Somewhere in the ether between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, a Muslim and a Mormon had a conversation that led, two years later, to a larger-scale exchange this Sunday.
"We just began talking, and I asked him if he'd tell me a little bit about his religious beliefs," recalled Kathryn Schramm, a member of the Highland 19th Ward.
She was seated on a plane next to Ghulam Hasnain, who would become the organizer of the first Salt Lake American Muslim Festival. The free cultural fair will run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Gallivan Utah Center.
None of that was on Schramm's mind, however, as she flew back to Utah on June 14, 2001. She was returning home early from a trip to the Midwest, because her daughter-in-law had just died of a heart attack at 25.
The two Utahns discussed life and religion throughout the nearly three-hour flight. It wasn't debating or arguing, and certainly not proselyting. They were just talking — and listening.
"He was surprised to find we had similar beliefs," Schramm said. "He would say something, and I would concur and say, 'I look at it from this point of view.' "
Schramm told Hasnain that her congregation was inclined toward interfaith projects, and had recently helped landscape the grounds of the Calvary Baptist chapel in Salt Lake City. "Just meeting and working together is a good thing," she said. Maybe Schramm's church and Hasnain's mosque could try a similar get-together.
"There was a lot of buffeting, a lot of bad weather on the flight," Schramm said. She remembers turning to her seatmate to make another point.
"I talked about how this land of America was set aside for the practice of religion; everyone should be able to practice their own religion without interference from other people . . . I would stand by your side and defend your right to practice your religion, and I would expect that you would do the same thing for me."
Upon landing, Schramm and Hasnain said the usual things new friends say: Let's get our families together soon. Just as typically, they were both too busy for visits, and months passed. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
"I called Ghulam and his family on Sept. 14. I was worried about them," Schramm recalled. She'd heard of hate crimes targeting Muslims, such as the arson at Salt Lake City's Curry in a Hurry restaurant. Schramm and another couple from her Highland neighborhood drove up to see the Hasnains, "and just had a really nice visit with them."
Schramm is mother to seven and grandmother to 17, with her 18th grandchild due in February. She's always been busy. Yet promoting understanding among people is high on her priorities list. Earlier this year her LDS ward engaged in an interfaith dialogue with Salt Lake City's Alrasool Islamic Center, 470 East Stanley Ave. (3182 South). Ward members Dale and Lily Simpson put together the exchange, in which the two congregations shared potluck dishes, watched a film about Islam, and just visited.
"It was good to become a little bit better acquainted with their beliefs," Schramm added, "and it was just good to talk and laugh, and eat together. What I get from it is how similar we are. We have families, we have friends, we have homes, we have jobs. We have all these things" in common.
At their meeting this summer at the Islamic Center, Hasnain introduced Schramm as his sister.
"That really touched me," she said.
Schramm published a community newspaper, the Highland Piper, from 1992-'97. Similarly, Hasnain edits the Salt Lake American Muslim, a newsletter that has become successful beyond his expectations.
"I have gotten nothing but encouragement," from Utah's Muslims — and others, Hasnain says. The greater Salt Lake area is home to about 20,000 Muslims, including people of Indonesian, African, Bosnian and south Asian heritage. Close to 7,000 gather each winter at the Utah State Fairpark for prayers celebrating the holy day of Eid Al-Adah. Muslim congregations are expanding at the Khadeeja Masjid, 1019 W. Parkway Ave. (2455 South), and at the Masjid Al-Noor, 740 S. 700 East.
Hasnain was born in northern India and immigrated to the United States in 1967. After attending college in California and taking degrees in English literature and information systems technology, he lived in Seattle until 1996. The Muslim community there was much larger than in Utah, he said, but it was far less cohesive. The tendency when they got together was to "start arguing, to discuss what they don't agree on," Hasnain recalled. "It grieves my heart that all of those people wasted all of that time . . . they still have not made the progress they should have because the community is too divisive." The opposite is true in Utah, he says.
Hasnain found widespread support for his cultural-festival idea. The many segments of the Muslim community — various ethnic groups and denominations — will be represented at the event. "They don't want to be left out," he says, showing his delight and quickly adding, "May God forgive me for any arrogance."
He has assembled an impressive list: student and community groups, ethnic artists and musicians and Middle Eastern, Asian, African American and European vendors will form a Muslim marketplace unlike anything the Gallivan Center has ever hosted.
Sunday's festival, Hasnain emphasized, is not only for Muslims. Schramm is helping him spread that message, inviting her Highland neighbors and putting up fliers around town. "You can go out of curiosity," she said, and out of a basic interest in people, culture and faith.
Along with food and music, Hasnain has assembled a mix of speakers. They represent a range of religious backgrounds, from LDS to Jewish. Among them is Utah Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake.
"Festivals like this are an important affirmation that Muslims are part of what we define as Utah," Litvack said. "This is a vital part of who we are as a state." He added that as a Jew, he feels a responsibility to help bridge the gaps of understanding between the Jewish and Muslim communities in his own city. It is at the neighborhood level, Litvack said, that interfaith dialogue can begin to flourish. "We still live very segregated lives, so these opportunities are few and far between," but he hopes Utahns will take advantage of Sunday's Muslim Festival. Such events can be more than clusters of food booths. "The connections with individuals are the great opportunities they present. That's where the real lasting impact of these cultural festivals is," the legislator said. "We see our differences and our similarities. We need to recognize both. The glue that holds us together is our common humanity, our desire as parents for the best for our children."