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Walking the Faith Line with Eboo Patel

Author Eboo Patel talks about the hate and rejection he sees in many young religious extremists, and why ignoring the faith line that divides us comes at a huge price.

Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

As activist and writer, Eboo Patel learned more about the four men who detonated bombs in London two years ago, killing themselves and 52 others and wounding more than 700 people. Several things struck him. They were all young men, they were all Muslims, and their lives were marked first by a lack of interest in Islam and then by an almost fanatical reengagement. In his new book, Eboo Patel writes that their story was also part of his story. He recognized their anger at the West and their alienation from the society in which they grew up. Eboo Patel joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, our Summer Movie Series looks at robots. Send us your nominations for best movie robot. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

But first, Eboo Patel, if you have questions for him about young people, the attractions of extremism, and how to inspire constructive activism, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail, talk@npr.org. And you could also join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Eboo Patel's book is called "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation." He joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. EBOO PATEL (Author, "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation"): Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And you write, in particular, about one of those London bombers, a young man named Hasib Hussain. How are your - is your life similar to his?

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, Hasib had a pretty normal childhood. He grew up playing soccer on the streets with his friends and he bought his candy from Ajimal Singh's corner shop, and he experienced a lot of racism in school, as a South Asian Muslim. And listening to - and reading the newspaper accounts of that racism, frankly reminded me of the racism I experienced as a kid growing up in the western suburbs of Chicago, who is a South Asian Muslim. A kid who didn't want his mother to pack Indian food in his lunch, didn't want his grandmother to come to school, because she looked different and had her prayer beads with her all the time. And I - as I read Hasib Hussain's story, I understood the evolution of being highly marginalized to adopting an oppositional identity, that became horribly violent.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PATEL: And I've seen that in a number of young people, not just Muslims, but young people who have felt marginalized and then adopted an oppositional identity. And a lot of my work is to shape the desire of young people to have an impact in a far more positive direction.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you about another one of these young people with whom you also felt some affinity, the American terrorist, Bill Ayers, who is a member of the Weather Underground.

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, actually my story is much closer to Bill Ayers as -in the early days than it is to any of these Muslim terrorists, even though I'm Muslim, because I actually grew up in the same hometown that Bill Ayers did and I was kind of taught the same myths about America, a land of freedom and equality and justice, et cetera, et cetera. And then, when I got to college, I saw people eating out of garbage cans for dinner, and I saw Vietnam vets drinking mouthwash for the alcohol, and I thought to myself, this is not the myth that I grew up with. And, in a way, I was so, I think, immature at that time politically, that all I could do was rage. And it was a faith-based movement that came into my life that kind of directed that rage in a direction far more compassionate and far more merciful - with the Catholic Worker Movement.

One of the things that I write about in this book is, you know, had it been one of the people involved in the Weather Underground, who were sitting at my kitchen table when I was 18 years old and raging, my life could have been very different. That I really thank God that it was a set of people who came into my life with a very clear vision of justice. But a sense of justice emanating from Divine Mercy. And interestingly, of course, they were Catholics, and I had grown up Muslim, and right now, I am a serious and devoted Muslim, and I think that's a big part of, kind of, my faith journey.

CONAN: Earlier, even before the Catholic Workers Movement that you talk about, you write in the book how your life was changed by the YMCA?

Mr. PATEL: Yeah. And one of the points that I wanted to make about the YMCA is, vis-a-vis, a lot of the terrorism that we see in the world today is so much of religious extremism is frankly youth programs. I mean, Al-Qaida is a set of youth programs. Its schools, its training camps, its mentors, these terrorists are recruiting young people at one of the most emotionally formative periods of their life. And, you know, just what the YMCA did for me when I was 12 or 13 or 14 years old, giving me a sense of identity, a sense of esteem, a sense of belonging, it's precisely what religious extremism, whether it's the BJP in India or whether it's the Christian Identity Movement here on the United States, it's precisely what they are looking to give young people.

And much of what I say in this book, "Acts of Faith," is why aren't those of us who care about a different vision of religion and a different vision of what people from different backgrounds living together looks like, why aren't we more proactive about working with the young people, shaping their leadership, nurturing them at a direction of what I call religious pluralism, which I think is the big idea of our time.

CONAN: You write that people like that young man in London and others, they're not born to hatred, they are taught, similarly, that people are not born to religious pluralism. They, too, are taught.

