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Local mosque hosts community Q&As, promotes open-door policy

SANDY — Five minutes before evening prayers were slated to begin, members of the Utah Islamic Center scrambled to accommodate last Friday night's larger-than-usual crowd.

Dozens of non-Muslims were shuffling in, their bare feet pale against the mosque's green carpet.

"We need to buy more chairs," joked one congregation member to another.

Guests had filled the mosque's 90-some seats by the time Imam Shuaib Din called the room to order at 7:30 p.m. and latecomers were forced to lean against the walls. The imam estimates that around 120 non-Muslims attended his congregation's latest "Meet the Muslims" event Dec. 2. Another will be held this Friday.

"It is always a joy to see you, our neighbors," he said in his greeting.

Attendees watched as Muslim men of all ages joined together to say their fifth and final prayer of the day. They were then invited to ask congregation members about their lives, religious practices and the Islamic faith.

"So many things said by the members of the mosque reminded me that they are just Americans like everyone else," said Bill Dunford, who attended Friday night's gathering. "One woman was an OB-GYN. Another man was a schoolteacher. Some wore veils and some didn't."

Dunford, a 49-year-old writer based in South Jordan, said his family visited the mosque to show support for the Muslim community after a contentious election season. It's people like them who inspired the recent open houses, Imam Shuaib said, even if he likes to jokingly credit Donald Trump.

After the election, "we received voicemail messages, emails, cards and flowers. Some of them asked if they could come visit us," the imam said.

Even before Trump suggested a Muslim immigration ban on the campaign trail, anti-Islamic sentiment was on the rise, according to recently released hate crime data from the FBI.

"There were 257 reports of assaults, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims last year, a jump of about 67 percent over 2014. It was the highest total since 2001, when more than 480 attacks occurred in the aftermath in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks," The New York Times reported.

These incidents lead to heightened anxiety, creating barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims, even in Utah's relatively friendly interfaith environment, noted one panelist during Friday's discussion.

"Sometimes when you feel isolated, you isolate yourself," he said.

The panelists noted that calls for a Muslim registry have been troubling, but also praised their fellow Utahns for being kind and welcoming.

Through the "Meet the Muslims" events, the Utah Islamic Center is working to strengthen relationships with its neighbors and dispel some of the myths spread during election season, Imam Shuaib said.

"My favorite part is that 'Aha! moment' that I can see in people's eyes when they ask a question sincerely and get a sincere response," he said.

Dunford said the event gave him hope, noting that it was great to be surrounded by community members who were eager to learn and local Muslims who were happy to share insights about head coverings, violence in the Middle East and the core teachings of Islam.

"I have a hard time imagining that anybody who was there wouldn't come away with a warmer feeling towards all members of the community," he said.

The fourth and final "Meet the Muslims" event will take place Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Utah Islamic Center. But Imam Shuaib said his congregation is already brainstorming ways to carry the spirit of these events into 2017, noting that they may continue to host monthly open houses.

"Even if only five or 10 people show up, it's an opportunity for people to learn what we're about," he said.