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Religious pluralism advocate given campus interfaith award

By By Andrea Ordonez

Dr. Eboo Patel, a Muslim of Indian descent, grew up wanting to be white.

"I grew up in the largely white suburbs of Chicago," said Patel.  "For a 17-year-old kid who grew up really wanting to be white, who never read a single book by a person of color in his entire English curriculum, from third grade to senior in high school, it was a revelation for me, the diversity movement. And I swallowed that pill whole."

During college, reading about the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement eventually sparked Patel's interest in the hardships of religious tolerance in America. As he learned more about his family's religion and became a practicing Muslim, Patel noticed shared values between Islam and other faiths.

"All faiths call us to serve," said Patel. "You can make religion a bridge to cooperation."

 The recipient of the University's 2012 Guru Nanak Interfaith award, Patel created the Interfaith Youth Core in 1998. He has gone on to serve in President Obama's inaugural council for the White House Office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and been named one of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News and World Report.

But Patel's primary focus remains on making young people more accepting of other religions. He says they are most affected by society's portrayal of religious fanaticism.

"Extremism is carried out by, basically, people your ages," said Patel to the University students in attendance. "The foot soldiers of religious extremism are young people."

Thus, Patel's organization aims to bring college students on campuses around the nation away from religious prejudice and toward pluralism.

Hofstra's Interfaith Center helps foster religious tolerance on campus. The chaplains work together at events like the Center for Civic Engagement's interfaith dinner and dialogue, Thanks & Giving, 9/11 Memorial and this week's Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"I think that each of us strives for a better understanding of each other and a greater love for our brothers and sisters," said Bridget McCormack, the University's Catholic chaplain. "Not everybody is always going to be on the same page, but that doesn't mean we can't work to understand each other."

Rabbi Dave Siegel, the executive director of Hofstra Hillel, agrees noting each chaplain's interaction with students of different faiths.

"Students from all different faiths are comfortable going to other people's offices," said Siegel. "I think that a lot of that creates the greater culture of pluralism."

An instance that stands out to him is one between him and a Muslim student. "Someone had asked about Muslim prayer services because they were looking at the school, so they came to the Interfaith Center," said Siegel. "So I walked them down to where the Muslim prayer services were."

Patel's message of cooperation also reaches out to students that do not follow a specific religion. Max Zdrada, a senior liberal arts major, finds Patel's dedication to interfaith cooperation motivational.

"I'm respectful and indifferent to all religions," said Zdrada. "[Patel] said that there's ignorance in the world; and how do you solve that ignorance? That is such a difficult question and he's been able to do something about it."

Dr. Eboo Patel (right), founder of Interfaith Youth Core, talks with close friend and Hofstra Professor of Religion Huseein Rashid.

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