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Eboo Patel is a Muslim from India, who dated a Mormon girl in high school and a Jewish young woman in college. He was drawn to Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement and to the writings of Gandhi, Malcolm X and the Dalai Lama.
Such diverse religious influences ignited Patel's desire to answer the question: Can one maintain a deeply held belief, while engaging with those of divergent or even opposing faiths?
Clearly, the nationally recognized expert in interfaith relations sees such interactions among believers as not only possible, but also crucial.
In 1998, he founded the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core on college campuses, which according the group's website, seeks to "counter the growing problem of religious intolerance."
This week Patel will bring that message to the Beehive State.
On Wednesday, the Muslim writer will be the keynote speaker at Utah Valley University, as part of the Orem school's ribbon-cutting for its new Reflection Center, which will focus on interfaith engagement.
Patel's approach may seem an odd choice for the school, given that it is at least 85 percent LDS,
Indeed, said Brian Birch, director of UVU's religious-studies program, that majority status does present a "unique opportunity and challenge for inclusive education."
But school President Matthew Holland, Birch said, has set a set high priority on being "an inclusive institution, a place in which people of all faiths or those outside of religious communities will be welcome and feel comfortable."
Patel, who has promoted his interfaith vision at the TED Conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, works with more than 400 campuses including UVU and Utah State University on developing activities for interreligious understanding and shared action.
On Thursday, Patel will travel to Logan to give a second presentation, "Building Bridges of Interfaith Cooperation," at USU.
According to several recent studies, many Americans know almost nothing about faiths other than their own.
"The future of our world depends upon leaders who are not only literate about other religions, but who can bridge the faith divide," Bonnie Glass-Coffin, USU anthropology professor who organized Patel's visit to that Utah school, said in a school news release.
In the release, Glass-Coffin quotes Patel as saying that "interfaith interactions can be a bomb of destruction, a barrier of division, a bubble of isolation, or a bridge of cooperation."
It is awareness of other religions, she said, that is "the first step toward interfaith cooperation."
Patel's two speeches
Wednesday • "Changing the World Through Interfaith Cooperation," 1 p.m., Utah Valley University, Grande Ballroom of the Sorensen Student Center.
Thursday • "Building Bridges of Interfaith Cooperation," 7 p.m., Utah State University, Kent Concert Hall in the Daryl Chase Fine Arts Center.