A Case for Youth Action, by Frank Fredericks

Posted on March 1st, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, Faith and Politics

While tackling the interfaith issues requires a myriad of approaches, some key elements must be present for an effective response to religious Otherism.  While both researching such topics and working with Worldfaith in the US, Lebanon, Sudan, and India, I have gained insight into how answer such challenges.  My personal belief is that the core of such responses revolves around the mobilization of youth.

First, in order to understand what is needed, we have to have a fresh look at who is involved in the public discourse of religion in politics and the media.  The first group is comprised of members of all religious traditions who abuse religious language for political gain.  Let’s refer to them as Haters.  Through their rhetoric, they either divide citizens against each other, or create the impression of a distant enemy, both of which are classic tools that leaders can use to maintain power.  I think of Qaeda blaming all the world’s problems on the US government – including AIDS – as a prime example. Even as a small group of people, they have generated a loud voice, and won over far too much of what I call the General Public. 

The General Public represents the majority of people from all societies, who don’t propagate hate, but many times support Haters because they lack direct contact and connections to the Other. They act not out of hate but out of fear and succumb all too often to the rhetoric of Haters.

This is where the other minority comes in, those who actively promote religious understanding.  This humanization is so much more than tolerance, a term which alludes to “putting up with” others rather than seeking understanding. We should respect religious differences, celebrate the shared values, and recognize the dignity owed to all of humanity.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  This third group represents those who volunteer, work, or support the interfaith movement.  If you are reading this publication, you likely fit into this category.  We’ll refer to them as Bridge Builders, a great termed coined by the Interfaith Youth Core, which under Eboo Patel’s leadership has become an international presence in the effort to promote pluralism. 

Now in this paradigm, the Haters and Bridge Builders are battling for the hearts of minds of the General Public.  With cutting edge use of technology and the media, grassroots mobilization, extensive fundraising, and downright determination, the Haters are currently overwhelming the Bridge Builders.  Rafeeq Ahmed, an Indian Muslim and community service organizer said it best when he explained, “Those who are working for division never sleep, while we see ourselves losing ground to them from our comfy chairs.”  I wish to explore the reasons for this failure, by recognizing what interfaith work means to the non-profit sector, religious communities, and most importantly, to the General Public.

The interfaith community represents a very small part of the non-profit sector, probably receiving less than 1% of all non-profit funds raised.  By and large, many of those who work in the non-profit sector (whether humanitarian work or human rights) see little need for engaging religion, because they often associate religion with the Haters who abuse it.  Essentially they take a secular approach to service work.  Whether the United Lebanon Foundation, CAFA in Sudan, or Aman Biridari in India, many of the partner organizations of World Faith (the interfaith organization I direct) have reiterated this idea to me.  The biggest issue that arises from this secular approach is that if a key group working for the betterment of society is silent on the issues of religion, then the Haters dominate the discourse of faith.  This has a substantial impact on the opinions of the General Public.  By using religious language to support humanitarian and human rights work, not only do we provide a better use of religion, but we discredit the message that religion has no part in the non-profit sector. It is critical that religion be brought back into human rights and international aid work. 

Next, there is a definite stigma attached to the term “interfaith” among religious leaders.  Whether it be an image of religious group therapy, or a post-modern “all religions are one” ideology, many religious leaders are wary of such programs, and limit their interactions to photo-ops.  When I lived in London a few years ago, I remember reading that a Rabbi stated, “We leaders come together, smile, and shake hands, but each year little has happened to truly improve the relations of our communities.”  This top-down, dialogue-based approach has yet to create a movement of interfaith understanding, or better yet, cooperation.

So what is this movement? And what should it look like?  History shines light on the matter:  Movements have relied on young people taking action.  I am not saying that religious leaders don’t have a part, nor am I saying that dialogue is completely useless.  What I am saying is that until young people get involved in a truly active manner, we will continue to lose this battle for the hearts and minds of the General Public.

Movements like the Hindu Nationalist Movement, accused of contributing to the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat in India, are mobilizing the youth.  Hezbollah is providing basic needs to the neglected people of the south of Lebanon, often times through youth volunteers.  What if we instead rebuild people’s homes in Bint al Jbail, but instead of spreading the message, “Hate Israel and vote Hezbollah,” we said, “Love your neighbor”?  Would our message begin to penetrate the noise that continues the cycle of hatred?  These are question we are asking ourselves, and even in Lebanon, World Faith is exploring such possibilities.   

Building a movement is not easy.  Not only does it require youth mobilization, but clear leadership and sustainable funding.  Eboo Patel fought for years to get significant funding behind the Interfaith Youth Core, succinctly arguing, “Osama bin Laden didn’t build Al Qaeda with bake sales.” World Faith and many similar organizations, however, are still struggling to find funding for a fulltime staff and sustainable infrastructure.  However, this movement is one that can make a clear impact on a generation whose legacy has yet to be determined.

The archetypical Anti-War Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s provides us with a useful example to follow.  While it may have failed to change the government’s policy in the Vietnam War (the protests largely subsided several years before the United States officially withdrew from Vietnam), what it did win was the support of the General Public.  And whether you agree with the Anti-War Movement’s ideals or not, it would be hard to argue that its influence is not still felt nearly forty years later. If enough young people take action, then a new era of understanding can commence.  This task begins with our creativity and ends with our determination.

Frank Fredericks is a recent graduate of New York University and Executive Director of World Faith. He is also a proud alum of the Fellows Alliance of the Interfaith Youth Core.

2 Responses to “A Case for Youth Action, by Frank Fredericks”

  1. Dilara Hafiz says:

    I second your suggestion that more ‘bridge-builders’ are needed from amongst our youth – I’m the Vice President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement as well as the Youth Director – the youth have the energy & motivation to dialogue & put their dreams into action.

    Eboo has called for an ‘interfaith movement’ in America following in the footsteps of the civil rights movement & the equal rights movement – the time is now!

  2. Lauren Santerre says:

    I work at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston in Texas as the Interfaith Relations Manager and we have just begun to explore how we can engage the youth of Houston in The Amazing Faiths Project, a “movement” we co-operate with Rice University. As I have grown to understand more about people, human nature, and religion there are always many ways that change comes to take hold in a society. I agree, however, that youth are a critical component to moving the general public to a place on the side of the ‘bridge-builders.’ I also agree that we are underfunded and often an after thought. My analysis of this particular dynamic is that it is easier and more comfortable for us as human beings to address the “symptoms” of our societal deficiences (such as providing food to the hungry or shelter to the homeless) than it is to address our own depravity and shortcomings. Promoting and working for peace requires us to ascertain and address the places of our own human weakness and make an effort to change it. We would rather offer a blanket or a sack lunch than change ourselves to release our stereotypes, meet someone we are afraid of, or walk into a foreign place of worship. We fear that somehow the “other” will make us less than we are because we are not secure in our own humanity. We as bridge-builders have to find ways to motivate others to embrace the dark parts of our own souls and move past them…that is our true challenge, the funding is only the tip of the iceberg. Thank you Frank for an engaging post.