2011 UVU Mormon Studies Conference

This year, I attended the 11th Annual Mormon Studies Conference. I've summarized the talks below and provided my commentary. A video of the conference will be posted online at the UVU website in a few weeks. I'll update this page with a link when it's available.

The conference was entitled Mormonism and Islam - Commonality and Cooperation Between Abrahamic Faiths.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Blair Van Dyke – Orem Institute of Religion
“Mormons and Muslims: Nineteenth Century Encounters”
Dr. Van Dyke gave an overview of LDS attitudes toward Muslims in the 19th Century. He started out by discussing the visit by Orson Hyde (an apostle in the LDS church) to Jerusalem. Hyde dedicated Jerusalem for the return of the Jews. He was quite friendly toward the Protestants, but he really disliked Muslims. Just 14 years later, Parley P. Pratt (another apostle) and George Albert Smith (another apostle who later went on to become president of the LDS church) told a very different story. Pratt said that the Muslims were more righteous than the Protestants, and Smith said that Muhammad was called by God to call people to repentance for idolatry.
Dr. Van Dyke explained the difference between Hyde’s view on the one hand and Pratt and Smith’s view on the other hand by discussing their respective experiences and positions. Hyde’s main mission was the gathering of Israel, so he saw everything through that lens. He saw Muslims as an impediment to his work with the Jews. Pratt and Smith were living in the United States and were experiencing grave persecution at the hands of the Protestants. The Protestants also disliked the Muslims, so their attitude was something of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Other high ranking church leaders visited Jerusalem in the 19th Century. I didn’t catch a full list, but a handful of apostles, and Eliza R. Snow (general president of the Relief Society) were among them. They had positive experiences and wrote back to church headquarters with a more balanced view than Hyde’s.
Also around this time, an Armenian man (of unspecified religion) wrote to church headquarters to learn more about the LDS church. Missionaries from Germany were sent, and the man was eventually baptized. Missionaries continued their work in Armenia, but they mostly confined their work to teaching. They were hesitant to baptize Muslims because of the serious consequences they would suffer for converting to Christianity. A few were baptized, but only after a long period of study. Around this time, Armenian Christians (of unspecified denomination) were persecuting the LDS missionaries, and the Muslims protected the missionaries.
Dr. Van Dyke’s conclusion is that there was no unified 19th Century LDS view of Muslims.
I found this talk to be really interesting. I hadn’t realized that early LDS leaders were so well-traveled. I had previously heard about Orson Hyde’s trip to Jerusalem, but the only time I heard about it was when I was in Jerusalem. I was completely unaware of the visits of others to Jerusalem or Armenia. One thing that really surprised me (in a good way) was that Eliza R. Snow was invited on one of the trips to Jerusalem. Today if a handful of apostles went somewhere far-flung for a fact-finding trip, I doubt that they would invite Julie B. Beck (the current general Relief Society president). I was also surprised by George Albert Smith’s remarks about Muhammad. In LDS belief, the major mission of a prophet is to preach repentance. So, Smith essentially called Muhammad a prophet.

Bahman Baktiari – University of Utah
“Early Development of Islam and Mormonism: A Look at Founders and Origins”
Dr. Baktiari began by asking whether Latter-day Saints could serve as a bridge to improve relations between Christians and Muslims. Then he gave a brief overview of the similarities between Muhammad and Joseph Smith. (Both were uneducated, both made claims to being prophets, both brought forth new books of scripture aided by an angel, both were persecuted and had to move to a new location.)
Dr. Baktiari’s talk was informative, but he never really answered the question he posed at the beginning. I would definitely have been interested in his response.

Omar Kader – Middle East Policy Council
“Overcoming Injustice: The Prophet Muhammad’s Legacy for Modern Muslims”
Dr. Kader began by saying that he’s a “Palestinian Mormon Democrat”. He told the story of how his father left Jerusalem as a teenager and ended up in Provo, Utah. He talked about what it was like growing up in Provo as a Muslim. Then he said that when he was in college he became LDS. He talked about his travels around the world and his interactions with political leaders. Although he is LDS and has served in various church leadership positions such as bishop and high councilor, he also still identifies as Muslim.
He said that in his travels to the middle east he has come to the conclusion that many Jews, Christians, and Muslims are committing idolatry by worshiping Jerusalem instead of God.
Dr. Kader’s talk was the most entertaining of all of the talks at the conference. He made several jokes and was a dynamic presenter. However, his remarks had nothing to do with the title of his talk. (I find this unfortunate, because the title of his talk sounds remarkably interesting.) I thought his point about idolatry was perceptive.
I wish he had said something more about how he simultaneously identifies as LDS and Muslim. He did say that when he became LDS, he didn’t feel like he had to change much. I found this quite surprising because there are at least two major theological incompatibilities. (The divinity of Jesus Christ, and the belief in modern prophets.)

