Eboo Patel
Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, praised UC Irvine Tuesday as a model of interfaith initiatives, citing the Olive Tree Initiative and the campus partnership with Center for Living Peace, which co-sponsored his appearance. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Eboo Patel’s speech Tuesday night in UC Irvine’s Pacific Ballroom took audience members through America’s history as an inclusive, pluralistic society. In theory, if not always in practice, he said, the U.S. has stood out as “the first nation to believe people from different backgrounds … can come together to build a country.”

A globally renowned speaker on interfaith engagement and cooperation, Patel was the seventh guest in the university’s Living Peace Series, which hosts international leaders committed to making the world a healthy, sustainable and compassionate place. Previous speakers have included the Dalai Lama, Richard Branson, Charlize Theron and Jane Goodall. The series is co-sponsored by Orange County’s Center for Living Peace.

Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, pointed out that Thomas Jefferson owned a Koran; George Washington pledged his commitment to the Jewish community in his famous letter to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island; and George W. Bush visited a mosque – the first U.S. president to do so. All demonstrate the “forces of pluralism” that have shaped this nation, he said.

“America, at its best, stands up for people of all backgrounds, believers and nonbelievers,” said Patel, who served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

A Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in the sociology of religion from the University of Oxford, he noted that the U.S. is the most religiously diverse country in human history, as well as the most devout nation in the industrialized West. Attendance at religious services here exceeds that in Europe, Canada and Australia.

“Diaspora groups from global conflicts live in the United States, in Orange County and at UC Irvine,” Patel said. “The question we have to ask is: Will the U.S. extend religious wars or build something different?”

That “something different” seems to be taking shape at UC Irvine, which he praised as a model of interfaith campus initiatives.

“No other place allows you to move faster between learning and action than college,” Patel said. “The Olive Tree Initiative and the Living Peace Series are great symbols of interfaith cooperation.”

He also addressed “true” diversity.

“The definition of diversity is not interesting ethnic foods,” Patel joked. “It means living in a society with people you disagree with profoundly but finding a way to get along with them and work together anyway.”

In Africa, for example, the battle against malaria is being fought by Jews, Christians and Muslims through interfaith partnerships, he said. Jewish and Catholic groups in the U.S. and campaigns such as the United Nation’s “Nothing but Nets” raise money for the delivery of antimalarial mosquito nets to Africa. There, they are distributed to families by Muslim and Christian religious leaders on the ground.

UC Irvine students left Patel’s talk feeling inspired.

“I’m interested in finding common ground between diverse groups of people, especially now, with all of the partisan politics and the inability of our leaders to cooperate,”  said Terra White, a graduate student in neurobiology & behavior.

Fatima Mubbashir, a fourth-year psychology & social behavior student, hopes to cultivate interfaith partnerships on campus.

“People don’t have to agree on fundamental values, but that doesn’t mean we can’t collaborate on humanitarian issues and other common goals,” she said.