SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is the only state in the nation whose state and local Republican leaders have not publicly shamed or smeared Muslims since 2015, according to a new BuzzFeed News investigation published April 10.
This finding didn't surprise Imam Shuaib Din, who leads the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. Lawmakers here have continued to build connections with the Muslim community at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise, he said.
"We are their constituents, and they do care about us," he said. "They are interested in our experiences and our problems."
Elsewhere in America, Republican politicians have called for strict limits on Muslim immigration, stalled mosque-building projects or required Muslim constituents to fill out a survey on domestic violence before scheduling meetings, BuzzFeed News reported. They've suggested isolating Muslim refugees from Syria or argued that members of the faith shouldn't receive public benefits.
"It has become an acceptable plank within the Republican Party to demonize Muslims," said Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to BuzzFeed News.
Utah lawmakers buck this trend by visiting mosques and listening to Muslims' concerns, Imam Shuaib said.
The new analysis highlights former GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, who, before his death in May 2016, met with Muslims to apologize for hate-filled statements made by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
"In the hospital, he said, 'I want to go to every Muslim and say thank you for being in our country, and I want to apologize on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump,'" his son, Jim Bennett, told the Deseret News in April 2016.
Bob Bennett's legacy lives on in current leaders like Sen. Mike Lee, who, just last month, visited the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake for a Q&A with members of the Muslim community.
"The right to live and worship according to one’s faith is a foundational freedom of the United States. Not only does this mean our government should not pass laws that infringe on a community’s ability to worship and believe, but it obligates our leaders to build bridges between faith communities so that everyone feels protected," Lee said in a statement.
Muslims represented less than one-half of 1 percent of Utah residents in 2017, according to Public Religion Research Institute's American Values Atlas.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the positive relationship between Utah politicians and Muslims stems, in part, from the state's historical ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As a state whose citizens have known religious persecution, we are sensitive to the need to respect and show tolerance for religious differences," he said in a statement. "Utah has many respected Muslim leaders, and I’m fortunate to be acquainted with some of them. We appreciate what they do, and we’re a stronger community because of our diversity."
Shariq Khan, a Muslim who has lived in Utah since the early 1990s, said Utah politicians seem committed to supporting and learning from Muslim residents.
"Politicians here have made a point of coming to visit mosques whenever they can, especially before election season," he said. "Utah politicians are really mindful about not using (anti-Muslim rhetoric) as part of their platform."
This respectful approach may help keep Utah Muslims safe at a time when anti-Muslim hate crimes are happening more often.
Recent research from the New America Foundation shows that, like high-profile bombings by Islamic extremists, negative political rhetoric can lead to an uptick in attacks on mosques and individual Muslims.
“Looking at the statistics, it is clear that the rise in these incidents are tied to the election cycle,” said Robert McKenzie, a senior fellow at New America, to The Intercept. “If spikes in anti-Muslim activity only occurred due to terrorism, we would expect to see more incidents following high-profile attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing and Charlie Hebdo, but we didn’t. What we do have are folks running for elected office who are using megaphones to talk about how dangerous Muslims are."
In Utah, politicians are committed to respectful dialogue, said Sen. Jim Dabakis, an outspoken Democrat in a highly conservative state.
"While we are, unfortunately, a red state, we are not rednecks," he said. "There is a sense of civility here that makes us unique. I am proud of that."
Dabakis visited the Khadeeja Islamic Center in February 2017 after President Trump announced a travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries. His video about the experience was viewed more than 50,000 times.
Khan, who worships at the Utah Islamic Center, said he's thankful that his kids are growing up in a place that embraces religious diversity.
"This has been a great place to live. We have not felt the effects of Islamophobia here that my friends have felt in other places," he said.
The BuzzFeed News investigation is based on a review of social media posts, public statements and proposed legislation that singled the Muslim community out for unfair treatment or vilified Islam. Reporters "compiled incidents through a state-by-state search of local news reports, as well as from statements by advocacy groups. Only those with documentation, such as news coverage or an admission by the official, were included."
Their work shows a need for better understanding between lawmakers and the Muslim community, Imam Shuaib said.
"People tend to be afraid of what they are ignorant about, of the unknown," he said. "If they were to take some time and better educate themselves, then some of these (anti-Muslim) discussions would not be happening in our higher corridors of power."