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U.S. Muslims share friendship, similar values with Mormons

The link is based not on theology but on shared ideals and a sense of isolation.

April 02, 2008|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

The Mormon Church has to be among the most outgoing on Earth; in recent years its leaders have reached out to, among others, Latinos, Koreans, Catholics and Jews.

One of the most enthusiastic responses, however, has come from what some might consider a surprising source: U.S. Muslims.

"We are very aware of the history of Mormons as a group that was chastised in America," says Maher Hathout, a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "They can be a good model for any group that feels alienated."

Which perhaps explains an open-mosque day held last fall at the Islamic Center of Irvine. More than half the guests were Mormons.

"A Mormon living in an Islamic society would be very comfortable," said Steve Young, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attending the event.

The sentiment is echoed by Muslims. "When I go to a Mormon church I feel at ease," said Haitham Bundakji, former chairman of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "When I heard the president [of LDS] speak a few years ago, if I'd closed my eyes I'd have thought he was an imam."

Though the relationship has raised eyebrows and provided ammunition for critics of both religions, Mormons and Muslims have deepening ties in the United States.

What binds them has little to do with theology: Mormons venerate Jesus as interpreted by founder Joseph Smith, while Muslims view Muhammad as God's prophet. Based on shared values and a sense of isolation from mainstream America, the connection was intensified by 9/11 and cemented by the Southeast Asia tsunami. It is especially evident in Southern California, with large Mormon and Muslim populations.

The Mormon Church has become the biggest contributor to Buena Park-based Islamic Relief, touted by its administrators as the West's largest Muslim-based charity. Relief officials say the church has donated $20 million in goods and services since the 2004 tsunami, equal to about 20% of the charity's annual budget.

Brigham Young University in Utah, the church's major institution of higher learning, features what is thought to be one of the world's best programs for translating classic Islamic works from Arabic to English. Though created primarily for academic purposes, the results have impressed Muslims flattered by the close attention.

"It shows they have a keen interest in the Muslim world," said Levent Akbarut, a member of the Islamic Congregation of La Canada Flintridge.

And Mormons and Muslims say they often are co-hosts of educational and social programs at which, though some may be angling for long-term doctrinal influence, very little open proselytizing of each other seems to take place. "We have a very close and friendly relationship," said Keith Atkinson, West Coast LDS spokesman.

Mormons "explain our faith to anyone who will listen" and "treat Muslims like anybody else," said Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, one of the church's top governing bodies in Salt Lake City. But Oaks added that "we don't preach to people who would be disenfranchised" or likely offended.

Arnold H. Green, a history professor at BYU, has traced how early Mormons in the 19th century were hounded by accusations that church founder Smith was the American Muhammad. The first Mormons angrily denied any connection to the Muslim prophet but gradually accepted some comparisons, particularly that both religions were founded by post-Christian prophets with strong sectarian views. "As the church grew into a global faith," Green wrote in a 2001 essay, "its posture toward Islam became . . . more positive" until, today, "the two faiths have become associated in several ways, including Mormonism's being called the Islam of America."

Both religions strongly emphasize family. They tend toward patriarchy, believing in feminine modesty, chastity and virtue. And although Islam discourages dancing involving both sexes, Mormons report that church-sponsored "modesty proms" commonly draw Islamic youths.

Both faiths adhere to religion-based health codes, including prohibitions against alcohol, but Mormons and Muslims share something more: membership in quickly growing minority religions that many other Americans have sometimes viewed with suspicion and scorn.

"We both come from traditions where there has been persecution in the past and continues to be prejudice," said Steve Gilliland, LDS director of Muslim relations for Southern California. "That helps us Mormons identify with Muslims."

A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that although a thin majority of those polled expressed positive opinions of Muslims and Mormons, the number was significantly less than those favoring Roman Catholics or Jews.

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