Trump’s travel ban scares Utah Muslims from participating in a pillar of their faith — going to Mecca

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

President Donald Trump says he’s all for religious freedom. He counsels with pastors about it in private. He stumps for it in public. He even signed an executive order to bolster it in a full-blown White House ceremony.

But his policies — especially his so-called “travel ban” — and his pronouncements are preventing some U.S. Muslims from practicing their religion. They’re afraid, it turns out, to fulfill one of their faith’s most fundamental obligations: Make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

It’s called hajj and is underway now, drawing about 2 million Muslims to Saudi Arabia.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with declaring belief in Allah (God) and the Prophet Muhammad, praying five times a day, observing the 30-day fast of Ramadan, and giving to the poor and needy.

All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make the journey at least once in their life. They re-enact ritually what they believe was God’s test of the biblical Abraham and where Muhammad retraced those steps. The annual mass gathering ends Friday at sundown.

But a hostile political climate under the Trump administration has prompted some Utah Muslims to have second thoughts or forgo the trip entirely this year, says Shuaib Din, imam at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy, “especially if they are “green card holders.”

“It can take months of planning,” Din says, “and an average of $9,000.”

Several members of his Sandy mosque did go, despite their fears, as did some from West Valley City’s Islamic center.

But Imam Muhammed Mehtar of the Khadeeja mosque notes at least one of his attendees — who said he is a U.S. citizen, had a ticket, a passport and a visa — was turned away repeatedly without explanation at Salt Lake City International Airport.

The irony is that this would-be traveler “helps out with refugees, helps with translation,” Mehtar says. “He has a good reputation in the community.”

It is doubly sad for such a person to be blocked from his long-planned religious journey, he says, but conditions for Islamic believers in the Trump-era are rough.

“It’s a psychological game for Muslims and not in a positive way,” Mehtar says. “It’s a sad reality we are dealing with right now.”

Although unfamiliar with this particular incident, Jim McConkie, a Salt Lake City attorney and co-founder of the Refugee Justice League of Utah, is convinced the rejected passenger was on the U.S. government’s mysterious no-fly list.

“The more Muslim you are and the more religiously active,” McConkie says, “... enhances the chance you will be on the list.”

The federal government offers no explanation for why any particular person might be among those barred from flying, he says, and, until recently, there was no way to get your name off the list.

In June, McConkie’s group of 300-plus lawyers — who will represent anyone facing discrimination based on religion, nationality or ethnicity — took on the case of Yussuf Awadir Abdi, imam of Salt Lake City’s Madina Masjid Islamic Center.

Abdi, a U.S. citizen, was put on the no-fly list after he left the United States and was blocked from re-entering. He was stranded in Kenya, where he went to pick up his wife and five children. When the rest of his family were allowed to board, the imam could not.

“This is going on all over the U.S.,” McConkie says. “It’s all secret and there’s no due process or freedom of religion.”

After McConkie’s group sued, Abdi was allowed to return and eventually was dropped from the list.

This week, he is in Saudi Arabia, McConkie says, leading more than 100 others in fulfilling their sacred duty: the hajj.