Utah’s Muslim community has mushroomed from a simple student-led prayer group in the 1950s to more than 60,000 adherents of varied ethnicities and a dozen mosques today.
It has produced doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs and leaders contributing to the state in virtually every field — except politics.
The recently organized Utah Muslim Civic League aims to fill that gap.
Launched just before last fall’s midterm elections, the league worked to register Muslim voters, brought candidates to the closest mosque and hosted phone banks on behalf of several candidates. Going forward, organizers plan to register more Muslim voters as well as sponsor community forums and town hall meetings so Muslims can meet the candidates and pose pointed questions to them.
“We are looking to educate and advocate for our vulnerable populations so any policymaker can understand what we stand for,” Luna Banuri, a member of the league’s board, said at the group’s inaugural luncheon Tuesday at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. “We are trying to find candidates for volunteer positions in township and school districts.”
In terms of political action, she said, the team hopes to one day have Muslim candidates for office and, before that, to have Muslim congressional staffers who can begin to build a network of support.
“We do want to create alliances with different parties and officials,” Banuri said, “who understand what our issues are.”
In partnership with the league, the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has chosen Salt Lake City for a pilot program to train 50 teachers on how to grasp the needs of their Muslim students.
The luncheon’s keynote speaker, Dalia Mogahed, is the director of research at the D.C. institute.
Mogahed opened her speech by detailing her personal history, growing up as an Egyptian immigrant who moved to Madison, Wis., with her family when she was 5.
Madison, home to a state university, had a diverse population, Mogahed said, noting that in her first grade class “only two students had parents born in the U.S.”
She never felt “different,” she said. “Our diversity was celebrated.”
At 17, Mogahed chose to wear a hijab, or a headscarf, “as a feminist declaration of independence.”
Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
She and her husband were moving that day from Cincinnati, where they lived with their infant son, to Pittsburgh for graduate school. Suddenly, the hijab she so proudly donned now would identify her to some as “the enemy.”
With trepidation, the couple made the trip to their new home, and, with even more anxiety, found their way to an unfamiliar mosque on the first Friday after arriving.
To their astonishment, half the people crowded into the mosque that day were Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and all variety of non-Muslims, there to support their friends and neighbors.
It is that mutual love and respect that the researcher promotes with her words and works.
To achieve such religious harmony requires verifiable data, Mogahed said, given all misinformation about Muslims.
For example, islam is the United States’ most ethnically diverse faith — with blacks comprising 30 percent of Muslims and Arabs 18 percent.
Muslims have a higher level of education than the general public, she said. Half are born in the U.S.; half are immigrants.
“Education is the foundation of a healthy society,” Mogahed concluded, reminding listeners to “seek out information and evidence, rather than succumb to misinformation in the media.”
The event, co-sponsored by Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, also handed out awards for civic leadership to Iranian-born industrialist Khosrow Semnani and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
In his acceptance speech, Semnani recalled meeting the late Gov. Cal Rampton in 1968 after the young Iranian student organized the first Middle Eastern Student Association at Westminster College.
Rampton asked the young man if he were a Muslim and when he replied yes, the governor said, “We need people like yourself who create organizations like this so they can be recognized and understood.”
Knowledge comes from personal interactions and friendships, Semnani said. Attacks at mosques in New Zealand, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a nightclub in Orlando were signs “of not knowing who they were dealing with … signs of segregation and divisiveness, which are seeds of terrorism.”
The industrialist pointed out a recent report that Utah was the only state in the country where public officials had never said anything derogatory about Islam.
“This is big,” he said. “We should congratulate the state — and, like the Utah Muslim Civic League, stay active.”
Gill, who came late to the lunch after watching Gov. Gary Herbert sign a landmark hate crimes bill, reiterated the importance of empathy.
“We need to think beyond race and religion,” he said. “We are a big human community — and we have a moral role to step up and give support [to everyone] in the face of injustice.”
Like Banuri, Gill, who is Sikh, said it is time for Muslims and other underrepresented groups to be at the governing table.
“This is our home,” he said. “We need to be involved in politics and policy.”