Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

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With a new afterword
Acts of Faith
is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel’s story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people—and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.


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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

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With a new afterword
Acts of Faith
is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel’s story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people—and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Patel, a former Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford, is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that unites young people of different religions to perform community service and explore their common values. Patel argues that such work is essential, manifesting "the faith line" that will define the 21st century. Patel's own story is more powerful than the exhaustive examples he provides of how mainstream faith failed to reach young people like Osama bin Laden and Yighal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. With honesty, Patel relates how he suffered the racist taunts of fellow youth, and, in response, alternately rebelled against and absorbed the religion of his parents-Islam-but in his own way. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue interfaith work with vigor, not quite knowing his end goal but always feeling in his gut that interfaith understanding was the key. This autobiography of a young activist captures how an angry youth can be transformed-by faith, by the community and, most of all, by himself-into a profound leader for the cause of peace. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Intriguing memoir by an American Muslim of Indian descent who discovered a calling to interfaith work. Patel, a founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, traces the personal journey that led to the group's formation and introduces readers to its philosophy. He describes his early years in suburban Chicago, "trying to fit in as a brown kid in a white world." In college, the author explains, he came to view America as a source of oppression and violence and took up the banner of radicalism with a vengeance. A variety of experiences and the influence of friends and mentors taught him to exchange rage for caring, and his life took off in a constructive direction from there. Patel points out various moments when, had he fallen in with religious or political extremists, everything could have gone wrong. Instead, the YMCA, the Catholic Worker movement and other organizations occupied his energies. Figures as diverse as Eric Rudolph and Osama bin Laden started out as troubled youth like himself, Patel notes, but were taken in by mentors who taught hate and violence. The lesson? Reach out to young people with a positive message before others reach them with a violent one. From that simple realization and a deep interest in religious pluralism, Patel joined with others to start the Interfaith Youth Core, which provides opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to interact and learn from each other. The author's message is compelling and overwhelmingly affirmative. His memoir is at times overloaded with detail, but it's an entertaining page-turner that juxtaposes youthful mistakes with remarkable moments of insight. Offers a worthwhile look into the burgeoning interfaith youth movement.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit building the interfaith youth movement. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and CNN. Named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report, he was appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Acts of Faith is the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Acts of Faith

The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation
By Eboo Patel

Beacon Press

Copyright © 2007 Eboo Patel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-7726-9


Introduction: The Faith Line.....................................................................................XI 1. The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis.........................................................................1 2. Growing Up American, Growing Up Other.........................................................................19 3. Identity Politics.............................................................................................37 4. Real World Activism...........................................................................................59 5. An American in India..........................................................................................77 6. The Story of Islam, the Story of Pluralism....................................................................101 7. The Youth Programs of Religious Totalitarians (or Tribal Religion, Transcendent Religion).....................125 8. Building the Interfaith Youth Core............................................................................151 Conclusion: Saving Each Other, Saving Ourselves..................................................................175Afterword........................................................................................................181 Acknowledgments..................................................................................................183 Bibliographic Essay..............................................................................................185

Chapter One

The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis

One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours. JAMES BALDWIN, Nobody Knows My Name

Hasib Hussain, left hand hanging slightly out of the pocket of his jeans, shuffles into the Luton railway station just before 7:30 a.m. on July 7, 2005, wearing an indifferent expression on his face and a pack on his back. Three young men accompany him. They look like any other group of young people heading for a day touring the museums and art galleries of London. They all wear indifferent expressions. They all wear packs on their backs.

But it is not water bottles and summer novels that they carry. Instead, each pack contains a carefully mixed concoction of hair bleach, food preservatives, and heating chemicals.

Hasib Hussain's pack is the last to blow. It detonates at 9:47 a.m. on a double-decker bus near Tavistock Square, peeling the top off and killing Hasib and thirteen others. Hasib was eighteen years old.

An hour earlier, at the Russell Square Tube station a few blocks away, Germaine Lindsay detonated his pack. It was the deadliest of the four bombings, destroying the lead carriage of the southbound 311 train and killing twenty-six people plus the bomber. Germaine was nineteen years old.

