Last night, Eboo Patel, who serves on President Obama's advisory board for Faith Based Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke at UC Irvine. The talk was hosted by UCI and the Orange County Center for Living Peace. The audience was between 200-300 persons, a mix of students and people involved in peace and interfaith programs. I attended and was able to videotape the event. I will be putting the video up on this site later this week.
As said, a lot of the folks there were involved in interfaith and peace programs, probably members of Living Peace. Before the event, some people standing near me were chatting. One of them had apparently just been named "compassion director, coordinator" or something like that. There was also a table outside where one could purchase copies of Patel's books.
Virtually everybody who mattered in Orange County was there.The head imam of the Irvine mosque was there. He came up to say hello, and we chatted briefly. The head of the Olive Tree Initiative was there. Retired vice chancellor Manuel Gomez was there. Current vice chancellor Thomas Parham gave the welcoming speech. I even thought I saw OC Human Relations Commission CEO Rusty Kennedy there up front and hobnobbing with the dignitaries before the speech. At least it looked like Kennedy; tall creme colored suit with nobody in it.
This week, I had a chance to watch a couple of previous videos of Patel speaking. No question, he is eloquent and impressive. Born in India to a Muslim family, he grew up in Illinois and is currently the director and founder of Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. He is heavily involved in interfaith programs.
I had hoped to be able to participate in the q and a after his talk, but it was announced at the outset that there would be a short q and a with 2 or 3 questions from the student audience.
Patel did not disappoint in his speech. He is an impressive speaker-even better that President Obama. He not only speaks without a teleprompter; he speaks without notes.
Patel spoke of the importance of diverse peoples working together. He had anecdotes of peoples of different backgrounds learning to work together in places like Nicosia, Cyprus. He said that we must set aside the unsolvable differences between us and concentrate on what holds us together in our common interests. He quoted someone as having said that only a homogeneous society could operate as a democracy while diverse populations had to be held together under a dictatorship-until the US. He told of his meeting with the Dalai Lama in India. He had a number of compelling phrases, like, "Either we learn to live together as one, or we die separately as fools".
Patel also mentioned that when he meets with people, questions come up about "the elephant in the room". He didn't say what that elephant was, but said that when we concentrate solely on the elephant, we ignore all the other animals in the zoo. At one point, he acknowledged that some had accused him of being a radical Muslim, but how could he be so radical when he was involved in all these interfaith activities? He did make reference to specific periods of Islamophobia in the US after 9-11 and at the height of the Ground Zero mosque furor. However, there was no mention of the on-going persecution of non-Muslim religious minorities from one end of the Islamic world to the other or the killings between Sunni and Shia (the elephant in the room?)
The audience loved it. There was nothing in his words that I took issue with. I was so impressed I wanted to rush outside and buy his books, CDs, DVDs, and exercise videos.
When he finished, four pre-selected students were called upon to ask questions including one female, a young Muslim student, and two other young men, one of whom I believe is active in the Olive Tree Initiative. Of course, they were friendly questions, and Patel knocked them out of the park.
Had I been able, I would have liked to ask Patel about the recent accusations coming from an Egyptian magazine (Rose El Youssef) that listed him as one of "6 Muslim Brotherhood operatives in the US government". ( I don't know if that is true or not.) I would have also liked to ask him, as has been reported, how he could appear on a panel in July 2011 at an Islamic Society of North America conference with Siraj Wahhaj, a man who has called America a "filthy garbage can" and called for an Islamic takeover of the US. I suppose he would have handled the questions adroitly stating on the record that he has no connections whatsoever to the Muslim Brotherhood. How could someone who is involved in interfaith programs and who spoke so eloquently support a group that is sending its followers in Egypt out to burn down Christian churches? Perhaps he would have told me that he debated furiously against Wahhaj on that panel. (I don't know what was discussed.) Besides, any hostile or critical questions would have probably resulted in my being tarred and feathered by the audience. Hell hath no fury like the peace and compassion crowd.
On a serious note, however, and I am going out on a limb here, but it seemed to me that the UCI Muslim Student Union was sparsely represented in the audience- if at all. Of course, it was hard to tell, but I didn''t see any familiar faces, and I only noticed a couple of women in the audience wearing the hijab, and one of them was rather elderly.
Ironically, it was three years ago in the very same hall that the MSU disrupted the speech of the Israeli ambassador to the US. There was no mention of that either last night.