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Martin Luther King and Osama Bin Laden: A Contrast in Social Entrepreneurs

By Aaron Toomey '14  |  february, 2013, Issue 1

The Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) hosted Eboo Patel last Tuesday at the Gleacher Center for its second in a series of Distinguished Speaker events. Mr. Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Council, a Chicago-based organization building the interfaith movement on college campuses. His speech, entitled "Faith as Bomb, Faith as Bridge: Why Social Entrepreneurship Holds the Key to Peace and Prosperity," was a summary of Mr. Patel's view that social leaders who can effectively leverage the power of religion are critical to achieving peace today.

Mr. Patel's speech began with a jarring and somewhat controversial statement. Displaying a picture of Osama Bin Laden followed by one of Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Patel announced, "These two men have more in common than you might think." Both men, he said, came with the authority of God to embed their view of the world into existing religious institutions. Both men operated extremely effectively in the world of religion. Both men were inspiring to others, creating legions of followers deeply committed to their respective causes.

Bin Laden and King, were, according to Mr. Patel, a kind of social entrepreneur. Whereas a business entrepreneur takes his or her ideas and turns them into reality in the world of commerce, social entrepreneurs take their innovative ideas and narratives and turn them into reality in the social world.

Religion, Mr. Patel cites, provides enormous resources to this. With its established institutions and mechanisms to reach people, Bin Laden and Dr. King were able to use these channels to redefine the meaning of being faithful to their respective followers. Dr. King couched his philosophy of non-violent protest in Jesus' command to love your enemy. Bin Laden claimed the liberation of the holy land, even by violent means, was a Quranic command.

Despite their similarities, Osama Bin Laden and Martin Luther King obviously pursued wildly different visions with different means. "Today The New York Times is awash in blood spilled in the name of prayer," said Mr. Patel, "making it more important than ever that we have the likes of Martin Luther King as our social entrepreneurs." But how to make this so?

Mr. Patel suggests that one important and defining characteristic of Dr. King was his interfaith attitude. While King is often remembered as a Southern Christian minister who expressed his ideas in Christian language, it is important, Mr. Patel said, to remember that King drew inspirations from other faiths. "King's interfaith journey started at a very formative period," said Mr. Patel. King, in fact, began following and learning about the teachings of Gandhi from Benjamin Mays, who was president of Morehouse College when King attended.

It was while at Morehouse with Mr. Mays that King learned about Gandhi's non-violence campaign in India. "King learned from Gandhi that there were resources within religion for social reforms," said Mr. Patel. King continued to draw inspiration from Gandhi and other religious leaders throughout his career.

It is this interfaith aspect of Dr. King, among many others, that contrasts him with a leader like Osama Bin Laden. Having an interfaith or pluralistic orientation made Dr. King, as a social entrepreneur, not only more effective and more inclusive, but relevant to the millions of people, Christian and non-Christian who followed him. It meant he was working towards a goal of harmony, rather than one of confrontation. Mr. Patel and his organization, the Interfaith Youth Council, believe such leaders are vital to the future of peace and prosperity in a world often ripped apart by religious differences.

Last Updated 2/10/13
Last Updated 2/10/13