The other two blasts occurred within seconds of the Russell Square explosion. Mohammad Sidique Khan sat on Circle Line train 216. Seconds after it left Edgware Road, traveling west to Paddington, the explosives on his back tore apart his car like a can opener and impacted an oncoming eastbound train. Six people plus Mohammad were killed. Mohammad was thirty.

On the other side of central London, in the heavily Muslim East End, Shehzad Tanweer blew himself up on a westbound Circle Line train leaving Liverpool Street station for Aldgate. When the lights came on, the floor of the train was full of people covered in blood. Seven people plus the bomber were killed. Shehzad was twenty-two.

Shahara Islam was the first of the dead to be buried. A twenty-year-old British-born Bengali Muslim, she was riding the No. 30 bus on her way to her job as a cashier at the Co-operative Bank, Angel branch. I cannot help but imagine her smiling at her murderer, the tall and endearingly awkward Hasib Hussain, when he climbed aboard weighed down by the death in his backpack. The two should have been friends, discussing the challenges of being second-generation South Asian Muslims living between the tawdry permissiveness of British youth culture and the traditionalist piety of their parents' homes. "Our dear daughter is returning to her Lord a bloodstained martyr," her parents said during the funeral. Seven thousand mourners-Muslim and Christian, Jewish and Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian -were whispering prayers.

The world lives in London, and when bombs go off, it dies there. Ghanian-born Gladys Wundowa was riding the No. 30 bus on her way from her cleaning job at University College London to a class in housing management. Giles Hart, a British Telecom employee, had held voluntary posts ranging from chair of the Polish Solidarity Campaign of Great Britain to vice chair of the British Humanist Association. He was an activist in the peace movement and a member of the Anti-Slavery Society. His family released a statement that read, "It is tragic that he fell victim to the very evil against which he had struggled." Anthony Fatayi-Williams, Nigerian by heritage, born of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, was also murdered on the bus. An engineering executive by trade, he was passionate about reconciliation in his native Nigeria. "How many mothers' hearts must be maimed?" Anthony's mother asked in a speech she gave after the bombing.

Terry McDermott opens Perfect Soldiers, his book on the September 11 hijackers, with the image of Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the group, padding around his Hamburg, Germany, apartment in blue flip-flops. It seems so incongruous that this slight loner could have been responsible for the deaths of nearly three thousand Americans and foreign nationals and the profound shift in international affairs that followed. "We want our monsters to be outsized, monstrous," writes McDermott. "We expect them to be somehow equal to their crimes." But the world is a peculiar place, and McDermott, after conducting the definitive study into the lives of the nineteen hijackers, was forced to conclude, "The men of September 11 were, regrettably, I think, fairly ordinary men."

So were the men of July 7, 2005. "Suspects' Neighbors Say There Was No Hint of Evil" was the title of the story in the New York Times. Shehzad Tanweer, the twenty-two-year-old Aldgate bomber, loved Elvis Presley's version of Eddy Arnold's song "Make the World Go Away." "I thought his only interest was cricket," Shehzad's uncle said, anguished face still expressing disbelief. Shehzad worked in his father's successful fish and chips shop and drove around town in the family's red Mercedes. He wore brand-name clothes, worked out regularly, and studied sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University. Friends described him as infinitely likable, more apt to talk about sports and cars than anything else.

Mohammad Sidique Khan was a learning mentor at Hillside Primary School. He was universally appreciated by parents, students, and faculty for his commitment to assisting the newly immigrated children with everything from school lessons to athletics. As a teenager, he went by the nickname Sid and wore cowboy boots, expressions of his fascination with all things American. As he grew older, he was the guy young South Asians and Muslims in Leeds would go to if they needed help. "He gave me good advice, had a good head on his shoulders," a young man from the neighborhood told the New York Times. "He was rational." Khan's wife was an advocate for moderate Islam and women's rights, and his mother-in-law had received an honor from Queen Elizabeth for her community work.

