As reverberations from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 continue around the world, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will likely hear emphasis on love and reaching out to people of all cultures and faiths during the 171st Semiannual General Conference this weekend.
Religious leaders across the country have been particularly sensitive in the days since the attacks to speak out in defense of Muslims and re-emphasize the need for civility. In Salt Lake City, the LDS Church released a statement Sept. 21 emphasizing the church's "long and mutually respectful relationship with many of the leaders and followers of Islam."
It said the terrorists "in no way represent the views of millions of Muslims throughout the world" and condemned acts of retribution against them and others as "wrong and immoral. The church urges its members and people everywhere to extend kindness and love to all sons and daughters of God."
The statement was a more specifically directed form of a message church President Gordon B. Hinckley has stressed repeatedly during his administration, encouraging Latter-day Saints to be more inclusive and less "clannish." Local LDS culture is rife with colloquialisms like "non-members" and "inactives" that are viewed by many as divisive, separating practicing Latter-day Saints from others in the community.
Iqbal Hossain, immediate past president of the Islamic Society of Utah, said he appreciated the statement, as well as the gesture made by LDS Church leaders when they invited him to pray during a program presented last month in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Utah is home to upwards of 25,000 Muslims, and following the Sept. 11 attacks several acts of hate aimed at local Muslims were reported.
"I think they thought it would be prudent to have a Muslim give the invocation," Hossain said of the recent meeting of the International City/County Management Association, which featured remarks by President Hinckley and Gov. Mike Leavitt. Hossain took it as a sign of "healing and interfaith cooperation. I thought that was a great gesture."
He's also been contacted by several LDS stake presidents who have been "very good and very caring. There has been a lot of good will and support at this very difficult time. We've appreciated that" and would welcome an ongoing dialogue with the LDS Church on areas of common interest, he said.
Such a dialogue, in fact, has been taking place on a national and international level for decades. The efforts of the past few weeks are but the latest in a series of moves by the LDS Church in recent years to learn more about Muslims through building personal relationships and supporting academic outreach.
Though the church's top leaders have declined requests to be interviewed about the current status of the faith's relationships with the Muslim world, several officials at church-owned Brigham Young University detailed some outreach efforts.
Chad Emmett, an associate professor of geography, said former LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball opened the door for such outreach with a First Presidency statement in February 1978 regarding "God's Love for All Mankind." It described how "the great religious leaders of the world, such as (Islam's) Muhammad, Confucius and the Reformers . . . , received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals."
The outreach mushroomed from that point.
A symposium, the first of its kind on "Mormons and Muslims," was held at BYU in 1981 and featured several Muslim scholars as presenters. Top church leaders negotiated heavily with both Jewish and Muslim leaders at home and abroad during the 1980s and were able to secure the necessary land and permits to build the BYU Jerusalem Center as a result. Thousands of students and BYU faculty members have lived and studied there for more than a decade, while others are doing so in predominantly Muslim nations.
Kent Brown, a professor of ancient scripture and former director of the BYU Jerusalem Center, said Muslims and Latter-day Saints have so much in common that Muslims who know about BYU "would be very comfortable sending their children here." In fact, several dozen Muslim students are now studying at BYU. Both faiths have strict moral codes, emphasize family life and eschew the use of alcohol and tobacco.
More formal outreach efforts are also under way.
Daniel Peterson, director of the school's Institute for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, has joined Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve and BYU President Merrill Bateman in a series of presentations to dozens of Muslim ambassadors in the past two years.
Peterson's institute is overseeing a major project designed to translate classic Muslim texts heretofore only available in Arabic into English. Three volumes have been completed to date, and two others "The Decisive Treatise" by Averroes and the first volume of Maimonides' medical texts, "On Asthma" are currently being readied for printing.
Karl Snow, former director of the Marriott School Institute of Public Management at BYU, and his wife, Donna, were working in New York City two years ago as diplomatic representatives for the church. They helped arrange a dinner meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for Elder Maxwell, Bateman and Peterson to present copies of the first translated texts to several dozen Muslim ambassadors to the United Nations. The meeting was so successful that a follow-up reception was held in February 2000 at the United Nations in New York.
Similar meetings were also held with Muslim representatives in London, Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills, as well as in Cairo, Damascus and Amman, Jordan, last spring.
The ambassadors agreed to attend the initial meeting after Bateman invited the director of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the U.N. to visit BYU. He spent several days at the school, Snow said, and was just recently invited to participate in an International Religious Freedom Symposium at BYU that begins Sunday night.
While he won't be able to attend, one of his advisers S. Shahid Husain of Pakistan will participate in the meeting and attend general conference, Snow said.
The friendships formed through such events "have turned into genuine personal relationships," Peterson said. "I don't have any messianic delusions that we're going to save the world" by translating ancient Muslim texts, but the events of Sept. 11 "make it even more important that moderate people on both sides continue talking and appreciating one another."
Just as Latter-day Saints dislike being misunderstood as happens with worldwide media accounts of incidents like the recent Tom Greene polygamy trial their Muslim neighbors feel the same way when they're lumped in with fanatics who use religion as an excuse for terrorism, Emmett said.
All agree that education is the key to a better understanding of Muslims by Latter-day Saints as a whole.
"There is no single approach," Hossain said. "It has to start in the family, with every family teaching their kids that people have different religions, and that overall they are good. There are bad people in every religion.
"As we grow up and behave in society, whatever we say, believe and act out, doesn't happen in a vacuum. We all learned it somewhere."
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