There are dozens of examples across 49 states of Republican officials attacking and shaming Muslims since 2015. The one outlier is Utah, according to a BuzzFeed News report published April 10.
And, in Utah, a number of politicians have made it a point to reach out to the Muslim community.
“They listen to our concerns,” said Shuaib Din, imam at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. “We are voting members of the community, so they definitely do pay attention to us. We’re small but not that small.”
Several Utah politicians, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee and former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, along with Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, have made it a point to visit mosques or meet with members of the state’s Muslim community.
“The right to live and worship according [to] one’s faith is a foundational freedom of the United States,” Lee said in a statement. “It obligates our leaders to build bridges between faith communities so that everyone feels protected.”
To compile its report, BuzzFeed conducted a state-by-state search of local news and statements by advocacy groups. Incidents included not only anti-Muslim comments on social media and in speeches but also proposals looking to block immigration and mosque-building projects.
The report noted several incidents of denigrating rhetoric in states across the country, including an Oklahoma lawmaker who implied his Muslim constituents beat their wives and a Rhode Island legislator who advocated in an email for herding Syrian refugees into a camp. He wrote that Muslims seek “to murder, rape and decapitate anyone who is a non-Muslim.”
In contrast, BuzzFeed gave a nod specifically to Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett as an example of a “rare” interparty rebuke against disparaging anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On his deathbed in May 2016, Bennett reportedly told his family that he’d like to thank Muslims for being in the U.S. and to apologize on behalf of the Republican Party for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Din also praised Bennett as an example of how politicians can work to build a positive environment for Muslims in Utah.
“It’s not just enough to not say anything [bad],” he said. “But it would go a long, long way [for more politicians] to say something positive.”
Ahmad Zia Afzali, who migrated to Utah from Afghanistan in 2010, said he was unsurprised by the findings — particularly in light of the state’s history.
“Utahns are religious and very conservative,” he said. “They have similar past experiences [to Muslims] and they suffered for what they believed and what they practiced.”
Dabakis, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, said the report’s findings are “something for Utahns to be proud of.” But they don’t necessarily mean there’s no racism or discrimination in the state.
“Let’s make sure everybody understands this is not a welcome parade — it’s simply not public insults and harassment,” he said. “So [Utah’s climate] is maybe better than other states, but I’m afraid the bar is a little bit low.”
The BuzzFeed report speculated that the anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republicans across the country “reflects the general coarsening of political speech in the anything-goes era of President Donald Trump” — a sentiment Dabakis echoed.
He said there’s long been an undercurrent of bigotry and bitterness aimed toward refugees, “but the Trump administration has allowed people to say those things and not face embarrassment or actually to get encouragement.”
Dabakis added: “There’s a fair number of Utahns that have those feelings, but I think our culture here is less accepting towards people saying them.”
Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voiced discontent with Trump during the 2016 election. He still captured 45 percent of Utah’s vote, which led to shock and a sense of betrayal among some Utah Muslims, who said they were disappointed that so many state residents supported a candidate who’d made inflammatory and stereotyping comments about their faith.
Moving forward, Din said there’s more Utah can do to create a welcoming environment for Muslims. For starters, he’d like to see the state pass hate crimes legislation, which failed in the 2018 legislative session for the third year in a row.
Afzali said he’d also like to see more awareness of the Muslim faith.
“We are living in a world and in a community that we don’t need to assume that we are all the same people with the same background or religion,” Afzali said. “You never know who is your neighbor and who is your friend that you work together or ride the bus — maybe that person is a Muslim. And talking like this very ignorantly about that group of people without understanding is a bad feeling [and] is harmful for a community.”