A new pamphlet issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents its leaders’ latest effort to encourage understanding of Muslims and root out Islamophobia within its ranks — an effort that remains very much a work in progress, according to those familiar with the issue.
Titled “Muslims and Latter-day Saints: Beliefs, Values, and Lifestyles,” the 35-page document stresses shared practices and beliefs between the two faith communities, including an emphasis on family, prayer, fasting and charity.
The booklet represents “the fruit of years of work, including collaboration with Muslim imams,” according to a church news release.
“At a time when societies and religious believers want and need mutual understanding,” it begins, “this pamphlet signifies a conscientious effort to provide dignity and tolerance for Muslim and Latter-day Saint believers.”
Luna Banuri, executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League, is among those who reviewed and offered suggestions on excerpts of the pamphlet before publication.
“They did a very good job,” Banuri said, “in presenting a holistic view of Islam that any reader can relate to and understand.”
Still, she stressed that a great deal of work remains to change the attitudes of some Latter-day Saints, explaining that she and her family have experienced “otherization” living in Utah as a result of their Muslim identity.
On the one hand, she said, she has witnessed a great deal of openness and interest from Latter-day Saints who have attended events her team has hosted on misinformation regarding Islam.
“LDS individuals have really gone out of their way,” she said, “to come and ask questions and to be respectful.”
At the same time, she, like Banuri, has often witnessed a divergence between the more inclusive attitudes of LDS leaders and those expressed by a number of Latter-day Saints in Utah.
The Trump effect
Perhaps the best example, she said, is that of former President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries. Trump first proposed the “Muslim ban” in December 2015 while a candidate for president. Latter-day Saint leaders denounced the proposal as an infringement on religious liberty, citing the words of church founder Joseph Smith.
“If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a good man of any denomination,” Smith said in 1843. “For the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”
Trump never walked back the policy, instead returning to it repeatedly on the campaign trail. A majority of Latter-day Saints voted for him in 2016 anyway. This is one reason, Tashnizi wrote in an email, “a lot of Muslims are ambivalent of public statements of support” like this pamphlet.
Morgan Davis — a research fellow at Brigham Young University’s Maxwell Institute, where he works in Islamic studies and comparative religion — has worked closely on numerous occasions with high-ranking church leaders on outreach with Muslim leaders.
“We went to the United Nations,” he said. “We had several meetings in various embassies, events in London, Cairo and Amman [Jordan’s capital] to build bridges and nearly always a member of the [Quorum of the] Twelve Apostles was there.”
On one occasion, he said the late apostle Richard G. Scott asked him to coach him on an Arabic phrase that he then used to recite at the beginning of his remarks at one such event.
“My read is that the church leaders have been pretty consistently and actually quite forward-thinking” when it comes to promoting interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Davis said, an openness that, in his experience, has not always translated into the wider Latter-day Saint community.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s a lot of ignorance and misinformation among North American Latter-day Saints.”
One common question he often hears from other members is, “‘When are Muslims going to finally denounce terrorism?’ And that’s frustrating because, of course, Muslims do denounce terrorism, but they’re drowned out by the fear-mongering media.”
Apostle David A. Bednar touched on this point at a conference on Islam held at BYU in October, saying “to suggest that all Muslims are tied to grievous crimes here in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world is…inaccurate and offensive to Muslims.”
For Davis, statements like this one and the new pamphlet indicate that church leaders are aware of and committed to rooting out the harmful stereotypes of Muslims harbored by many members.
“This is not a point,” he said, “on which they’re equivocating.”
Islam’s global growth
More broadly, Davis believes the booklet is evidence that church leaders recognize that Islam “is on its way to becoming the dominant faith in the world.”
A study by the Pew Research Center found there were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world — a number it projected would reach 3 billion by 2060.
“People think of Islam as a Middle Eastern religion, but it’s actually very global,” Davis, who is working on a book comparing the Quran and the Book of Mormon, said. This makes understanding the faith critical not only for the church’s general membership but also in particular its missionaries.
“Many of the growth areas for the church are in countries where Islam is really prevalent,” he said. “There’s a real need for missionaries to be literate about Islam beyond the one paragraph in [the missionary guide] ‘Preach My Gospel.’”
Adding to the urgency are all the ways church members engage with Muslims through humanitarian and service projects.
“The church is partnering with humanitarian projects all over the world that are often Muslim-based,” he said. A pamphlet like this one could help “facilitate mutual understanding and respect” within these contexts as well.
When asked what more the church could do to help support Muslims, and particularly Utah Muslims, Tashnizi suggested leaders should use their influence to advocate for public policies that make it easier for “Muslims to fast, pray and celebrate [their holidays] in public schools and in the workplace.”
Banuri echoed this sentiment.
“If you really truly are committed to eradicating biases,” she said, “there needs to be much more pointed work in and around policy.”