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Acts of Faith

Acts of Faith

The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

A remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States.

Author: Eboo Patel

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The Acts of Faith discussion guide is now available on the UUA website. To access it click here.

"I am an American Muslim from India. My adolescence was a series of rejections, one after another, of the various dimensions of my heritage, in the belief that America, India, and Islam could not coexist within the same being. If I wanted to be one, I could not be the others. My struggle to understand the traditions I belong to as mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive is the story of a generation of young people standing at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery, trying to look both ways at once. There is a strong connection between finding a sense of inner coherence and developing a commitment to pluralism. And that has everything to do with who meets you at the crossroads."

So writes Eboo Patel at the beginning of his remarkable account of coming of age and coming to understand what led him toward religious pluralism rather than hatred.

Growing up outside Chicago, subject to a constant barrage of racist bullying, and unsure of what it meant to be Muslim, Patel had a gut-wrenching feeling of being excluded from mainstream society. In high school he rejected everything about his Indian and Muslim heritage and excelled in academics in an attempt to be like the white Americans around him. In college, this illusion came undone as Patel discovered the liberatory power of identity politics-and a deep rage at the inequities and hypocrisies of America.

He soon learned that anger is not an identity. As the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and 9/11 occurred, Patel saw how religious extremists recruited young people with similar raw emotions and manipulated them into becoming hate-filled murderers. He, on the other hand, was encountering a set of people and ideas that illuminated a different understanding: an America striving to achieve its core value of openness to all; an Islam seeking to return to its primary teachings of mercy and reconciliation; an India with diversity woven into its original fabric. Patel's most important discovery was not about his relationship with his past but about his concrete responsibility to make the best part of that past-the possibility of pluralism-a reality in the contemporary world.

Acts of Faith is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people, and to the notion that we find the fulfillment of our identities in the work we do in the world.

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Introduction: The Faith Line

1. The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis

2. Growing Up American, Growing Up Other

3. Identity Politics

4. Real World Activism

5. An American in India

6. The Story of Islam, the Story of Pluralism

7. The Youth Programs of Religious Totalitarians (or Tribal Religion, Transcendent Religion)

8. Building the Interfaith Youth Core

Conclusion: Saving Each Other, Saving Ourselves

Postscript

Afterword

Acknowledgments

Bibliographic Essay

Introduction: The Faith Line

"Someone who doesn't make flowers makes thorns. If you're not building rooms where wisdom can be openly spoken, you're building a prison." - Shams of Tabriz

Eric Rudolph is in court pleading guilty. But he is not sorry. Not for the radio-controlled nail bomb that he detonated at New Woman All Women Health Care in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed an off-duty police officer and left a nurse hobbled and half-blind. Not for the bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that killed one, injured dozens, and sent shock waves of fear through the global community. Not for his hate-spitting letter stating, "We declare and will wage total war on the ungodly communist regime in New York and your legislative bureaucratic lackeys in Washington," signed "the Army of God." Not for defiling the Holy Bible by writing "bomb" in the margin of his copy.

In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant. He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions. He gloats as he recalls federal agents passing within steps of his hiding place. He unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of "global socialism" still need to be "ruthlessly opposed." He does this in the name of Christianity, quotxi ing from the New Testament: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."

Felicia Sanderson lost her husband, Robert, a police officer, to Rudolph's Birmingham bomb. During the sentencing hearing, she played a tape of speeches made at her husband's funeral. People remembered him keeping candy for children in his patrol car and raising money to replace Christmas gifts for a family whose home had been robbed. Felicia Sanderson pointed to Rudolph and told the court, "He has been responsible for every tear my sons have shed." Judge C. Lynwood Smith sentenced Rudolph to two life terms, compared him to the Nazis, and said that he was shocked at Rudolph's lack of remorse. But many others felt a twitch of pride.

Eric Rudolph might have been a loner, but he did not act alone. He was produced by a movement and encouraged by a culture. In the woods of western North Carolina, where Rudolph evaded federal agents for five years, people cheered him on, helped him hide, made T-shirts that said run rudolph run. The day he was finally caught, a woman from the area was quoted as saying, "Rudolph's a Christian and I'm a Christian . . . Those are our values. These are our woods." Of all the information published about Rudolph, one sentence in particular stood out to me: Rudolph wrote an essay denying the Holocaust when he was in high school. How does a teenager come to hold such a view

The answer is simple: people taught him. Eric Rudolph had always had trouble in school--fights, truancy. He never quite fit in. His father died when he was young. His mother met and followed a series of dangerous iconoclasts who preached a theology of hate. The first was Tom Branham, who encouraged the Rudolph family to move next door to him in Topton, North Carolina. Eric was soon drawing Nazi symbols in his schoolbooks at nearby Nantahala High School. Next, Eric's mother moved the family to Schell City, Missouri, to be near Dan Gayman, a leading figure in the extremist Christian Identity movement. Gayman had been a high school principal and knew how to make his mark on young people. He assumed a fatherly relationship with Eric, enrolled him in Christian Identity youth programs, and made sure he read the literature of the movement. Gayman taught Eric that the Bible was the history of Aryan whites and that Jews were the spawn of Satan and part of a tribe called the "the mud people." The world was nearing a final struggle between God's people and Satan's servants, and it was up to the "conscious" Aryans to ensure victory for the right race. Eric took to calling the television "the Electric Jew." He carved swastikas into his mother's living room furniture. His library included virulently anti-Semitic publications such as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Anne Frank's Diary: A Hoax, and The International Jew. Under the tutelage of Gayman and other radical preachers, Eric Rudolph's hate did what hate always does: it spread. I imagine these preachers felt a surge of pride when Rudolph responded to Judge Smith's question about whether he set off the bomb in Birmingham with a smug, "I certainly did."