Mr. PATEL: That's exactly right. And that's exactly why I started my organization, the Interfaith Youth Core. We need to articulate far more clearly and far more cogently the importance of young people and all people from different backgrounds living together in what I call mutual loyalty and equal dignity. That's what pluralism basically is. It's a society where people from different backgrounds live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. And those societies don't come about simply by natural evolution. They need to be nurtured, they need to have institutions built to them, and they particularly, I think, need young people who are trained in the tools and in the knowledge base of creating those societies, and that's exactly what we do at the Interfaith Youth Core.

CONAN: I wonder, though, when you were a young man and going to leadership camp at the YMCA, weren't your parents, Muslims, weren't they concerned that you might be proselytized, evangelized?

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, I tell this story in the book. You know, the YMCA is, of course, the Young Man's Christian Association. And I think it takes the - I think its Christian identity seriously only in the sense that there is an ethos of the values of Christianity that infuses a YMCA program. So, you know, we'd occasionally sing songs like "Pass It On," which have a kind of a clear Christian message, and I'd come home from these leadership camps and I'd occasionally hum or sing these songs. And my dad, on one of his moments of Muslim chauvinism, almost, says to my mom, you know, do you think they're teaching our kids to be Christians at these YMCA camps?

And my mom says, well, no, but I hope they're teaching them some of the values of Christianity and some of the values of Buddhism and Hinduism and Judaism, because that's the kind of Muslims we want our children to be. We want them to understand that these values of these different faiths actually are shared. And although Muslims have a unique approach to hospitality or to compassion, or to justice, it's a value that Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism have just as much at its heart. The funny part of the story is I once slipped and I sang the song "Pass It On" in front of my high school friends, for which I got mercilessly teased for weeks.

CONAN: We're talking with Eboo Patel, his book is "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation." And we'll get some callers on the line. Let's see if we can start with - this is Paul(ph). Paul's calling us from Cleveland.

PAUL (Caller): Hello. You know, I want to thank your guest for his insights. But I - there seems to be big stepping-stone missing from, you know, disillusionment to suicide. And having been in Britain, I know that the Muslims in Great Britain may not be, you know, fully accepted into the fabric, but they certainly - the British people and the government and the society - seems to, at least in my estimation, to make a lot of accommodations for, you know, inclusivity and plurality. And I just don't see how you go from being disillusioned to, you know, walking aboard a subway train with a belt pack full of explosives and blowing yourself to smithereens and taking innocent people with you. You know, how does the religion, even the extreme elements, how do they condone that? I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Okay. Paul(ph), thank you.

Mr. PATEL: Okay. Thanks for that question, Paul. First of all, let me just say religions don't condone it. Muslims don't condone it. There are a gazillion fatwas against this type of horrible violence - the North American Fiqh Council, the Amman Declaration. I mean, let's not assume that just because it happens that it's being condoned, because it is absolutely not condoned. So that's just the first thing I wanted to point out.

And I think that the question you asked is a crucial question, which is, how does this happen? How do you go from what's a natural phase in a lot of people's lives, which is disillusionment, to the most heinous thing imaginable, which is a suicide bombing? I have an answer to that question. And that's exactly why I wrote this book. It's because it's - you have a set of institutions that actively look for disillusioned young people and effectively put them on a conveyor belt from disillusionment to terrorism.

So the point that I'm making in this book is, this is a sociological phenomenon we're watching. It's not a theological phenomenon. It's not like Islam has more violence in its tradition than any other religion does. And it's not a phenomenon that - well, just because people are religious, they're going to be violent, which is part of what we're seeing authors analyze today. It's simply a sociological phenomenon, which is to say that religious extremists have become extremely effective institution builders.

And one of the questions I asked in the book - and I try to solve with the organization I start at the Interfaith Youth Core - is, well, if religious extremists can target young people and put them on a conveyor belt towards religious extremism, why can't those of us who have a different idea of what diversity looks like? Why can't those of us who are religious pluralists have the same set of institutions, which work with the young people to make them leaders in religious pluralism? And I actually think that if we look back at even our recent history, we'll find that that's exactly what happened at the 20th century. I mean Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement was effectively a movement of religious pluralism that worked with young people at its vanguard.

CONAN: And talk to us just a little bit more about how that mechanism works. T hat - well, in effect, you argue that the extremists do reach out to young people and the pluralists among us, at least institutionally, don't. One of the things you always read about at those papers is, gee, if we just reached out to them more.

Mr. PATEL: I think that that's right. And there's a whole chapter in this book that effectively analyzes the institutional structures of different religious extremist movements. I'll give you an example. The Christian Identity Movement has Web sites with electronic coloring books. Well, if they've got electronic coloring books, who is that targeting? It's targeting children. Al-Qaida, of course, has worked with schools in parts of the world. Who do schools target? They target children, right? So why don't we have the same types of programs on the religious pluralism side. And that's what the Interfaith Youth Core is trying to answer.

