This inspiring memoir of the quest for identity by an engaging Muslim American of Indian descent can be mapped by two streams running through the story: the personal, and the political. Early on these streams flow independently, and later they merge into something more powerful. Patel’s personal story is charming, self-effacing, and humorous. But it is the story of his place in the greater world that gives his book importance.
Patel spent much of his childhood and early adult years involved in service activities, giving up time to help others, and getting self-actualization in return. A connection with his faith was harder to come by. Gradually, however, he learned he could combine service and faith, and moreover, he could do so together with those of other faiths who also believed that God’s meaning was best expressed through helping others.
Patel tries to understand why it is that “doing God’s work” can be interpreted by some (such as suicide bombers and the 9/11 perpetrators) to include terrorist activities. What he concludes is that “religious violence … is more about sociology than scripture.” Young people, Patel charges, need a role in life; an opportunity to matter; a feeling like they are an important part of their world. But all too often, there are no options for young people to exercise their need for efficacy outside of joining up with manipulative extremists who co-opt religious language for a violent message. Patel argues (after Desmond Tutu) that religion is only a tool, much as a knife is. You can use it to cut bread, or you can use it to kill. He stresses, “a religious text comes to life through its interpreters. Violence committed in the name of a religion is really violence emanating from the heart of a particular interpreter.”
He contends that whereas extremists invest the time and money into harnessing the energy and discontent of youth, “too many members of the established older generation don’t even try to connect.” Part of the problem, as Patel found in his own efforts to build an interfaith youth movement, is that the older leadership of mainstream religious communities resists youth involvement. It is as if, Patel muses, they worry that too much exposure to other faiths will hijack the loyalty of these young, unformed persons. Moreover, many parents don’t press for youth religious activities because they view their kids as “too self-absorbed, materialistic, and anti-authoritarian to be interested in religion.” Maybe, Patel points out, they just need more opportunities.
The idea Patel has worked to materialize is an interfaith movement for youth that emphasizes pluralism and service; that aims to build strength in one’s own faith through exposure to and interaction with people of other faiths; and that promotes working together to express the values that different religious communities hold in common – “hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and mercy.”
At the end of the book, Patel has come to accept his identity as an American with Indian Muslim roots, and to live out his dream of combining service to others with his faith and with his career. He even gets the girl. And yet you know this is no “ending” at all. It is only the beginning for Patel and for the Interfaith Youth Core, insha’allah.
Read more about the Interfaith Youth Core here.