We got off to a great start in scenic Utah, meeting Mormon missionaries in training at the Missionary Training School and then going on to Brigham Young University, a school owned by Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints where Dr. Ahmed lectured. We were driven around Salt Lake and Provo by Elder Banks-who used to be a “seventy,” a top leadership position in the LDS Church. His wife, Susan, also accompanied us and was very hospitable.
At the MTC we met a Mandarin language class of about 10 missionaries in training. Each year 50,000 Mormon missionaries go out in to the world to share their religion and engage in humanitarian assistance. I tried out some broken Mandarin on the missionaries and they replied in perfect accents-these were dedicated, driven students. The students-all dressed in meticulous dark suits and short haircuts were confident and excited about their missions. Some were from European countries like Switzerland, underscoring the global vision of the LDS Church.
At Brigham Young University we met the top faculty and attended a lunch in our honor. One of the most interesting visits for us was with Professor Daniel C. Peterson, who leads the Middle East Texts Initiative. The initiative takes the great works of Muslim literature and publishes them in volumes that include both the original Arabic and English translation. As a someone who had studied Islam in school I was impressed that these great works were available in an easy to read series, and was surprised that I didn’t know about them before. The LDS Church and Brigham Young University have taken an extraordinary initiative at a time of great misunderstanding between the Islamic world and the West.
At the meeting the professors also discussed the similarities between Islam and Mormonism, two faiths with a long history of misunderstanding and-since 9/11, persecution. The Mormons, for example, were once labeled in the 19th century the “Muslims of America,” in not entirely complimentary terms. The Mormons, as a persecuted faith in the United States, were conscious of an ideal America with freedom of religion, and it was for this reason that they, in Nauvoo, Illinois made clear that all faiths were welcome to settle in their town, including “Mohammadans.” Mainstream America also had a fascination with the supposed illicit sexuality involved with “Prophet Joseph Smith and his harem.” In 1853 Brigham Young actually made a speech comparing Joseph Smith to the Prophet Muhammad. This idea of prophecy and a line of prophets would be familiar to both Muslims and Mormons. The fact that Joseph Smith and Muhammad both were religious as well as political leaders is another similarity. Muslims and Mormons also share a strict moral certitude about right and wrong and ban substances like alcohol. This morality led one Salt Lake imam we interviewed to declare Utah the “best place in the United States for Muslims. It’s the best kept secret.”
There were, of course, many differences between the two religions-for example Muslims believe that prophecy ceased with Muhammad while Mormons believe prophecy continues-but the similarities were often striking. Another Salt Lake imam said he had an “open door” policy at his mosque with the Mormons because so many were interested in Islam.
Like Muslims, Mormons have also faced much controversy in modern America. The day after we visited Brigham Young University, Salt Lake was rocked by protesters angry about the Mormon Church’s vehement defense of marriage and their support-which ran to the tune of 20 million dollars-of Proposition 8 in California. The protesters claimed that the LDS Church had overplayed its hand and had eroded the boundary between church and state.
The controversies facing the Mormon church will remain, especially as it has waded knee deep in the divisive cultural battle that is gay marriage. Lingering media stories about Polygamist fugitive Warren Jeffs and Texas compounds don’t help the situation.
But as we found, it helps to reach out to people in an effort to understand their position and where they are coming from. Often the only time Americans of such differing beliefs meet is protesting on street corners. Stereotypes of the kinds facing Muslims and Mormons can only be challenged by true knowledge, and that comes through interaction and understanding. The Mormon translation initiative is an extraordinary example of this reaching out. Sometimes the best way to facilitate understanding is to simply meet and ask people about their beliefs, which is what we did in Salt Lake City.