Next week NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, is hosting Muslims and atheists (and Christians too) for the Global Faith Forum. Northwood’s pastor, Bob Roberts Jr., recently shared with us the importance of multi-faith dialogue.
In light of the recent strife Muslims have faced in the media, we wanted to talk with a Muslim about marketing. We think churches could learn a thing or two about how to handle (or how not to handle) negative publicity from everything that Muslims have faced in the past few months.
So we sat down with Eboo Patel, a Muslim who will be speaking at the Global Faith Forum. He’s the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization that’s building an interfaith movement among young people. He also serves on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Let’s cut to the chase: The “Islam is evil” argument is something that’s come up a lot in the last few months. How do you respond when your entire religion—a religion practiced by 1.5 billion people—comes under attack like that?
Eboo Patel: I get this question a lot. I’ve found the best way to respond is by lifting up examples of the exceptional young Muslim interfaith leaders I work with through my organization, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Part of the problem that leads to this argument is that the only thing folks know about Islam is what they learn on the evening news. Part of what we do at IFYC is spread the message that there is a lot more to any religious group than could ever be communicated in this way, and tell the stories of real young leaders who are changing this conversation in their communities.
I’ll give you three quick examples of who I’m talking about:
Moustafa is a recent University of Michigan graduate, who just began his first year at Yale medical school. Moustafa started United2Heal as a student club at Michigan, that brought together religiously diverse students to act on their shared impulse to save lives. Together, they have sorted literally truckloads of surplus medical supplies to send to developing nations in Africa. Today, United2Heal has evolved into a nonprofit organization that continues to do this work.
Randa, a young Muslim woman, spent the last year working in Washington, D.C., alongside a Jewish colleague to mobilize students to raise awareness and money for malaria eradication in Africa. Randa and Avi hosted dozens of events with hundreds of participants and recruited a team of 35 young people to sustain the work they started. Randa has spent time in Syria volunteering with the United Nations Development Program, presented a workshop entitled “The Millennium Development Goals and Multi-Faith Action” at the 5th World Youth Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, and has represented America on a speaking tour for the U.S. State Department in Kuwait and Jordan.
Ansaf is a recent graduate of Stanford University. Last year when a hateful group traveled to Stanford’s campus for an anti-Semitic, anti-gay protest, Ansaf and his Hindu friend Anand mobilized over a thousand members of the campus community to come out at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning to stand up for their Jewish friends and the value of religious pluralism. In a letter to the campus, they wrote about why they felt called to do this: “As a Hindu and Muslim, we feel it goes to the heart of our respective traditions to stand in solidarity with others who are attacked on the basis of their identity. In other words, if we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group who may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be.”
The biggest communication problem for Muslims seems to be extremists. From terrorism to death threats against cartoonists to images of flag-burning and effigies abroad, you’ve got your work cut out for you. How do you effectively distance yourself and the Muslim faith from those kinds of extremists?
Eboo: My line on this is simple: the extremists of all traditions—and all religions have them—belong to the same tradition: extremism. Islam is a religion about loving God and loving your neighbor. The violent people who spread hatred don’t deserve any title other than extremist.
Why have things suddenly become so difficult for American Muslims now? Why are we seeing this kind of backlash now when for the most part we didn’t see it after 9/11?
Eboo: Before 9/11 there was a gap in public knowledge about Islam, and since 9/11 this gap has been filled with mis-information. There is a whole industry—bloggers, columnists, community leaders—all about spreading Islamophobia in this country. They are well-organized and capitalize on this knowledge gap to spread fear; I call them the forces of intolerance. I believe that the forces of inclusion—most Americans—have to be twice as loud to be heard over the forces of intolerance.
What communications efforts by Muslims have been most effective at confronting and disarming this negativity? Can you point to some examples?
Eboo: Muslims around the country are speaking out and working with their religiously diverse neighbors to spread this message. On 9/11, which for many Muslims was also the end of Ramadan and one of the holiest celebrations of the year, Eid, there was a huge national volunteering day called Muslim Serve. I think that by telling the stories of how Muslims contribute to their local communities, others can better understand the values we share, like mercy and compassion.
What efforts haven’t worked?
Eboo: I think many Muslim communities are realizing that pro-actively engaging with their neighbors through different efforts is proving to be the best strategy. When any faith community keeps to themselves and doesn’t try to reach out to others, they miss the opportunity to dispel any misperceptions.
You’ll be speaking at the Global Faith Forum with Bob Roberts next week. Why is inter-faith dialogue important? What do we accomplish by connecting with those who disagree with us?
Eboo: Bob Roberts is one of the best interfaith leaders in this country. He has told me that the evangelical Christian faith and values which he is dedicated to teach him it is crucial to build bridges of understanding between faiths. Bob has done incredibly impressive work all over the world developing relationships with Muslims and other religious groups. One of the things I admire most about him is his willingness to spread this message within his community—he’s not afraid to speak up about the importance of interfaith cooperation and how his Christian values call him to build it. I’m thrilled to be part of his Global Faith Forum.
One thing Bob always talks about is that to build interfaith cooperation, it’s not just dialogue that’s important—it’s taking action together to strengthen our communities and solve real social problems. By working together across the lines of faith, we prove to the world that we are better together.
Let’s talk specifically about church marketing—what kind of communication tactics that Christians use do you find most (and least) effective?
Eboo: I’m no expert on church marketing, but I’ve been impressed by how many evangelical churches have embraced social media in a very powerful way to engage their congregations. As IFYC’s base is largely young people, we clearly see the power in communicating through digital mediums. I’d say that for all faith communities, it’s critical to make communicating to and engaging youth ministry groups a high priority—this can’t be overlooked.