When Mitt Romney claimed “culture” and the “hand of Providence” led to Israel’s economic superiority over the Palestinians at a Jerusalem fundraiser this morning, he was hardly reading from a Mormon script.
Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University, editor in chief of the BYU Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, and author of the book Abraham Divided: An LDS Perspective on the Middle East, said in an interview that growing up as a Mormon in California in the 1960s, most Latter-Day Saints were “very militantly pro-Israeli.” That stance has evolved, however, said Peterson, describing the evolution as a “mellowing” as people have gotten to know Muslims and discovered the conflict is “not as black and white as I once thought it was, that there are decent people on both sides. Good people have gotten hurt on both sides.”
Although Mormons believe that God has a hand in returning the Jews to Palestine, unlike many evangelicals who claim to be pro-Israel, Mormons also have what Peterson characterized as a “fairly liberal view of other religions,” including Islam. “We don’t have the same imperative, we don’t have same sense of urgency of getting to people in this life or else they’re going to hell.” As a result, it’s not uncommon in Mormon circles, he said, to hear Buddha or Muhammed described as “inspired,” a view that has “filtered down largely to the rank and file membership.”
What’s more, an important feature of Mormonism is “that Abraham is the father of the faithful and his other posterity also have a role to play and are heirs to promises given to him.” In 1979, the flagship magazine of the Church published an article entitled, “Ishmael, Our Brother,” and has paid “tribute to Muhammed, among other religious leaders, as having received a portion of God’s light used to serve his people, a very positive statement for a Christian group to make, before that was really politically correct.” That was not a break with previous LDS tradition, said Peterson, because “it flows right out of Joseph Smith,” although Peterson noted that he didn’t know how Smith came in contact with teachings about Islam or what he read about Islam.
There are critics, said Peterson, who “think we’re too friendly with Muslims.” Such critics, particularly evangelicals, he said, think “we should be condemning Islam as the religion of the devil, and because we’re not, that goes to prove we’re not real Christians.”
While the Church has, said Peterson, avoided taking explicitly political stands in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it does not, for example, use the word “occupation” and it does not take positions on proposed political solutions to the conflict—it lays down “broad moral guidelines” about “all God’s children.” The Church is “very concerned that we be seen, for example, in Jerusalem itself as friends to both sides,” something Peterson said the administrators of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies of Brigham Young University strive for.
While “a Latter-day Saint would find it very hard to be fundamentally critical of the Zionist project because our scriptures talk about the return of Jews to the Holy Land,” said Peterson, “there’s certainly room to disagree about the form that it’s taken or specific policies of the Israeli government. Some are going to be very sympathetic. You take someone like Glenn Beck who’s obviously very closely aligned with the government of Israel but others who are extremely critical and embarrassed that Glenn Beck is a Mormon.” Peterson described Beck as “much more in line with certain militant evangelicals.”
With regard to Romney’s statements about economic disparities between Israel and Palestine, Peterson noted, “There are other factors Gov. Romney should’ve noticed,” including that “Palestinians are not just under occupation but are surrounded by a wall.”
“If I could sit down and talk to him,” said Peterson, “I’d like to say, but Governor, remember, the Palestinians are too from our point of view theologically descendants of Abraham, and they deserve concern and consideration too.” While a Latter-day Saint would believe, as Romney claimed, that “the hand of Providence” is on Israel, Peterson cautioned, “I would be really careful about saying that in a political context, I would really want to balance it out if I were speaking publicly as a politican to express concern and support for legitimate Palestinian aspirations.” Peterson said he worried about Romney’s statements because “I don’t want Mormons to be seen as so pro-Israeli that we discount actual grievances that I think in some cases the Palestinians really have.”
Peterson added that he was worried, as well, about Romney’s reaction to Abraham Hassan, a Palestinian-American (and a Republican) who asked, at GOP presidential debate earlier this year, “How would a Republican administration help bring peace to Palestine and Israel when most candidates barely recognize the existence of Palestine or its people?” Peterson described Romney’s response as “fairly dismissive,” and that “I really thought he missed an opportunity there to send a message to the Arab community, which is fairly large, too, that I hear your concerns too. That I regret.”
Peterson added, “I list myself as a political conservative, I am a quite serious conservative, probably more than Mitt Romney is, probably of a peculiar kind. I really don’t like dismissing Palestinian concerns because in many cases they are legitimate.” What’s more, he added, “pragmatically, this is a voting bloc, and some of them have money, and he ought to be thinking about that.”