief that Patel and I both find unconvincing and absolutely dangerous.

Indeed, if it were the case that people of different religions were destined to fight, then the solidarity demonstrated by people of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular orientation during the Civil Rights Movement should not have materialized. Moreover, if conflict among people of different religious and moral orientations is inevitable, then the images of Christians linking arms to protect Muslims during prayers in Tahrir Square and of Muslims protecting Christians during Sunday Mass, should be fake — which they were not. Instead, both the Civil Rights Movement and the Egyptian Revolution attest to the very real possibility of interfaith cooperation motivated by a desire to uphold and promote common religious values, and encourage Patel to work to foster a feeling of community among those of different religious orientations at colleges around the country.

Unfortunately, the current picture of interfaith cooperation at Cornell University is bleak. During a working session this Tuesday, I brainstormed the current state of interfaith cooperation at Cornell alongside 10 other students and professors from different religious affiliations and on-campus student groups. After close to 15 minutes of discussion, we could only come up with three instances of interfaith cooperation in the last few years at Cornell. What’s more, two of these instances were between only two or three different groups on campus, and the third was through a third party organization that worked with individual students rather that groups.

Needless to say, Cornell has some work to do to live up to its heritage as the first university to conceive an umbrella organization for the express purpose of interfaith cooperation — Cornell United Religious Work. Indeed, as a leader in religious and racial tolerance, Cornell needs to do more to create awareness of possibilities and benefits of interfaith cooperation towards common values.

Fortunately, there are positive elements of the Cornell religious community that will make the task of fostering interfaith cooperation easier. First, Annabel Taylor Hall provides the perfect place for creating connections among people of different faiths, as groups of all religious affiliations congregate — often during the same time — and practice. Second, that CURW exists and sponsors events like the Martin Luther King Commemorative Lecture attests to a latent but nevertheless rich heritage of interfaith cooperation that students merely need to tap into. Third, we have administrative support. As one presenter from IFYC mentioned during the Cornell-IFYC partnership presentation, President Skorton supports the idea of interfaith cooperation and would like to see students take the charge in making Cornell a leader in this area.

Finally, Cornell’s partnership with the IFYC will provide the framework and support that students need to foster interfaith cooperation on campus. This partnership provides students with the training, support and organizational resources to make interfaith cooperation a reality. For example, during the Spring Semester, students will engage with IFYC representatives to conceptualize interfaith cooperation on campus, and will subsequently implement their concepts to conduct campus and community service projects throughout the years.

With so many resources and so much at stake, I think it is imperative that the Cornell community gets involved in such interfaith initiatives. Simple steps like learning about the positives of each other’s religions can go a long way to create a culture of interfaith cooperation at Cornell. Students should also actively reach out to their counterparts in other religious communities to organize interfaith service projects designed to achieve goals that support values common to all religions. Finally, students should stay engaged in the conversation about religious tolerance — especially when religious intolerance abounds.

Institutionally, Cornell should start a forum in University publications like The Chronicle for interfaith religious discussion and campus activities, which could take the shape of a religion section on the website. Alumni should also be engaged through newsletters from the university as well as from student groups to create awareness of interfaith initiatives and cooperation in the broader Cornell community.

Indeed, as Patel mentioned several times, it is important when intolerance pervades society, for the forces of inclusion to mobilize so as to reclaim the discourse around religion. For Cornell, an institution that has historically been a leader on issues of inclusion and diversity and is today’s exemplar of tolerance, the time to mobilize is now. Therefore, each one of us must ask ourselves what we want Cornell’s future to look like? Should it be one where religious intolerance abounds, or where students from all religious orientations work together to uphold common values? It is up to us to write the story.

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Original Author: Zain Pasha