SALT LAKE CITY — When Alan Bachman reflects on his friendship and association with Imam Muhammed Mehtar, one memory stands out.
One day, Bachman, a Jewish member of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, was working with children a the Khadeeja Islamic Center (mosque) in West Valley City. He was carrying some large items when the Imam stepped forward.
"He refused to let me carry them and he insisted that he carry these objects himself," Bachman said. "There he is, the head of the mosque, insisting he take this load. That's an example of what a humble man of service he is, a very holy man. I've been on panels with him. I've presented at his mosque with him. He's always treated me like gold. That's the way he treats everybody, with love and respect."
Bachman is one of many members of the Interfaith Roundtable and the Utah religious community who will miss Mehtar, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, as he prepares to move to California at the end of the month. Members of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable honored him last week during a meeting.
"How much will he be missed?" Bachman said. "I'm not sure there's words for it. He will be missed tremendously. We really don't want to see him leave. He's been such a valuable member of the community and a major promoter of harmony in this community. He's almost larger than life."
Before his departure, Imam Mehtar spoke with the Deseret News about his time in Utah, why he's leaving and what he will miss about the community he's lived in for the last decade.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How long have you been in Utah?
Imam Muhammed Mehtar: I think it was 2007. I remember when I came here, I thought what am I getting myself into? I've never been to a place with snow or this cold before. It was a very unique experience. But I've never regretted it. The people's hearts and the state is extremely warm. This is one of the few states that I've seen a tremendous amount of love, generosity, kindness, from all people, especially from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community. They have been amazing and very kind and generous in everything they do.
I've also seen the state grow in a sense of more Muslims, as our population is concerned. It seems like we've more than doubled in the sense that we have no less than 10 or 12 mosques alone in Utah.
I've seen a lot of good things and a lot of sometimes challenges that are now coming our way. It's sad for me to leave at this point, because this is where I began to feel that I can make a change, that I can be part of a change. To my community, I have been part of the changes, and leaving them right now is a challenge for me but it is something of course I feel I have to do.
DN: If it's not too personal, what's taking you to California?
IMM: Well, there are two things. One is my family is over there.
I'm from South Africa. We moved to the United States in the mid- to late-1980s. While in California, I went to high school and college there. ... I studied Islamic rules and regulations and Islamic law. When I graduated in 2007, a kind, compassionate family friend recommended that I come to Utah. But my family is over there (California) and my parents are getting older. I thought maybe I'll go and spend a little quality time with them.
At the same time, I was fortunate enough that many people invited me to also work over there. There are a few Islamic centers that have invited me to be an imam. I decided I will be able to obtain two birds with one stone; one is my family; and the other is being part of that community as well.
DN: Does the timing feel right?
IMM: Yes and no. It's a sad moment because as I say Utah was excellent. Utah remains excellent. I've met amazing people over here. Top folks from government to individuals that are concerned about the safety and security of the United States and Utah. Dealing with members of the Utah Food Bank, working with the homeless, working with the marginalized, going to schools and talking about how to empower students to become better, these are things I will really miss about Utah. Utah is all about let's be the best human we can be. Other places, unfortunately, are about how can I make the most amount of money and enjoy life. I don't sense that in Utah. That's what makes Utah unique and I think I was really blessed.
DN: Do you know yet who will be the next imam of the Khadeeja mosque?
IMM: We have a few people who the mosque has interviewed. We're trying to get a perfect fit. That's a challenge to a certain extent because sometimes the person is qualified but they don't want to come to Utah because it's too cold. Maybe it's the season. Maybe we should interview around May or June. For people who are into other states, either they don't want to leave or they want to be in warmer climates.
So that is the challenge. I'm sure they will find a great person because Utah is a great state. They have been looking for a few weeks and we'll see what happens. It is our hope that they will find the best.
DN: Describe your experience with the Interfaith Roundtable? What will you miss about associating with the other faiths in Utah?
IMM: Very, very fond memories. Positive memories. They have been kind, compassionate and sharing towards every type of good, regardless of religion, race, class, creed, etc. That is something you don't just see on a continual level, especially in our current political climate in America.
Some of the best folks for continual change, I think, is the current leadership of Mrs. Josie Stone (chairwoman of the Interfaith Roundtable) and Mr. Jim Jardine (vice chairman). These two individuals are very proactive. They are remarkable in as far as their ability to continue promoting outreach.
Interfaith Roundtable plays a major role in connecting people, not just connecting people to God, but connecting people in general. This is its uniqueness because there may be people who do not believe in God or people may have different ideas as it relates to God. The current leadership is able to interact with people on a multi-thought level, so to speak. They are flexible in their approach and yet they are committed to good, traditional values holding not just religions together, but people together. Otherwise it just becomes a religious thing. We are now more than religious. We are humans who happen to be joining a religion for human and godly purposes. They are doing a great job in this new environment.
I would love to see them continue developing and connecting with all these various entities out there because at the end of the day, God is not going to ask us what faith we're in, he's going to ask what we did for humanity while having our current faith, and I think this is a trajectory they are continually taking. I would love to see and maybe even be part of that in some form wherever I intend to be.
DN: Has participating and serving with the Interfaith Roundtable strengthened your religious beliefs?2 comments on this story
IMM: It has strengthened my concept towards plurality; towards creating better forms of engagement between myself and others. Unfortunately, because of my schedule, I wasn't so great at that. But definitely it's a memory that will not be forgotten.
In a nutshell, if you'd asked me what is one word that describes interfaith for me, it's connection, connection, connection, regardless of everything — gender, orientation, background or economic situation, faith, whatever it is — it all comes down to what I've learned, which is you've got to connect without judgment and you've got to connect with justice being the primary aspect that you wish to attain. That is what I think interfaith is all about.