• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

Interfaith activities always grow after racist and anti-Semitic attacks. The trick is to focus the energy on building something hopeful, not just fighting something ugly.

November 6, 2018

I am broken up by the recent shooting in Pittsburgh. Killing people at prayer - people performing the sacred rituals to celebrate the birth of a baby. Has it come to this? Remarkably it has.

As Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in The New York Times, I am shocked but not surprised. Somehow it feels inevitable. What did we think was going to happen at the intersection of unleashing a nation’s racist and anti-Semitic demons and flooding it with guns? Did we think the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was wrong when he said, “What begins in a word ends in a deed.”?

This is a time for mourning. Soon, it will be a time for acting. There are clearly many important areas for acting, I want to address the one that I know best: interfaith work.

After every egregious act of terrorism, there is new energy for interfaith efforts. This makes perfect sense. After all, the killer hunted down Jews because of their religion.

A response to terrorism and other forms of extremism is often the way people first get involved in interfaith efforts. The organization I founded, Interfaith Youth Core, grew rapidly after 9/11, and then rapidly again after the ugly Ground Zero mosque backlash in the summer of 2010. We are not the only interfaith effort to do so. I have it on pretty good evidence that the Obama Administration decided to launch the President’s Interfaith Campus and Community Service Challenge as a response to the Islamophobia unleased around the Ground Zero mosque. That is all to the good. 

What’s not so good is limiting the goal of interfaith efforts to fighting extremism and terrorism. I have sat through way too many events, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, that called themselves ‘interfaith’ but really were long lectures against extremism. The problem is that telling a group of people who have showed up to do idealistic interfaith work that the best they can do is keep their eye out for terrorists is not, let us say, using their full potential.

Interfaith work is principally about achieving something, not fighting it. We organize dialogues, service projects, study trips, conferences, etc in order to realize the magnificent goal of a healthy religiously diverse democracy. Such a society is characterized by the principles of pluralism – respect for diverse identities, relationships between diverse communities and cooperative action for the common good.

While we never fully achieve these goals, moving towards them helps us realize a set of civic goods that are essential for any healthy society: the reduction of prejudice, the strengthening of social cohesion, the growing of social capital, the continuity of identity communities, and the articulation of narratives that hold together a religiously diverse democracy.

For generations, political philosophers thought such a society was impossible. There was no way, they believed, that people from one race or religion or ethnicity would ever accept a ruler or representative from a different community. We have proven them wrong. Now we have to prove that we can sustain this type of society, and go from strength to strength.

So when you find there are twice as many students at your next interfaith meeting or event, speak about the powerful things we must build together, not just the menaces we fight.

If you want to see what that might look like, check out this video.

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Eboo Patel

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