Judy Gilliland, Steve Gilliland – Southern California LDS Public Affairs
“Muslim and Mormon Relations in Southern California”
The Gillilands summarized their work with the Muslim community in southern CA. They work with local imams to organize charitable outreach and humanitarian service. They have been invited to the local mosques, and they have invited imams to LDS churches. Relations are good.
This talk was the least intellectual of all of the presentations, but that’s to be expected. They’re PR people, not academics. I also found the talk to be a bit self-congratulatory.

Muzzamil Siddiqi – Islamic Society of Orange County, California
“Practicing Religion in a Pluralistic Society: Mormon and Muslim Relations as a Model”
Dr. Siddiqi said that we should strive for both unity and diversity. He rejected the melting pot metaphor in favor of a mosaic metaphor. Then he presented a theological perspective on diversity. He said that God is known by many names and that diversity is good and comes from God. We should learn from others because wisdom belongs to all. He said that we should learn the truth about others without stereotypes and that we should foster a climate of religious freedom.
He echoed what the Gillilands said about the positive state of relations between the LDS and Muslim communities in southern California. He said that a few years ago when protesters were blocking access to the LDS temple in Los Angeles, he and other local Muslim leaders spoke out in support of the LDS community.
This talk covered the same topic as the previous talk by the Gillilands, but I found Dr. Siddiqi’s talk to have more substance.

Shabbir Mansuri – Council on Islamic Education
“How are Mormons and Muslims Covered in Today’s K-12 Public School History Textbooks?”
Dr. Mansuri began with a history of coverage of religious groups in K-12 social studies textbooks. In the 1980s, there were no standards for the coverage of religion in the textbooks. In 1989, California passed standards, and in 1990, other states followed.
In the 1980s, treatment of religious groups was editorialized and secularized. In one 400 page textbook, religion was covered in a total of two pages. There was, for example, a section on “Religion in Japan” that talked about Buddhism without ever mentioning it. Christianity was given two paragraphs under the heading “Religion in Europe”.
In the 1990s, the focus shifted to teaching about religions from the perspective of the religious traditions. Latter-day Saints fared well from this shift. Coverage increased (mostly in the context of the westward expansion of the US in the mid-19th Century) and was generally favorable. Muslims did not fare as well. Dr. Mansuri showed some pictures from a 7th grade social studies textbook. The textbook had a “moment in time” series, and throughout the book, there were pictures of individuals from various cultures. For example, in the unit on Japan, there was a drawing of a Samurai, and each of his belongings and articles of clothing were labeled and their significance was explained. When the unit on the middle east was covered, the picture was a camel instead of a person. (In 1999, Dr. Mansuri’s group successfully lobbied the publisher to change the picture to a scholar instead.)
I enjoyed this presentation. I attended public schools in California during the 80s and 90s, so it was interesting to see some of what was going on behind the scenes. When I was in school, I don’t remember learning anything about Muslims. I don’t recall seeing the camel picture, even though it came from the textbook I used in 7th grade. I remember reading only one paragraph about Latter-day Saints. It was an aside in the chapter about the Oregon trail.

Christine Talbot – University of Northern Colorado
“Orientalism in Nineteenth Century Anti-Mormonism”
Dr. Talbot gave an overview of 19th Century anti-Mormon rhetoric. There was an undercurrent of insinuating that Latter-day Saints weren’t “true Americans”. The anti-Mormons played on existing anti-Muslim sentiment by equating the two religions in the minds of the public.
Dr. Talbot was probably the best scholar at the conference. The summary is short because her talk was beautifully simple.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Najeeba Syeed-Miller – Claremont School of Theology
“Finding a Home for Pluralism in Islam”
Dr. Syeed-Miller spoke about the importance of interfaith dialogue. She said that in interfaith dialogue, believers shouldn’t feel like they have to check their faith at the door. It is imperative to learn how to recognize theological differences while still working with people of other faiths. Failure to recognize differences leads to a non-productive conversation where both sides just try to “out-nice” each other. True progress happens when a person can simultaneously believe that the other person is going to hell and is worthy of dialogue.
The first thought I had is that I think it’s really cool how much respect Dr. Syeed-Miller was accorded. Her degree is a JD instead of a PhD, but she was referred to as “Dr.” on an equal basis with the PhD holders at the conference. Normally I’ve seen PhD holders in academia look down on JD holders as a lesser species of academic, so it was nice to see.
I thought her talk was quite good. I’ve seen a lot of “out-nice-ing” going on in interfaith dialogue, so it was refreshing to hear it called out.

Charles Randall Paul – Foundation for Religious Diplomacy
“How We Treat Our Opponents Reveals Our True Religion”
Dr. Paul used the example of how God treats Satan to frame the issue of how we should treat those with whom we disagree. He used textual examples from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to show that God holds dialogue with Satan.
I found Dr. Paul’s model to be insightful, but I think he made a rather large rhetorical error. His purpose was to show that if God, who is perfect, can have dialogue with Satan, who is evil, then surely people can have dialogue with one another. However, his remarks can easily add fuel to the fire by sounding like he’s equating difference with evil. His remarks could have been phrased better.

