My favorite response to the threat by a Gainesville, Florida, man to burn the Qur’an came from that city’s Muslim community. They organized an interfaith book drive among the residents of Gainesville and donated the books to the local public library.
It was the perfect response for so many reasons. It reframed the confrontation from Christians vs. Muslims to the Forces of Inclusiveness vs. the Forces of Intolerance. It lifted up the values that the Muslim community and the Islamic tradition share with their American neighbors of all faiths – namely, respecting books. And it gave people a concrete project to apply these values, providing an inspiring image of community that’s better together.
Muslim communities all over America organized similar interfaith service projects. Here in Chicago, Muslims helped organize an interfaith service and even a 5k walk, which raised awareness and funds for victims of domestic violence. The staff from the organization I run, Interfaith Youth Core, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, came and participated proudly, learning about Islamic values, articulating their own faith values, and feeling good about the difference they were making in their community.
The message of these projects is clear: Muslims in this country are part of the ‘Us’. When someone says something ugly or Islamophobic, they are not just insulting Muslims, they are dividing Americans. Muslims are going to play a leadership role in strengthening the ‘Us’ of this country in the way it has always been strengthened – through projects that bring people from different backgrounds together to build respect, strengthen relationships and contribute to the common good.
Such projects not only benefit our country, they also have a specific benefit for the Muslim community. It has been widely cited that negative attitudes towards Muslims in this country have actually declined over the past five years. What is less well known is the research recently published by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in “American Grace.” They point out that the most effective way to improve attitudes towards particular religious groups is for people to meet individuals from those groups through common activities.
When American Muslims organize interfaith service projects, they apply the American and Islamic values of building good relations and serving others, they strengthen the civic fabric of their nation and they improve people’s attitudes towards their faith and their community.
That’s why I think interfaith civic engagement should be a top priority of the Muslim community in America.
Eboo Patel is founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit building interfaith cooperation around the world. Eboo is author of _Acts of Faith_ and has a featured blog on the _Washington Post_, “The Faith Divide”. You can follow him on Twitter @EbooPatel.