‘Islamophobia is irrational,’ antithetical to American values, BYU Islam conferencegoers told

Brigham Young University’s student center has had a dedicated Muslim prayer room for more than 15 years, but a second one opened Monday and Tuesday in the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center while it hosted a major conference on Islam.

The temporary prayer room was part of the first impression made by BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on many of the internationally renowned participants, including Dalia Fahmy, the chair of International Relations and Diplomacy at Long Island University.

“Of all of the academic conferences I’ve been to, being here in the LDS community you feel the urgency of wanting to overcome a lot of the challenges our country’s facing,” she said. “So, it’s not your typical academic conference in that we’re simply presenting ideas. I believe that we’re having a deeper conversation about possibly getting to solutions that overcome a lot of the differences.”

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Fahmy and other conference speakers battered common American and European misperceptions of Islam and Muslims.

“Islamophobia is irrational,” Fahmy said during her presentation, in which she argued that anti-Muslim sentiment subverts fundamental American constitutional, social, religious and cultural values about inclusion and understanding.

Latter-day Saint leaders have long sought interfaith understanding with Muslims and others, said conference chair Grant Underwood, who holds BYU’s Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding.

Elders David A. Bednar and Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke together in the final conference session, issuing a call to Latter-day Saints for unity with the world’s Muslims. (See related story in this week’s Church News).

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John Esposito speaks at the Islamic World Today conference at Brigham Young University in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Common ground for Muslims and Latter-day Saints

Muslims and Latter-day Saints regularly work together on marriage, family and religious freedom issues. The church’s entire First Presidency has spoken out on behalf of Muslims or, like virtually all members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, joined Islamic leaders at major international conferences. Latter-day Saint Charities regularly partners with local and international Muslim relief organizations, which has included multimillion-dollar donations to Islamic Relief USA.

“There’s a steady historical stream of interfaith outreach and appreciation for other faiths in our Latter-day Saint history,” Underwood said. “People don’t know that, but we can document it in every decade of this dispensation.”

The conference, titled “The Islamic World Today: Issues and Perspectives,” emerged out of growing interests among Latter-day Saint leaders and BYU faculty and students. BYU has a joint Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic program.

“We’re all in sync here,” Underwood said. “The church leadership is leading out, and there’s a concurrent sensibility here on campus that something like this would be desirable and appropriate. Those sensibilities came together to generate the conference.”

Personal interactions reduce misperceptions

Fahmy said 76% of Americans have negative associations with the terms Muslim and Islam.

“What I didn’t say,” she told the Deseret News afterward, “is there is a very important mitigator that drops that 76% down to 30% or so, and that is knowing a Muslim and interacting with one and realizing that we all want our kids to go to school and grow up and be healthy and we’re civic-minded and we care about the environment. That one mitigator is knowing and interacting with a Muslim, and then the negative perception drops dramatically.

“So if you are the average BYU student or Latter-day Saint, it’s important to know a Muslim, and it’s also incumbent upon Muslims to know a member of the church. I really do believe that it’s that interaction that’s going to help us build those bridges, overcome a lot of the social ills and really realize the ideals of the country.”

Muslim and Latter-day Saint leaders around the world have found common ground on many religious issues, and the Church of Jesus Christ works closely with Muslim political leaders around the world, from the Middle East to Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, Elder Bednar has traveled extensively to Muslim-majority countries as president of the church’s Middle East Africa North Area. Last month, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with important Muslim leaders from Azerbaijan, Sudan and other countries at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy.

Dalia Fahmy waits to speak at the Islamic World Today conference at Brigham Young University in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

American hysteria: The recent rise of anti-Muslim sentiment

Other conference panelists included Georgetown’s John Esposito, whom Underwood called the dean of Islamic Studies in the United States, and Debora Jones, a BYU graduate who is the former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.

Esposito, 81, said Muslims were essentially invisible in America until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In the 1990s, some prominent academics wrote about Islam as a triple threat — historical, geographic and demographic — bent on a clash of civilizations.

The Sept. 11 attacks ratcheted up and globalized the fear of a threat, but what Fahmy called an American hysteria really began in 2010 and was fueled by political strategy and media hype, Esposito said.

“Negative perceptions today are worse than they were one week after 9/11,” Fahmy added.

For example, a study of American and European journalism found that in 2001, 2% of stories presented images of Muslim militance and 0.1% showed mainstream Muslims. In 2011, 25% of pieces portrayed militance while those about mainstream Muslims remained the same. By 2015, 80% of pieces were about militance and terrorism.

“Islamophobia has become normalized internationally,” Esposito said, adding that “There are Muslims who hate us, but it’s a fraction of a fraction.”

Data shows that American Muslims are economically, educationally and socially integrated into what Esposito called the mosaic of the United States.

Muslims in the American mosaic

“Our obligation is to build a world where we can have our differences and yet see everybody as having a right to citizenship, to part of the mosaic,” he said.

Fahmy said anti-Muslim rhetoric has become a political strategy, with hysteria about the possibility of the U.S. becoming Islamized or Arabized popping up when it helps candidates raise money and win elections, then disappearing afterward.

Fahmy pointed out that Muslims have fought for the United States in every war from the American Revolution to the war on terror, and American leaders have been declaring the right of Americans to worship as Muslims or a part of any other faith from the nation’s founding.

“This is antithetical to the fabric of our country,” she said of Islamophobia, which she said has become a political strategy.

“The birth of the Islamophobia industry — $50 million a year to tarnish the image of Islam in the West as anti-West, anti-women, antisemitic, anti-justice, angry and anti-everything — is a business.”

Among the effects is shame and pain for young American Muslims.

“They increasingly see the odds are stacked against them,” Fahmy said. “It’s crazy how second-generation American Muslims feel like they belong more than third- and fourth-generation American Muslims. And this ultimately shapes how they identify. Because when you feel like you don’t belong, and you’re told that you don’t belong, you might start to believe that you don’t belong.”

Fahmy’s statement that many young American Muslims regularly hide their religious identity shocked BYU student Bryndal Braithwaite, 21, a freshman from Houston.

“That shouldn’t be happening,” she said. “I’ve seen both sides, a lot of acceptance for Muslims and close friends deeply devoted to how they live, but deep-seated phobias in the community.”

Braithwaite’s world religions professor canceled class and offered extra credit to students who attended the conference. She was grateful.

“I think it’s a really important conversation to be having,” she said, “and I really appreciate BYU is having it. It’s a good place for it.”

Fahmy and Esposito would like to see more Americans get to know more of their Muslim neighbors.

“It is the Muslim next door” who holds the key, Esposito said in an interview.

Awareness and understanding of the Muslims in one’s community can lead, Fahmy said, to the inclusive attitude of a Texas trucker who was offended when a mosque in his city was set on fire.

“They might be Muslims,” he said indignantly, “but they’re our damn Muslims.”