CONAN: We're talking with Eboo Patel. His book is, "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation." More after we come back. You could join the conversation, 800-989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest today is Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. In his book, "Acts of Faith," he writes, I am an American Muslim from India. My adolescence was a series of rejections, one after another, of the various dimensions of my heritage and the belief that America, India, and Islam could not co-exist within the same being. If I wanted to be one, I could not be the others. My struggle to understand the traditions I belong to as mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive, is the story of a generation of young people standing at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery trying to look both ways at once.

You can read more from Eboo Patel's book at our Web site, npr.org/talk. If you have questions about young people, religious extremism, or how to inspire constructive activism, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also send us comments at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

And I want to get more callers into the conversation, Eboo Patel, but I did want to ask you - you were talking about extremist organizations, which developed this outreach to young people and this conveyor belt. i wanted to elaborate a little bit more on the failure of religious and cultural institutions to reach out on the other side, the interfaith meetings that you attended, for example, seemed sterile?

Mr. PATEL: Well, I'm going to say a few things on this, Neal. One is, I'm sure that those interfaith meetings were exciting for some people. I happen to be a 22-year-old kid with my hair on fire at that time, and my heroes are people like Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Addams and Bacha Khan, people who had really put their skin on the line. In some cases, had died for the causes they believed in. And ceremonies and theological reflections on interfaith cooperation wasn't quite what I was looking for at 22.

Having said that, you know, this is an insight, I think, of a lot of people. I was with Reverend Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ the other day, and he says that when he goes to religious communities and he says, how important do you think your young people are, they all say that they're really important. And then Bob says, why does your youth minister get paid a fraction of the salary of your senior pastor? And if you really think young people are important, you will invest in your youth programs.

And, frankly, that's why I started the Interfaith Youth Core. Not because, I think I'm afraid of young people being destroyers, but because I am inspired about the possibility of young people being the architects of the cathedrals of pluralism. Because I think that young people have led our most powerful movements throughout the course of history. Mahatma Gandhi was in his early 20's when he started his movement against the racist pass laws in South Africa. Mandela, his first kind of public move was founding the Youth League of the African National Congress.

I look at these young people and I think to myself, my generation has these heroes. What I'd like to do is to - I'd like to catalyze them. I'd like to resource them and I'd like to network them to make religious pluralism the greatest story of our century. And I think if we don't do that, if we don't invest in young people, we forfeit them into the hands of those who have ill will.

CONAN: Let's get Guy(ph) on the line. And Guy is calling is from San Francisco. Hello, Guy. Are you there?

GUY (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted - just to raise a point. I definitely agree that terrorism is not due to religion, but it's a sociological phenomenon. But what it looks to me, like there's a basic issue with the basic moral value that people are taught in Muslim societies, which allows terrorism. Because, you know, the third world exists in many places. And a lot of people are disillusioned, you know, are in conflict, are discriminated against, but only one culture consistently produces people who will mass murder others at random.

And within those cultures that they arise there's no rejection of it. We've never seen a popular rejection of a suicide bombing coming out of an Arab culture. And I think the basic moral values that people get at home, you know, from the family, when you're two or three, four, five years old, you'll learn what's right and what's wrong. And I think that in Muslim society, the basic moral values that are taught to the children are not the same that are taught in the Western world. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you. Eboo Patel?

Mr. PATEL: Well, Guy, I think that you've articulated what's on a lot of people's minds. And I think, for that, I thank you. I'd like to just unpack what you said a little bit. First of all, I just want to point out that the Muslim terrorist organizations - al-Qaida amongst them - their goal for decades has been to catalyze a global civilizational war. So bin Laden has a fatwa in 1998 saying that all Muslims have to kill Americans wherever they can. And September 11th was an attempt by al-Qaida to have a catalytic action towards that end.

The truth is, the vast majority of Muslims, meaning way over 99 percent, have obviously no interest in killing Americans or Westerners, have in fact, a far higher interest in living with people in a sense of equal dignity and mutual loyalty. What does this mean? It means that al-Qaida has failed in its call to get a mass population of Muslims directly involved in this kind of clash of civilizations.

So what is al-Qaida's next strategy? Well, it's simple. What they have to do is convince people that Muslims are involved in this kind of intercivilizational struggle. And that's exactly why they do things like tape their beheadings. That's why they take middle class people and target and recruit them, and make them into terrorists. Precisely, so that people like you and I look and say, my gosh, even my Muslim dentist is involved in this. Well, your Muslim dentist isn't involved in it. It's an illusion that is being created by al-Qaida deliberately. It's kind of a shadow puppet game going on.

