Activist Eboo Patel’s nonfiction book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
(2012), is about life for American Muslims, especially in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As the founder of Chicago's Interfaith Youth Core, an inaugural member of Barack Obama's Advisory Council of Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, and himself a Muslim of Indian descent, Patel is uniquely well-suited to describe the interrelations between Muslims and other faiths in America.
This promise of America is the "promise of pluralism," Patel writes. The Founding Fathers and the Constitution guarantee Americans of different faiths, attitudes, and beliefs can coexist peacefully without being threatened by the state. The promise was in danger of being broken, particularly in the wake of 9/11, by what Patel calls "the poison of prejudice." Before diving deeply into the Islamophobia that ripped through America after September 11, 2001, Patel highlights other times in American history when large groups of Americans, often with either tacit or explicit approval from the U.S. government, discriminated against non-whites and non-Christians. That the promise of America survived these crises gives Patel hope that it will survive the scourge of Islamophobia currently threatening America's most sacred values. Patel also comments on the history of interfaith organizations such as his own and their indispensable role in navigating these national crises.
In describing anti-Muslim actions and rhetoric after 9/11, Patel reveals his intimate involvement with what became termed by many in the media—both on the right and the left of American politics—as "The 9/11 Mosque." The “Mosque,” as it were, was not a mosque at all, but an interfaith community center Patel likens to a YMCA. Architect and interfaith Muslim leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf planned the project known as the Cordoba House. Rauf, contrary to many right-wing media reports, is not a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist who hates America. In fact, his stated life goal is to improve relations between the Muslim world and the Western world. He condemned the atrocity of 9/11 in the strongest terms possible.
This focus on interfaith relations initially draws Patel to Rauf as a leader. However, after the Islamophobic activist Pamela Geller learns that the Cordoba House would be built mere blocks away from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, she launches a propaganda offensive against Rauf and his plans, painting him and his followers as terrorists whose plans to build the community center are akin to the works of Muslim warlords of antiquity who built mosques to commemorate their conquering of various foes and territories throughout history. As one of Rauf's associates, Patel himself became the target of a relentless barrage of hateful lies directed at him on the Internet, television, and radio. He would wake up every day to see new accusations: that he was a radical, an extremist, and even a full-blown terrorist.
Nevertheless, Patel's response to this hate is inspiring and instructive for anyone whose community and beliefs are under attack. Patel characterizes this response, recalling a phone call he received from one of his mentors, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who responded to Patel's understandable anger, “That’s the wrong response, Eboo. You’re looking at this upside down. We Muslims have known these bigots have existed for a long time. Now the whole country knows […] These are the moments change-agents yearn for, Eboo. Our country is molten and can be shaped. Ask Allah to help you do your work well. This is Ramadan, and our nation needs it.”[TT1]
Patel says the most important realization for him was that "there is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under attack, that bigotry concealed doesn’t go away, it only festers underground."[TT2]
In other words, that people were talking about Muslims, even for the wrong reasons, created an opportunity to change the conversation. Dredging up ugly, poisonous rhetoric against Muslims, 9/11 was exactly this type of opportunity. Islamophobia existed in America long before 9/11, however, by shoving it into the light, 9/11 gave Muslims the chance to address it on a massive scale.
The Patel then asks himself if he has been successful in redirecting the conversation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Are things better for Muslims because of his work with the Interfaith Youth Core? These questions don't have easy answers. On one hand, Islamophobia has by no means been eradicated in America. On the other hand, Patel has seen people's eyes opened through conversations about the Muslim religion and through his efforts to educate people who are ignorant about Islam. Therefore, even if change occurs only one person at a time, Patel can be confident that the fight he fights every day when he wakes up in the morning is a worthy one.
In the end, Sacred Ground
is, in the words of Madeleine Albright, “a refreshing, thought-provoking, myth-smashing, and deeply patriotic exploration of American identity and ideals.”
This needs a citation