Germaine Lindsay was described as one of the cool kids in school -smart, funny, and always smiling. Born in Jamaica, he converted to Islam at age fifteen. He became well known for his recitations of the Qur'an at the Leeds Grand Mosque and his robust efforts to convert his classmates. Germaine married a white British Muslim convert, and the two had a baby together. Neither his mother nor his wife could believe that he had become a suicide bomber. His mother remembered Germaine mourning the victims of September 11, and his wife would not accept that Germaine had left her and their baby behind.

Hasib Hussain was the youngest, the shyest, the least remarkable, the most impressionable. When he was a child, Hasib bought his candy from Ajmal Singh's corner shop, like all the other kids in Holbeck, an ethnically mixed neighborhood in the British city of Leeds. He went to primary school a block from his home, and he loved kicking a plastic soccer ball down the street where he lived. His father worked in a factory, and his tight-knit extended family had been in the area for thirty years. It was his mother's call to the police, reporting that Hasib had not returned home from his trip to London with friends and was not answering his cell phone, that broke the bombing case open.

Tall and lanky, Hasib Hussain tried hard to fade into the background at Matthew Murray High School, but the white toughs picked on him anyway. The sermons at the local mosque rarely addressed this reality. His parents' advice was to pray more and do better in school. He started running with a group of Pakistani Muslims who fought back, a crowd that provided him with support and identity but was estranged from the pious Muslim community of his household and mosque. Scared that their son was losing his way, his parents sent him abroad, thinking that religious influence from the Muslim world would straighten him out.

A cousin observed that Hasib returned not only more devout but also more political and strident in his views. "I thought he had been brainwashed," the cousin told the Guardian. Hasib began spending more time with Mohammad Sidique Khan. Khan had recently rejected Leeds's mosques for practicing what he claimed was a diluted and false form of Islam and had become part of the inner circle at the Iqra Learning Center.

When radical Muslims traveled through Leeds to spread their message of proper Muslim behavior plus hatred for the West, they held their meetings at the Iqra Learning Center. In addition to traditional Islamic literature like the Qur'an, the Hadith, and books on Muslim law, the store carried materials on Western conspiracy theories against Islam. Part of the collection included DVDs showing scenes of Muslims being maimed and murdered in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Chechnya juxtaposed against President George Bush saying the word "crusade." "It was slick and really made you feel angry," Amear Ali, a thirty-six-year-old Muslim who lives in Leeds told the Associated Press. Ali described how the owner of the bookstore approached him with the offer of religious education lessons. First came the proper way to do Muslim prayers, then the lectures about injustice against Muslims around the world, and next the DVDs. "You could see how it could turn someone to raw hate ... I know it was propaganda and was made to make you feel this way. But what about young guys who see this material as a call to do something?"

That is exactly what Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad wants. A Syrian-born middle-aged father of seven, he lived in North London for nearly two decades, supported in part by a monthly British welfare check of more than $500, before decamping for the Middle East soon after the London bombings. He helped establish Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose mission is to reestablish the Islamic caliphate. In its study circles, Hizb recruits learn that Muslim identity is necessarily opposed to the West. The 2003 Hizb conference in Birmingham, England, drew eight thousand people, many of them young. Zeyno Baran, director of international security and energy programs at the Nixon Center (a nonpartisan foreign policy institution in the United States), said, "Hizb produces thousands of manipulated brains, which then 'graduate' from Hizb and become members of groups like al-Qa'ida ... It acts like a conveyor belt for terrorists." Sheikh Omar left Hizb, or was asked to leave, after he stated that British prime minister John Major should be assassinated and beheaded for his role in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. After Sheikh Omar's departure, Hizb attempted to refashion itself as a nonviolent organization committed to a puritan Muslim vision.

Unable to preach violence through Hizb, Sheikh Omar went on to organize a radical Muslim youth organization that he called Al-Muhajiroun in the early 1990s. He used this platform to preach sermons and post web messages calling young British Muslims to wage jihad against the West in Iraq, Israel, and Chechnya. He referred to the September 11 hijackers as the Magnificent 19. A poster advertising an Al-Muhajiroun event had pictures of each hijacker set against a glorious, glowing backdrop. Sheikh Omar blamed British foreign policy for the July 7 attacks and said of the hundreds of young British Muslims who attend his sermons, "They know that the Prime Minister has his hands full of the blood of Muslims in Palestine and in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We hear from many who say they want to attack."