And I guess my message on this is don't believe al-Qaida. Don't believe their talking points. When they do something horrible and they say this is what Islam stands for, say, I don't believe that. I don't believe you guys. You guys are crazy. You guys are heinous murderers. And you're trying to tell me what Islam stands for, but I'm not buying that line.

CONAN: I think what Guy, and perhaps some other people are talking about, though, is if Palestinians are killed in a conflict with the Israelis or with American bombs perhaps, there is denunciation and perhaps rightly so. Then, a bomb goes off in Karbala or Kirkuk or Baghdad, and we don't hear denunciations of that.

Mr. PATEL: I have to tell you, my voice is hoarse and so are all the voices of literally every Muslim I know, and not just here in America - in India, in Jordan, in places that I - in South Africa, in places that I travel all over the world. Their voices are hoarse with the condemnation of terrorists.

All right. The challenge of terrorism is that it's not just murder, it's also theater. What that means is that it gets on your television screen. And when I wave my arms and I say this is not me, I am not about this, and my religion is not about this.

And let me tell you that we begin everything with the words, Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim, in the name of God the all merciful, the ever merciful. We believe that the primary teaching of the Prophet Mohammed, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, has said if you are merciful to those on Earth, then the one who is in heaven will be merciful to you. It's simply just doesn't get the same kind of banners.

So what we need is we need to make sure that we draw the line correctly here. What bin Laden's line, it's between the West and Islam. Our line is what I call the faith line, and it's between religious pluralism and religious totalitarianism. We need to reject bin Laden's line, we need say that's not true. We need to say the real line here is between people who believe that only one group should dominate and everybody else should suffocate. And people who believe that we need to have societies or people from different backgrounds live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. That's the line.

The enemies are the people who believe in totalitarianism. There are Christian enemies. There are Hindu enemies. There are Jewish enemies. There are Muslims enemies. The people on our side are those who believe in pluralism. We are 99 percent of the world. What we confess most is when we start looking at the people who are next to us on the side of pluralism and suspecting them because of shadow puppet game being played by those on the other side.

CONAN: Here is an e-mail question from Amy(ph) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Isn't the indoctrination of young people into religious groups similar to the recruitment for gangs? Aren't we looking at social systems that work because the larger society is not?

Mr. PATEL: Amy, I want to thank you for that question because that's actually a part of my book and a part of my life story. For the first two years after I graduated college, I taught in some of the tougher neighborhoods in Chicago and I saw precisely this - the process that takes places in the recruiting of young people into religious extremism, taking place when it comes to the recruitment into gangs. I am convinced that 14-year-olds in the leafy suburbs of Chicago are no different than the 14-year-olds in the tough neighborhoods in the inner city. The difference is that the vice lords and the gangster disciplines and the Latin Kings have a huge recruitment system in the inner city that targets 14-year-olds, particularly those who are in need of belonging, of identity, of esteem, and it's a conveyor belt into that system.

So again, gangs are sociological phenomenon. They're not racial phenomenon. They're not ethnic phenomenon. They're sociological phenomenon. And that's the same thing we're seeing with the religious extremism. And if they can build organizations that recruit young people for nefarious causes, we can build organizations that recruit and work with the young people for the cause of pluralism. And that's, like I said, that's what we do at the Interfaith Youth Core.

CONAN: Let's turn to Moon(ph). And Moon is on the line with us from Chicago.

MOON (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MOON: Hi, Eboo. First of all, I congratulate what you are doing and may God bless you.

Mr. PATEL: Insha'Allah.

MOON: I have a question. My question is this, what kind of alternatives would you advise to moderate Muslims in order to construct and form or build alternative institutions that can present or at least slow down the process of disillusionment, which you are referring to.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Moon, I had a hard time hearing the last bit of that.

MOON: Like Eboo is suggesting that there is a process of disillusionment in the Muslim community, and that leads to all these destructive behavior. What kind of institutional programs or institutions should be built the majority of Muslims so that this process can be slowed down or can be stopped altogether?

Mr. PATEL: Thanks.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much. A comment on your cell phone, not on your call. I'm going to have to let you go. But thank you.

MOON: Okay.