Middle school students in Whitwell, Tennessee, are giving tours of one of the most profound Holocaust memorials anywhere in the world: a German railcar that was used to transport Jews to Auschwitz. The young people ask guests to imagine how it might feel to be one of the seventy or eighty Jews packed into that tight space, hearing the wheels clanking as the train took them to torture and death. They explain that the railcar is filled with millions of paper clips, each one a symbol of a Jew murdered by the Nazis. One student says that to see a paper clip now is to think of a soul. The sign at the entrance of the memorial reads: "We ask you to pause and reflect on the evil of intolerance and hatred." The sign on the way out states: "What can I do to spread the message of love and tolerance these children have demonstrated with this memorial"

One Whitwell student tour guide, about to graduate from eighth grade, reflects, "In the future, when I come back and see it, knowing that I was here to do this, it will be not just a memory, but kind of like in your heart, that you've changed the way that people think about other people."

Whitwell is a town of fewer than two thousand residents, located outside Chattanooga in the coal mining region of southeastern Tennessee, about a hundred miles from where the Ku Klux Klan was born. It has two traffic lights and a whole lot of god bless america signs. The mines closed thirty years ago, leaving the region even poorer than it was before. You can count the number of black and Latino families in Whitwell on two hands, and you won't need any of those fingers to count the number of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, because there aren't any.

Why would white Protestant kids in a poor region with a history of prejudice care so much about educating people about Judaism? The answer is simple: people taught them. The principal of Whitwell Middle School, Linda Hooper, wanted the students in her school to learn about cultures and people who are different from themselves. "Our children, they are respectful; they are thoughtful; they are caring. But they are pretty much homogeneous. When we come up to someone who is not like us, we don't have a clue." She sent a teacher to a diversity conference, and he came back with the idea of a Holocaust education project. "This was our need," Hooper said.

Over the next several years, the students at Whitwell studied that horrible time, met with Holocaust survivors, learned about the rich tradition of Judaism, and taught all the people they touched about the powerful role that young people can play in advocating for pluralism. Lena Gitter, a ninety-five-year-old Holocaust survivor, heard about the project and wrote the students a letter: "I witnessed what intolerance and indifference can lead to. I am thankful that late in life I can see and hear that the teaching of tolerance is alive and well and bears fruit. When you ask the young, they will do the right thing. With tears in my eyes, I bow my head before you. Shalom."

"A beautifully written story of discovery and hope." -President Bill Clinton

"[A] visionary book, part coming-of-age memoir and part call-to-action . . . A shining vision of the possibilities of interfaith cooperation and pluralistic discourse." -Adam Mansbach, The Boston Globe

"The best recent American statement about living one's faith in a pluralistic society." -Robin Lovin, Christian Century

"Remarkable . . . A well-written, compelling testimony to how one man is trying to ensure that different religions can live side by side in peace." -Paul Raushenbush, Beliefnet.com

"A thoughtful argument for why anyone who believes in tolerance and peace cannot afford to ignore the spiritual and emotional needs of the young." -Kathryn Masterson, Chicago Tribune

"[Patel] describes his own life story as an India-born Muslim raised in America. The autobiography shows how an angry youth can be transformed into a leader for peace." -Charles Huckabee, The Chronicle of Higher Education

"[Acts of Faith] is a rare and beautiful intertwining of a person, a conscience, and a big idea all coming of age at the same time . . . [for] anyone interested in activism, religious journeys, pluralism, and globalization." -Courtney Martin, Feministing.com

"One of the best first-person stories of youth activism, interfaith cooperation, and how to be both authentically American and Muslim." -Library Journal (starred review)

"A thoughtful explanation of how Islam functions politically and socially in the world today . . . with personal stories and anecdotes eloquently reflecting the diversity of opinions within Islam." -Jana Reiss, Publishers Weekly Religion Update

"Eboo Patel has crafted an elegantly written and brilliantly argued manifesto-a call to arms, really-about the importance not of interfaith dialogue but of interfaith cooperation. Acts of Faith is more than a book; it is an awakening of the mind. It should be required reading for all Americans." -Reza Aslan, author of No god but God

"Religious pluralism is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Acts of Faith is the inspiring story of Eboo Patel's own life journey and his vision in creating an interfaith youth movement. He shows how educating a new generation to reject religious intolerance and work for the common good is the only way the world can avoid growing fanaticism and violence. This hopeful book shows the power that is waiting to be engaged for a better future. I highly commend it." -Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics

"A remarkable book by a young Muslim and a Rhodes Scholar with a vast spiritual vision: a future in which young people join hands in service across the lines of religion. Refreshing, honest, and hopeful, it will speak to the soul of a generation yearning for a new way ahead. Give it to every young person in your life-and to yourself." -Diana Eck, author of Encountering God and A New Religious America

"Eboo Patel is an exciting new voice of a new America: diverse but not divisive, hopeful but not utopian. He speaks for all of us from a rising generation of bright, brown, and bold Americans who have much to offer a country embarking on a new millennium and in need of new blood." -Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, executive director of the Zaytuna Institute

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