What is Interfaith Cooperation For?

Some years back I met the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nechervan Barzani. One of the first things he did was thank me for the American military intervention that he described as freeing his people from oppression. I informed him that many of my friends viewed the Iraq War as profoundly unjust and protested vociferously against it.

Barzani was rendered speechless for a moment. When he finally spoke it was to say, through clenched teeth, that the only thing unjust about the war that removed Saddam Hussein was that it didn’t happen sooner.

I was reminded of that story when I read Lucia Hulsether’s thoughtful critique here on RD of my recent Huffington Post article on the urgency of interfaith cooperation after the Boston bombings. As religious diversity continues to grow both in demographic fact and in salience in our public discourse, and as interfaith efforts expand, it is more important than ever to engage in a thoughtful exchange about the purpose of interfaith programs. I wish to use this space to advance my view of what interfaith cooperation is for. The ideas I present below have been developed in conversation with my colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core, the organization I founded and lead, and it guides the work we do with college campuses and students.

Let me begin by summarizing one of Hulsether’s main arguments. She maintains that mainstream interfaith projects reach a wider base by avoiding divisive political topics and glossing over issues of “justice” and “structural violence.” This is a problem because, to Hulsether, those are the issues that really matter. Hulsether names civil liberties, material conflicts, and American military campaigns abroad as some examples that fit her list of priorities. She writes, “Appeals to ‘interfaith’ often prioritize projects for recognition of such identities over attention to systemic forms of material and social inequality” and “interfaith programs always provide means to other ends.”

All in all, it is a well-articulated view of what might be called a progressive social justice understanding of interfaith work. What it comes down to is this: interfaith work is only meaningful when it mobilizes diverse religious/secular narratives and communities in support of progressive politics.

My conversation with Prime Minister Barzani reminded me of something both profound and obvious: people have different definitions of justice, and those definitions are shaped by their interpretations of religious traditions and their belonging to particular religious and ethnic communities. There are Catholics and evangelicals who believe the most important justice issue in the world is a pro-life view on abortion, and religious and secular people who believe that a pro-choice position is an equally important justice issue. There are Muslims who believe the most important justice issue in the world is supporting the Palestinian cause, and Jews who believe the most important justice issue in the world is a secure (and for some, an expanded) Israel.

Complicating matters further, there are people from the same religious community who are on different sides of justice issues—Jews who support the Palestinian cause, pro-choice Catholics, pro-Iraq War Muslims. Moreover, there are religious groups who will agree with you on some progressive positions (many Catholics on immigration and poverty issues) and disagree with you on other progressive positions (the same Catholics on abortion and gay marriage). And religious convictions profoundly shape all of these positions.

For the record, I was opposed to the war in Iraq. But I would have had a hard time telling Prime Minister Barzani that he endorsed injustice and structural violence because he supported it. From his location as a Muslim Iraqi Kurd—an oppressed group if there ever was one—supporting that war makes perfect sense.

Based on what I could gather from her piece, my views on most political issues are probably in the same general universe as Hulsether’s. So this is not primarily about a difference in politics. Instead, this is about another very important fact: Hulsether and I share a country and a world with people who have very different views on a whole range of fundamental issues. Frequently, those views are shaped by faith commitments.

The central problem interfaith work seeks to solve is this: how are all of us, with our deep differences, to share a nation and a world together? I believe that is primarily a question of civic space, not political ideology. Shouldn’t Muslim and Jewish doctors who have different views on the Middle East continue operating on patients together in American hospitals? Shouldn’t conservative Catholic and progressive Protestant preschool teachers who disagree on abortion continue educating their students together? Shouldn’t anti-Iraq War Sunnis and pro-Iraq War Kurds send their kids to the same Little League baseball camps? Participating in civic activities with people you disagree with on political or theological issues is not, as Hulsether states, “excus(ing) an exceptionalist ideology that deepens ruts in a two-tiered legal system and sanctions US military presence abroad.” It’s being a good citizen of a diverse democracy.

I do not think the primary task of interfaith work is to circle religiously diverse wagons more tightly around particular political positions, however strongly I might hold some of those positions. There are already well-established groups who mobilize diverse religious communities for various causes. There is a religiously diverse movement for gay marriage, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement for abortion, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement that supports the Palestinian cause, and a religiously diverse movement that supports Israel.

Of course I would like my political views to win the day at the ballot box, but I am also concerned that different political views (especially those shaped by religious interpretations) can cause deep divisions in American civic life—in our hospitals, preschools, Little Leagues, and so forth. We are seeing signs of this. One of the most important findings in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace is that perhaps the most polarized areas in American life are around political positions that are connected to religion. Increasingly, people with progressive definitions of “justice” and conservative definitions of “justice” run in separate social, civic, and intellectual circles.

I do not believe that interfaith cooperation should contribute to widening these divisions. Instead, I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?

eboo@ifyc.org'

Eboo Patel is Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core and author of "Acts of Faith" and "Sacred Ground."