Mr. PATEL: Moon, thank you for that question. Let me just make a couple of points at that. Number one, I don't think that I'm commenting on disillusionment amongst Muslims necessarily. That might be the case, that's not what this book is about. What this book is about is how young people want to make an impact in our world and how we can shape that impact in a positive direction. And I think that's a lesson that anybody can learn, whether you are Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist or a Buddhist, right? My work, particularly, is invested in religious communities and between religious communities at the Interfaith Youth Core. But this is a book primarily about young people and not about the disillusionment of Muslims.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PATEL: That's the first thing. The second thing that I want to say is, I actually think, Moon, that this is happening, and I think that this is happening all around us in America. And I'm so proud to be a part of a generation of American Muslims that are building institutions that have a civic impact with a religious ethos. Institutions like IMAN in Chicago, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, and the Muslim Youth of Chicago, and the Islamic Networks Group, and the Muslim Public Service Network. These are - and the Nawawi Foundation, these are institutions being built by young Muslims of my generation with the religious inspiration of an Islam that is compassionate and merciful that seek to serve others. The UMMA Clinic in South Central L.A., and I could literally name dozens of these things.

And I think exactly what you saw happening with Judaism and Catholicism in the 20th century has they became enfranchised in this country. They began building indigenous institutions inspired by their religious tradition. You're watching that happen in American Islam right now. And that's actually the real story of American Islam, is it's young American Muslims building institutions that serve America based on a religious inspiration of Islam.

CONAN: Eboo Patel is talking about his new book, "Acts of Faith."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get - Kathleen(ph) on the line. Kathleen is calling us from Colorado.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hey. Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHLEEN: First of all, let me thank this author very much for both his efforts and his vision. My question or comment is, you know, he says that there are enumerable imams with a tolerant vision of religion and Islam all over, everywhere who are hoarse with saying this. But you know what? They're not household names. And wouldn't it be equally effective or maybe to - more effective to work in tandem with making youth groups and making these guys well known, like Martin Luther King was? I am Christian and not all a fan of the Christian Taliban. But, you know, Gandhi is a household name, Mandela is a household name, and all these other fellows.

But I can't name a single person, a single imam that is, so to speak, (unintelligible). And maybe it's time to get those guys to get them together in some kind of organization and be really public and really visible, and that would draw in the young people as effectively as the youth groups. I'll take my comment off the air.

CONAN: The charismatic leaders, if you will.

KATHLEEN:. And thank you so much.

CONAN: Okay, Kathleen.

Mr. PATEL: Kathleen, thank you so much for your question. And I just want to follow up quickly on my previous answer because not only we're watching a generation of young Muslims in America build institutions that serve America inspired by Islam, but the people who are teaching them are precisely the type of imams that you're talking about. Let me just give you a couple of names.

Doctor Omar Abdullah, based In Chicago, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and Imam Zaid Shakir based on the Bay Area, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf based here in New York City, Professor Sherman Jackson at the University of Michigan. And I could go on and on. The truth is that the United States has been blessed by the Western world's best Muslim scholars, bar none. Many of these people have advanced degrees from places like the University of Chicago and also received training by traditional Muslim scholars in the traditional Muslim Holy Land.

And what we're watching here is an alignment between some of the most talented young people in the American Muslim community and some of the best scholars of Islam around the world. And it's these scholars who are kind of lighting this path of you have to build institutions that serve the broader society. And we are going to teach you how to interpret Islam, such that you understand its connection between a tradition that emerged fourteen hundred years ago and that is now in America, and how that tradition has to serve the society that it's in.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. PATEL: So that's exactly what we're watching take place. And we'll - the broader public will begin to see the fruits of this in 10 or 15 years. But those people like me who are Muslim, who are kind of internal to the community, are watching this happen before our very eyes.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question, and that is about faiths, of course, religions, not only cooperate at times, they also compete. There is a great concern on all sides about evangelism, about conversion.

Mr. PATEL: Right. Well, you know, one of the things that we do at the Interfaith Youth Core is we are a staff of people who are very strong in our religious beliefs. There are several evangelical Christians on my staff at the Interfaith Youth Core. There are several very devoted Muslims and Jews. And I promise you something, every one of them thinks that their religious path is right. And some of them might even think that not all of us are going to the same place after we die. But all of us think that we can build a house together that serves poor people. All of us think that we can tutor children together. All of us think that we can clean rivers together. And I think that that's the challenge of America right now.

We have to understand, we are the most religiously diverse nation in the world and the most religiously devout country in the West in a moment of global religious crisis. What we need to do is understand how people with a different ideas of heaven can cooperate and serve Earth together. That's what we do at the Interfaith Youth Core.

CONAN: Eboo Patel, thanks so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Eboo Patel's book, "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation." He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Coming up, the summer movie festival strikes back. We're talking about favorite movie robots. 800-989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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