The Imam Who Fought the Fire

What compelled Muhammad Musri, the leader of Central Florida’s Muslim community, to approach a radical preacher threatening to burn 200 Qurans? Religious convictions.

On the green carpet of the large hall, hundreds of barefoot men from dozens of nations line up in horizontal rows, some standing, some kneeling, all preparing for worship. Both bearded and clean shaven, with complexions ranging from Yankee white to African black, dressed in robes and tunics, as well as shorts and T-shirts, they have gathered in this unadorned, whitewashed building for the regular Friday afternoon prayer service called Jum’ah. (Women worshippers are in a room nearby, but out of sight.) If Central Florida’s estimated 50,000 Muslims have an equivalent of what Christians call a “mother church,” it is here, Masjid Al-Rahman (“Most Merciful”) on Goldenrod Road in Orlando.

But these people aren’t only here for prayers; they also want to see and to listen to their spiritual leader, Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, who has just made headlines around the world. They want to see the man from the television screen, the man who by his daring actions may have saved hundreds of American lives on the other side of the globe.

In early September the nation’s top military, civilian and religious leaders—including Pope Benedict XVI—seemed powerless to stop one crackpot, publicity-seeking minister in Gainesville from burning hundreds of Qurans, and, in the process, setting off anti-American riots throughout the Muslim world and putting U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in jeopardy. It took this soft-spoken, suburban imam from Central Florida to defuse the crisis.

Making his way to the front of the hall, Musri is dressed in a white shirt and tie, underneath a long brown gown, and wearing the high, white skull cap called a kufi. He helps lead the prayers in Arabic, and then begins his sermon, shifting seamlessly into English and back again to Arabic to quote the Quran. Unlike some Muslim clerics, Musri is consistent in his manner and message, whether he’s giving a sermon or appearing at an interfaith service (at least based on my frequent and often unannounced visits to the mosque while I covered religion for the Orlando Sentinel). Today, I’m sitting in the back of the hall in the single row of padded chairs reserved for the aged and infirm. Although I spent an hour with Musri the day before, up the street in his office, I, too, want to hear this account of recent days.

The first part of Musri’s sermon deals with resisting provocation from those who hate Islam and Muslims. To illustrate this point, Musri tells the worshippers a story from the Quran, about Muhammad’s early struggles with hostile tribal leaders who controlled the city of Mecca. The prophet tried to reason with his opponents, who blocked his followers from holy sites. Muhammad continued to negotiate, despite the humiliating demands of his adversaries. Ultimately, the matter was peacefully and favorably resolved, with Muhammad’s followers permitted to worship in the city.

Your enemies today, Musri tells the congregation, want you to act irrationally. “Don’t lower yourself to their level,” he counsels. Even though the Quran burning was called off, about 20 Muslims in Afghanistan and Kashmir were killed in rioting. For what? he asks. An out-of-date rumor? Already, one of the society’s own mosques in Titusville has been vandalized. In this country, Musri says, “we have a tremendous job ahead of us. Most Americans don’t know we exist. It’s our turn to remedy the situation. Your neighbors should know who you are. You should be good ambassadors of Islam, good examples.” Then Musri begins to tell his congregants the story many have come to hear.

A father of five who is married to a family practice physician, Muhammad Musri, 43, is a soothing, self-assured presence, with a close-cropped beard, an easy smile and a sartorial style that favors the dark suits he buys on sale from Macy’s. The functional equivalent of a Christian bishop, he oversees 10 mosques ministering to the area’s growing Muslim community. He was first educated in Aleppo, Syria, studying with scholars of Sufism—Islam’s least fundamentalist strain. He also has a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the University of Central Florida and an MBA from the University of Miami.

In many ways, it was inevitable that he would undertake the mission to intervene in the book-burning crisis at Terry Jones’ church. Musri’s belief in the importance of religious diversity, and his understanding of the rights of a minority in a pluralistic society, he says, are products of his youth. He grew up a Muslim in a predominantly Maronite Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, and he lived through Lebanon’s searing, sectarian civil war. Musri came to the United States in 1985 and to Central Florida in the early 1990s. Well before 9/11 he was active in the broader local community, presenting a modern, moderate face of Islam. He has a long record of interfaith outreach, speaking at area churches and synagogues, and participating in ecumenical services. He has frequently made common cause with other clergy on issues like support of health care and immigration reform, and opposition to torture. He is closest with some well-respected local religious leaders, including the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland, a Church Distributed; former Orlando Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski; Rabbi Steven Engel of the Congregation of Reform Judaism; and the Rev. Bryan Fulwider of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park.