Sheikh Omar is a master institution builder and youth organizer. He understands precisely what buttons to push to harden a young Muslim's fluid religious identity into a terrorist commitment. The itinerant Muslim preachers who inspired the radical study circle at the Iqra Learning Center and the locals who organized it likely learned their trade through Sheikh Omar's networks.

How did awkward, shy Hasib Hussain become a suicide bomber? Sheikh Omar's people got to him before we did.

After the flurry of phone calls to friends and family and the relief that they were safe, after the prayers that my wife and I said for the victims and all those left wounded by their loss, I thanked God for saving my skin again. In my life, religious violence has always existed in the gray area between reality and imagination. My cousins in Bombay describe locking themselves inside their apartments in 1993 as Hindu mobs armed with machetes roamed the streets looking for Muslims to kill. My aunt tells about the cold fear that struck her heart when she heard the loud blast that was the Al Qaeda bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Her husband, a diplomat, had left for work a few minutes before. She thanked God for weeks that his journey to the center of the city had been delayed that day. In November 1999, I left late for an appointment at a waterfront café in Cape Town, South Africa. As I approached, I started noticing glass shards strewn around, and then I heard the wailing sirens. "What's going on?" I asked a cop. "A bomb went off at a pizza parlor," he responded. It was next door to the café where I was supposed to meet a friend.

I practically lived in London for three years. It was where I did the research for my doctorate. I have fond memories and a clear picture of each of the sites that was bombed. Edgware Road and Aldgate had the best kebab stands in the city. Tavistock Square was my favorite park, full of antiwar memorials. I rode the elevator at the Russell Square Tube several times a year and walked the few blocks to the British Museum, where I would stand in front of the Elgin Marbles hoping that the genius of the ancients would provide inspiration for my thesis.

Tavistock Square may never offer the same calm. The Circle Line may never feel normal again, it will be impossible to ride the elevator at Russell Square without remembering the people killed below. All changed forever by four young men who prayed in the same language I consider holy.

An eerie feeling crept over me as I stared at the faces of the London bombers, especially the three who traced their history back to the subcontinent. Their travails in school, their relationships with their parents, their indifference to Islam as adolescents followed by an intense reengagement-it all felt familiar. I sensed a flicker of recognition from a deep place. A piece of their story was a part of me.

I can imagine going to Hasib Hussain's home for dinner. I would have given salaams to his father at the door, taken my shoes off, admired the Qur'anic calligraphy and the picture of the Ka'aba, the most important site in Islam, on the wall. I would have immediately known the curries his mother was cooking from the smells wafting through the house. When I complimented her dinner, she would have looked away shyly, but not before a happy smile crossed her face. I would have sat with Hasib's father in the living room after dinner, drinking Indian masala tea-sweet with sugar, spicy with cinnamon, fragrant with cardamom. We would have made the obligatory comments about global politics, wondering when India and Pakistan would finally work out the issue of Kashmir. Perhaps his father, his Muslim solidarity flaring for an instant, would have told me how angry he was at America for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians for so long and for believing that you can bomb countries into democracy. Then he would have hurriedly said, "But I love the American people. It is the government that does all the bombing."

Inevitably, we would have settled on the subject of life in the West. He would have shaken his head and said that England is hard. You can make a living, yes, but the culture is a stranger to you, and then it takes your son and makes him a stranger, too. He would have told me that all he wanted was for his son to marry a nice Muslim girl, have a family, and make a good living. "I think computers is the best profession nowadays," he would have mused, twisting the ends of his mustache. Then his voice would have fallen a little, and he would have confessed the problems that Hasib had had at school-the falling grades, the truancy, the fights. He would have sounded confused about why. Where was the famed education and social mobility of the West? And then he would have spoken about how sending Hasib abroad had straightened him out. He now wore a Muslim cap and prayed regularly, and he no longer went around with those boys who, rumor had it, were into alcohol and worse things.


Excerpted from Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel Copyright © 2007 by Eboo Patel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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