Adam Mansbach 2008

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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation
by Eboo Patel
Beacon Press
189 pages

The defining issue of the 21st century, Eboo Patel argues in this slim, visionary book, part coming-of-age memoir and part call-to-action,  will be religion. Building institutions committed to fostering tolerance and interfaith dialogue, he writes, is the only way to avoid ceding the very concept of faith to religious totalitarians of every creed – and only by working as hard to nurture young people as violent extremists do to radicalize them can progressive people of faith compete.

The founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), Patel is an Indian-American Muslim, and his personal journey toward understanding and embracing the faith into which he was born constitutes Acts of Faith's through-line.  But Patel's story is bigger than that: it is the tale of a man's increasing understanding that traditions of mercy, compassion and social justice are embedded in every faith, and that accessing them is they key to creating a pluralism that enhances faith rather than threatening it. 

Patel's path begins in the Chicago suburbs; he realizes as a child that to be Muslim is to be marginal, and he dedicates himself to academic excellence in an attempt to transcend all that separates him.  In high school, he realizes that he and his diverse group of friends possess no language to discuss their beliefs or customs.  It is a silence that strangles, and the shame Patel feels when he fails to take a stand against the anti-Semitism that surfaces at his school marks him. 

Such incidents catalyze a period of reevaluation and reflection.  Fascinatingly, as Patel works to liberate himself from the confines of an identity proscribed by fear and persecution,  it is the black American experience of rage and reconciliation that provides the closest experiential corollary. The humanity and insight of James Baldwin's work , a touchstone through Acts of Faith, prove particularly inspiring – further illustrating Patel's notion that religion is the new race.  

As religious terrorism flares across the globe, Patel begins to revisit the faith he once rejected, seeking and locating fortifying veins of diversity and openness that stand in stark relief to popular American conceptions of Islam.  Simultaneously, he begins looking for, and then creating, communities committed to challenging not just the unspoken prohibitions against religious dialogue, but also the inequity and stratification that underwrite these gulfs in communication.  Patel's teachers range from the Dalai Lama -- who encourages him to be a better Muslim -- to Patel's grandmother, who, when he visits her in India, "models what that means "through her quiet, tireless charity.   The pantheon of his "faith heroes," likewise, grows to include Mahatma Gandhi, Catholic Worker House founder Dorothy Day, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., and – eventually, as Patel learns to access and connect with Islamic legacies of social justice -- Muslim exemplars like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Aga Khan.  

The Interfaith Youth Core is born not just out of Patel's convictions, but of the persistent lack of youth outreach he sees across faith lines, and the insular, abstracted nature of interfaith religious conferences.  Patel narrates the difficulties he faces in convincing skeptical religious leaders that bringing young people together to perform social justice work and discuss their beliefs will pay faith dividends – and also the way those doubts are ultimately allayed by the enthusiasm, friendships, and renewed commitments of the participants.  As Acts of Faith ends, the IFYC thrives, and a shining vision of the possibilities of interfaith cooperation and pluralistic discourse lingers.

Adam Mansbach's next novel, The End of the Jews, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau/Doubleday in March.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing