Book review – “Interfaith leadership: a primer” by Eboo Patel

Interfaith leadership: a primer by Eboo Patel, Boston, Beacon Press, 2016, 182 pp., US $18.00 (softcover), ISBN 78-080703362-3

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Editors note: The Global Campaign for Peace Education and the International Institute on Peace Education remind you of our call to Address Identity-based Violence through Teach-ins at American Universities. This book review may provide meaningful substance for learning toward action that addresses identity-based violence.

Bridging divides in worldviews and values is an area to which insufficient attention has been paid, even by peace education. The lion’s share of attention has been given to the fruits of peace research, conflict studies and the theories associated with them. Religion per se and philosophical foundations of peace continue to be marginal to the field, finding place mainly in denomination-based institutions and a few programs that include ethics. For all the hailing of culture of peace frameworks and goals, minimal space and time in our curricula is occupied by one of the most significant factors in any culture, fundamental religious and spiritual beliefs and foundational worldviews. In these days when so many political issues, severe social contention and interpersonal violence is articulated and acted out in the name of the basic and contending religious values that comprise a major divide in this society and the world, this gaping hole in peace curricula must be filled. Interfaith leadership provides a good start. With some adaptation, it could serve as a guide to bridging most of the divides that now inflict social and political strife on this country. It outlines a clear methodology for building the required bridges.

In his book defining interfaith leadership and describing the practices and purposes thereof, Eboo Patel, Founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core and 2016 laureate of the El Hibri Peace Education Prize, has produced an invaluable resource for peace education, one that I would suggest be included in the evolving cannon of the field. He gives us in his manual on the development of interfaith leadership, a model for the construction of learning programs intended to develop fundamental knowledge and practical skills of peacemaking in this society and with adaptations to the global level, providing all the components of the design and implementation of a peacelearning curriculum.

It offers a philosophic rationale (in this case in terms of a theology of interfaith social action) for preparing interfaith leadership; designates a social need and purpose for it; proposes the characteristics of the effective practitioner, articulating what we peace educators refer to as educational goals, the capacities of such a leader that emerge from what he calls qualities, and learning objectives, the behaviors that illustrate the requisite leadership skills. Indeed, all that he outlines as comprising interfaith leadership and the processes for cultivating and applying it might be as easily included in an argument for the need, purposes and practices of what I would designate as peace agency, the capacities that inform effective citizen action for peace. Indeed, the book sets forth a clear set of concepts, highly reminiscent of those familiar to any IIPE participant and/or reader of the Global Campaign for Peace Education regular posts and periodic newsletters or In Factis Pax, an online journal of peace education.

The realms of such civic action, as we have long advocated, span from the interpersonal to the intercultural and international, more aptly global or planetary. Most recently the discussion of realms of peace agency has been focused on global citizenship, what characterizes it and how education might contribute to its development. Two of those characteristics I would call integrated-identity and ethical competency. The planetary crises we currently face require not only knowledge of the problems, the political capacities to deal with them, but most important the skills of evaluation and adherence to a well considered code of civic ethics integral to the achievement of a just world peace. Such ethical competency is constitutive to the multi-tiered identity that derives from informed awareness of our responsibilities to the larger human society that complement those we have to our own respective nations and communities. Identifying as a global citizen as well as of our own country also means that we view planetary problems from multiple perspectives, not just that of our particular national interest. Indeed, in applying such multiple perspectives we may come to understand more fully the true nature and implications of the authentic interests of our respective nations and even deepen our national identities. Interfaith experience in this country is a realm of civic and communal life exceptionally well suited to develop such capacities. That is, to be comfortable with our complex social identities and to achieve the ethical maturity to see the common interests of the varied and diverse groups that comprise our society, while maintaining, even enriching, our own individual, likely multiple and unique personal identities.

While not articulated in those particular terms, Patel’s book provides us with essential knowledge of how religious differences, while maintaining the integrity of their respective beliefs and traditions and the faith specific identities of their practitioners, can be accommodated into communal action around common values that are, as well, embraced by secular civil society agents and organizations. Even more important to the purposes of peace education, he describes interfaith leaders in vivid terms of actual social achievements resulting from what he defines as interfaith skills applied to actual problems of the kind that are often addressed by peace agents.

The work itself is a model of the application of scholarship to social reality, demonstrating as my colleague and widely respected conflict scholar, Morton Deustch once said in a conversation on the theory – practice relationship, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Patel skillfully introduces us to a range of relevant theories that vividly illustrate Professor Deutsch’s assertion, and in so doing, provides us with a review of the relevant interfaith literature. He cites and summarizes the theorists best suited to the interfaith enterprise (or so it seems to me, so cogent are his arguments). He frames his citations within accounts of actual social conditions and events, describing particular cases and the persons involved in them, demonstrating theory in action. He makes a sound case for interfaith as a significant realm of civic action, particular actions to overcome injustices rooted in religious prejudice. His experiential anecdotes will have special relevance to those educating for peace agency, intending to produce inter-group cooperation on commonly recognized social problems, much as we currently see various peace and social justice groups rallying together to address the climate crisis and the religion based exclusion of refugees and immigrants from the United States. He recounts these theory-in-action cases in a highly engaging writing form that would well serve those writing to advocate peace studies and peace education, indeed, to present an argument on any social or political problem.

The emphasis on the role of vision in forming goals that embody significant change will resonate with peace educators who long have advocated developing images of alternatives to the systems and situations in which the problem of peace is embedded. This emphasis is especially relevant now that precipitous governmental actions demonstrate that an essential collateral capacity to envisioning is anticipation of consequences, and how that in turn relates to ethical competency.

The purpose of this review is first and foremost to acquaint peace educators with this invaluable work, while arguing for the inclusion of the study of religious belief as essential knowledge for peacemaking as it is for interfaith leadership. I believe, as well, that the development of what Patel defines as interfaith leadership skills should be seriously considered for inclusion among the learning objectives pursued in peace studies courses. As is too painfully evident, the present state of American politics embodies severe problems and deeply challenging issues arising in no small part from ignorance of the many faiths practiced by our citizenry and of the failure of education to produce the critical capacities that characterize ethically competent citizens. The prejudice that derives from that ignorance and the violence that the prejudice ignites among those lacking critical capacities and ethical competence should be immediately addressed by our field.

As the source of a highly effective antidote to these shameful social ills, considering the many other admirable attributes of this book, I advocate that it should be widely read by citizens in general and peace and religious educators in particular. It is an important, enlightening work that reads so well that as Mary Poppins sang, “… makes the [antidote] go down in the most delightful way.”

Betty A. Reardon
International Institute on Peace Education



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