Stephen Prothero – Boston University
“Mormons, Muslims, and the Ground Zero Mosque”
Dr. Prothero began with a brief outline of the similarities and differences between the two religions. Then he made a comparison between the current Congressional hearings on radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community and the Smoot hearings in the 19th Century. He then discussed the Park 51 project. He talked about how Mitt Romney and Harry Reid both came out in opposition to the project. He mentioned that Orrin Hatch came out in support of the project.
He said that religious groups that have been persecuted in the past have an obligation to try to stop the persecution of other groups, and he called out Romney and Reid for their failure to live up to this obligation. He said that he expected to hear more LDS voices supporting the Muslim community, but it appears that they’re “more Republican than Mormon”.
I appreciate his call to repentance. When the whole controversy about the mosque was happening, I was one of the few people in my circle of LDS acquaintances who supported the building of the mosque. I was able to convince a few others, generally by appealing to principles of property rights. (Sadly, the religious liberty arguments did seem to fall on deaf ears.)
I do have one big issue with his conclusion that opposition to the mosque was a Republican phenomenon. Senator Reid is a Democrat, and Senator Hatch is a Republican. I also think that Dr. Prothero should have mentioned that Senator Hatch was one of the authors of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, so he has a long history of being a friend to religious liberty, especially in the realm of building houses of worship.

Donna Lee Bowen – Brigham Young University
J. Bonner Ritchie – Utah Valley University
Omar Kader – Middle East Policy Council
Panel Discussion “Mormons Building Peace in the Middle East”
Dr. Bowen said that the history of the world is one of conflict and that religion tells us to make peace. Listening more than we speak is one way to do this.
Dr. Ritchie said that Isaiah prophesied peace in the Middle East and that we need to be a part of making that happen. In order to do that, we need to emphasize the importance of valid information, develop trust and justice, teach the dignity of each person, foster a philosophy of liberty (as opposed to democracy), and teach the importance of reconciliation. We need to make peace for the sake of the children.
Dr. Kader said that we should not underestimate the people we’re trying to work with.
This panel felt more like a series of sermons than an academic panel discussion. (Unfortunately, the folding chairs were nowhere near as comfortable as pews!) The panel was entirely LDS and took place Friday at noon. Prior to the panel, the Muslim participants in the conference excused themselves to attend their Friday prayer service. I thought it was remarkably rude to continue the conference in their absence. It would have been better to take a break and reconvene the conference later in the day after the conclusion of the prayer service.

Daniel Peterson – Brigham Young University
“Translation and Bridge Building: BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and Its Impact”
Dr. Peterson summarized his work translating from Arabic into English several historical texts. The university sells them inexpensively to make them available to the general public.
This talk interested me greatly. I picked up a list of the available titles, and I’m interested in reading some of them. There are a lot of philosophy books that haven’t previously been translated into English. I love philosophy (sometimes I regret going to law school instead of pursuing a PhD in philosophy), so the idea of newly translated texts is really exciting to me.

Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar – Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake
“Bridge Building Between Monotheistic Religions as Depicted in the Quran and Traditions of the Prophets”
Dr. Mehtar began by talking about the nature of God (compassionate, loving, peaceful, etc.). Then he said that God has called prophets throughout history and the same story is repeated over and over. People need to build bridges because a failure to build bridges results in ignorance and conflict.
The thing that struck me was that Dr. Mehtar’s talk started out very much like the typical first message I would teach when I was a missionary. Whenever someone was first learning about the church, I would begin with a conversation about a loving God who has called prophets throughout history.

Panel Discussion – Muslims in Utah
The panel consisted of five Muslims living in Utah. (Three imams, one engineer, and a math professor who also serves as a prison chaplain.) The panel was a bit rushed because the conference was running over. I think the panel would have been more successful with either more time or fewer people. The panelists didn’t really have sufficient time.
Maysa Kergaye (the math prof/prison chaplain) said that her neighbors include her in their activities and that she is active in the Relief Society (the LDS women’s organization). She talked about her work as a prison chaplain and mentioned that she has been having difficulty getting religious accommodations for some of the prisoners. (Since I wrote a paper on religious accommodations in prison, I talked to her after the conference about the subject.)
Khwaja Shuaib Uddin (one of the imams) said that he has a lot in common with his LDS neighbors. He said that if you take out the divinity of Jesus, there’s really no difference. I think this comment missed the point. If you take out the divinity of Jesus, you take out the most important part of the LDS faith.
Ahmad Mohammed Salah (the engineer) is from Egypt and studied engineering at BYU. When he got accepted to BYU, some of his friends passed along things that they had heard. When he arrived in Provo, he found that the stereotypes weren’t true.
I didn’t jot down anything from the other panelists.