Utilizing Productive Collaboration, Empathetic Understanding and Authentic Friendship: a Conversation with James Patton

On November 3, the Swarthmore Interfaith Center and the Department of Sociology & Anthropology will be co-hosting a panel on Abrahamic interfaith responses to Islamophobia. The panelists will include representatives from the the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), the American Islamic Congress (AIC), and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC).

The ICRD is an NGO that promotes faith-based diplomacy by increasing the capacity of religious peacemakers and decreasing religion’s role as a driver of conflict. They currently work in high-conflict areas in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, in addition to working on religious freedom and religious tolerance issues domestically. Although ICRD is not a religious organization, it works extensively with faith leaders and religious institutions, bridging religion and politics in support of peacemaking.

The Daily Gazette had the chance to speak with James Patton, Executive Vice President of ICRD about his hopes for the upcoming event and thoughts about the importance of interfaith engagement with the issue of Islamophobia.

The Daily Gazette: What are your goals for the Swarthmore event? What is essential that audience members come away with?

James Patton: To make clear how ICRD approaches its conflict transformation work, to have a thoughtful discussion elucidating how the student population thinks about Islamophobia, related themes, and (in particular) their creative and productive role.

Essential points might be 1) the development of understanding and appreciation across identities is a constant and subtle effort, valid in our everyday interactions and 2) real or perceived identity conflict in one context has direct implications for the same in other contexts (e.g.: how parts of the Muslim world react to religious minorities when the West (with which they are associated) is perceived as anti-Islam).

DG: Why is an interfaith response essential to fighting Islamophobia?

JP: Most obviously because Islamophobia is housed primarily within non-Muslim faiths. The first interfaith requirement is for those with a more negative role to hear from Muslims and 1) benefit from the positive effects of simple contact and 2) understand the feelings and experiences of Muslims who have suffered from Islamophobia – increasing empathy. Beyond that, however, most faiths and faith practitioners have some historical experience with prejudice, and will resonate with that commonality, if not other identity affinities, allowing for a framing of identity beyond simple faith difference. Finally, the simple demonstration of a broad range of faiths collaborating against exclusion will break prejudicial paradigms, and challenge “doctrinally-justified othering.”

DG: What can students of faith do to counter Islamophobia?

JP: Find and elevate the spiritual and doctrinal sources and histories that compel one to compassion, stewardship, hospitality and protection. Then speak out. Don’t fear the powerful institutions of the tradition that foment hatred, every tradition has deep internal disagreements and voices that seem to run counter to spiritual principles. Being cowed into silence by a real or perceived threat to one’s inclusion in the faith community is one of the strongest weapons hate-mongers count on. Find allies, witness and accompany, and find outlets for dissent.

DG: How does ICRD include or benefit from the voices/participation of students?

JP: ICRD has a robust team of interns in three cycles every year. Those interns rarely do “busy work” – rather they contribute substantively to research, program design, and strategies. We have a relatively small budget, so are unable to pay interns or send them to the field, but most leave their tenure grateful for the rich content of their contribution — as we are grateful to them.

As we head into the future, we hope to increasingly include more advanced students (meaning graduate-level or highly qualified undergraduates in directly relevant fields) in the implementation work, to increase their field skills, exposure and input into real-time evaluation and strategizing. This will require a stronger funding profile than we currently have, but we have already been successful at placing interns who do not need supplemental funding with field partners in places like Colombia and Pakistan.

Perhaps most importantly, we would like to increase the influence of experiential knowledge of students from conflict contexts on our planning. As historical events such as the so-called “Arab Spring” demonstrated, “youth” increasingly lead the way in social change…and with the power of contemporary tools of travel and communication to stabilize, transform or disrupt, the collaboration of educated younger professionals to reach key audiences is profoundly important.

DG: What is the responsibility of students in terms of interfaith engagement on campuses?

JP: Education and leadership often coincide. Universities not only extend the depth of individual learning about new fields of knowledge, but expose students (both domestic and international) of all traditions and origins to other communities, often for the first time. If the next generation of leaders encounter that difference with fear and ignorance, they will carry those prejudices into the communities and institutions that they guide. However, if next gen leaders can spread into their diverse communities a message of productive collaboration, empathetic understanding and even authentic friendship, then both the institutions and communities under their influence will begin to reflect those same principles.

DG: Why is Swarthmore a meaningful place to bring this discussion, in your opinion?

JP: In line with its Quaker heritage, Swarthmore has hosted any number of difficult discussions regarding social justice and public policy issues over the years (I myself am a Quaker and a former employee of the American Friends Service Committee). The Philadelphia area in general has always seems like a hub of discussion about restorative justice and aspiration.
Editor’s Note: Abby Holtzman is currently Consulting Editor of The Daily Gazette and an Interfaith Intern, and Marissa Cohen interned at ICRD this past summer.


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