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Why a prominent Muslim leader is visiting with Latter-day Saints this week

Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa believes interfaith friendships could help end religiously motivated violence.

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Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, secretary-general of the World Muslim League, takes his seat at a Deseret News editorial board meeting at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Interfaith friendship may seem powerless in the face of rising religious intolerance and extremism, but Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa believes it can change the world.

The prominent Muslim leader, who has served as secretary-general of the Muslim World League since August 2016, argues that peace becomes possible through personal connections, and he’s in Utah this week to make some new friends with similar values.

Al-Issa will meet with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and state politicians to speak about the value of mutual understanding and meaningful cooperation. He sat down with the Deseret News/KSL editorial boards Monday and said interfaith engagement is the antidote to religious isolation, which is one source of violent extremism.

The idea that “we are similar, that we are brothers and sisters, is not emphasized enough,” he said in Arabic, through a translator.

Al-Issa, who previously served as Saudi Arabia’s minister of justice, is trying to change that by traveling the world to speak about tolerance and build bridges across lines of religious difference. He said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a natural ally in this pursuit.

“I have noticed that the Mormon church has a lot of emphasis on knowledge, on understanding the other and respecting the other,” he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcomes opportunities to build friendships with those of other faiths, said Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman.

“We are blessed to enjoy warm, personal relationships with leaders of many faiths, including in the Muslim community, and are grateful when we can work together on efforts that promote peace, kindness and caring for others,” he said.

Embracing diversity is a key way to counter extremism, which often arises out of the sense that there’s only one true way to live or one true religion to follow, said Al-Issa, who has previously met with Pope Francis and the American Jewish Committee.

This belief can fuel terrorist attacks, as well as justify limits on religious freedom. More than 80% of the world’s population lives in countries that place high or very high restrictions on religious practice, according to Pew Research Center.

While extremists exist in nearly all religious traditions, they’re often associated with Islam. Al-Issa and other members of his organization, the Muslim World League, want to change that by championing moderate expressions of their faith.

“The scripture needs to be interpreted the right way,” Al-Issa said.

In May, the Muslim World League brought together representatives from nearly 150 countries and 27 different sects of Islam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to discuss the global surge in hate and bigotry and what could be done to stop it. They issued the Charter of Mecca, which calls on everyone to celebrate diversity and reject religiously motivated violence.

“All people, regardless of their different ethnicities, races and nationalities, are equal under God,” the document explains.

In addition to supporting interfaith cooperation through conferences and events, the Muslim World League addresses extremism by advocating for better youth education programs. Teachers need to talk about how we should treat one another, Al-Issa said.

They should teach “humanities, ethics ... and how to deal with others, how to accept others,” he said.

Teachers can make children recognize the problems with violent ideologies before they’ve even heard of them, Al-Issa noted.

“Education is not just shaping the minds of children. It’s implanting inside of them antibodies that would make them immune toward certain kinds of ideologies,” he said.

Education, like interfaith friendship, may seem like an overly simplistic solution, but Al-Issa believes it’s a good starting point in efforts to build a more peaceful future. He thinks change is possible, even when it feels like the odds are stacked against him.

“We have to be optimists,” he said.