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The Pluralist Next Door

At a time of a religious revival, a youth bulge and an increase in interaction between people from different backgrounds, religion can be a bomb, a bubble, a barrier or a bridge.
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There's no question that religion can be a bomb in the 21st century.

It's obvious because it is everywhere.

Just look at this story from the New York Times Magazine. It details how Omar Hammami -- born and raised in the heart of the South by a Syrian Muslim and a Christian from Alabama -- became a key leader in the guerrilla army in Somalia linked with al Qaeda.

According to the article, he has become a jihadist icon who has inspired and recruited hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia. On an internet forum, he called for others to take action: "Where is the desire to do something amazing? Where is the urge to get up and change yourself -- not to mention the world and other issues further off?"

In my book Acts of Faith, I wrote that young people seek two things: a clear identity and an opportunity for impact. Omar chose the Al Qaeda path. Peace in the 21st century is partially going to be about making the alternative paths to identity and impact more prominent and more powerful.

At a time of a religious revival, a youth bulge and an increase in interaction between people from different backgrounds, religion can be a bomb, a bubble, a barrier or a bridge.

Religion can be a bomb -- this is the al Qaeda path.

Religion can be a bubble, where communities are -- or pretend to be -- sealed off from the diversity of the modern world.

Religion can be a barrier, where communities highlight the differences between their group and others in a way that says, "We can't have anything positive to do with you."

But amidst the noise of the bubble, the barrier and the bomb in the 21st century there is another option.

Religion can be a bridge. The raw materials of this approach are simple: this is how my religion inspires me to build understanding and cooperation with people who are different.

I'm convinced that building bridges across difference is the instinct of most human beings and that resources for it run deep in every religion. Unfortunately, too few people are taught about those resources. When Omar was looking for ways to connect his faith to the increasingly violent world around him, he met people who showed him the path of the bomb.

What if he had been empowered to take action in a different way? What if he had been taught that he could have what he sought -- "a place and a purpose" -- building interfaith cooperation? What if someone had spun the vision of a world where people from different backgrounds live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty with the same compelling romance he saw in jihad? Maybe he could have taken his incredible charisma and recruiting abilities to gather a movement of young people working for a world based on equal dignity and mutual loyalty rather than terror and domination.

Call it the Martin Luther King path versus the Al Qaeda path:

We have inherited a big house, a great world house in which we have to live together, black men and white men, easterners and westerners, gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Hindus. A family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interest, who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn somehow, in this one big world house, to live with each other.

Here's a key question for the interfaith movement: how do we introduce the Omar Hammami's of the world to the Martin Luther King Jr. path before Osama bin Laden introduces them to the Al Qaeda path?

Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. He is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

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