A group of Los Angeles-based Muslim clerics and leaders came to Utah in February at the invitation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Their conclusion: Muslims could benefit from analyzing how Mormonism moved from being a misunderstood, beleaguered faith to a respected member of the American religious mainstream.
The group of four men and one woman toured the church’s Temple Square, humanitarian center, Family History Library and office building in Salt Lake City. They dined with LDS general authorities and Brigham Young University professors. They participated in a BYU class on Islam and discussed Professor Daniel Peterson’s work translating classic Islamic texts into English.
They even cheered on the Utah Jazz, especially Mehmet Okur, a player from Turkey.
At every stop, the Muslims found common causes with their Mormon hosts, they said.
“We want to learn from our Mormon brothers and sisters how to handle the plight of being part of pluralism while preserving our religious values,” said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public-service agency aimed at disseminating accurate information about Islam to the American public. “Studying the hostility to Mormonism can be instructive to Muslims, who face the rise of Islamophobia.”
The visiting Muslims were particularly impressed, they said, by the church’s massive, organized humanitarian efforts.
“Giving as a religious obligation is something we share,” Al-Marayati said.
The three-day trip was the brainchild of Steve Gilliland, director of Muslim relations for the LDS Church’s Southern California Public Affairs Council. He has spent the past five years working to strengthen relations with Islamic leaders and members in the Los Angeles area.
His efforts have received a warm reception, Gilliland said, and have produced a strong alliance between Mormons and Muslims in the area. “I feel as comfortable in a mosque as I do in my own ward meeting because the people are so cordial and friendly,” he said.
When Proposition 8 opponents protested LDS involvement in that anti-gay-marriage measure at the church’s Los Angeles Temple, Gilliland got a call from Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a coalition of about 80 mosques. Syed said he could bring a large group of Muslim leaders to the temple grounds to stand with the LDS Church against the demonstrators.
“No one else offered that kind of support,” Gilliland recalled. “These Muslims are truly our friends.”