The clergymen are quick to laud their friend and colleague. Hunter calls the Gainesville mission “typical Musri.” The imam “took the initiative to go unannounced to stand for an hour in the sun on the chance of getting to talk with Jones. When he did, he was able to convey the repercussions of such a provocative act for Christians and soldiers around the world.”

Says Engel: “He is a man of extreme integrity, virtue, kindness and sincerity. The incident in Gainesville didn’t surprise me because he is a true bridge builder. He has his own strong personal beliefs, yet he fully accepts others whose faiths, interpretations or values are different than his.”

Uninvited, Musri drove from an ecumenical reconciliation meeting in downtown Gainesville on Wednesday, Sept. 8, to Jones’ 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in an effort to head off the crisis, and returned the next day for a follow-up meeting. Musri knew that the meetings entailed considerable personal risk—Jones and his family were all armed, with handguns on their hips. Jones planned to burn the 200 books on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“We had to do something, but I wasn’t sure what to do,” recalls Musri. “I strongly believe in diplomacy. What would [the prophet] Muhammad do? That was the question I asked myself. Jones was determined to anger every Muslim around the globe.”

Unknown to Jones, Musri was impelled by his own self-imposed deadline: By Thursday evening Muslims around the world would be gathering for mass prayers, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. If the Quran burning was still on, Musri knew that fiery, anti-American sermons the following morning could lead to riots and violence. In addition to the American soldiers that Gen. David Petraeus voiced concern about, tourists, business people, expatriates and, in particular, Christian missionaries were likely to be targeted. Muslims were already upset over protests against a planned Islamic community center and prayer room in lower Manhattan, four blocks from Ground Zero. Restless the night between the two meetings, Musri recalls his nightmare: “I could see the demonstrations, the riots in the streets, the burning American flags.”

The details of the two meetings between Musri and Jones—one cut short by a call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates—remain in dispute. Despite Jones’ initial skepticism, Musri says he argued that Jesus said his followers were obligated to love their neighbors—including Central Florida Muslims—as well as those who in Jones’ eyes were their enemies. “I’m trying to help here,” the imam says he told the minister. “It was hard to reason with him.” Jones said he wanted to send a message to the terrorists. “Do you think making 1.5 billion people unhappy will accomplish that?” Musri asked him, sensing that Jones might be looking for a way out. “You are looking like a villain, and you’re helping the radicals recruit more people. Think about what Jesus would say, if Jesus was here. What would he do?”

“I didn’t intend to meet with him, but out of courtesy I felt I should,” Jones tells me in a phone interview 10 days after the crisis ended. “My first impression was good. He was very cordial and polite, very positive.” But their second meeting, the next day, “was quite a bit different. It was not very pleasant, and it went from bad to worse. He did get quite pushy.”

Jones insists that Musri gave him repeated, firm assurances that the New York community center would be moved if the minister called off the book burning. “He gave me his promise and his word several times. . . . He lied to me several times. . . . I think I was double-crossed.” In retrospect, Jones believes the lesson of his interaction with Musri is that some Muslims “do not mind lying or stretch[ing] the truth to accomplish their goal.”

In the end, Jones says, his decision to call off the burning was the result of hearing a “word of God,” as well as the cumulative pressure from the nation’s highest civilian and military leadership. “When you have people like that asking you to do something, you have to listen to them. It would be the height of arrogance to ignore them. We proved our point—that there is an element of Islam that is very violent.”

Negotiating with Jones was not easy, Musri tells the people in the hall. After church officials patted him down for weapons and explosives, the minister insulted Islam to Musri’s face, calling it “of the Devil,” yet the imam kept his temper and persevered. “You have
to listen to people, to hear what they have to say. I don’t want to demonize him.”

Outside Jones’ church after their second meeting, Musri stood next to the minister in front a bank of cameras and microphones, several from Arabic language television networks. Jones first claimed that he agreed to cancel the book burning because Musri had guaranteed him the proposed New York Islamic center would be moved. While Musri was in favor of moving the New York center, he immediately denied that was any part of the deal.

The pastor then said he had been promised a meeting to discuss the matter with the head of the center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf; Musri said that he pledged to try to set a meeting between the two men—which never happened. In the end, Jones went to New York to appear at a demonstration against the facility on Sept. 11. Many observers believe Jones used his meeting with Musri as a face-saving opportunity to climb down from an increasingly untenable position. Even President Obama voiced hope that the burning would not happen.

What was unquestioned was that Musri instantly became the subject of quick-turnaround media profiles of what they called this “unusual imam.” He also became the target of Islamophobes, one of whom described him in a web video—with no credible evidence—as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” an “Al-Qaeda in Armani,” and a fraud who should be jailed. Drawing renewed criticism, in particular, was a 2009 incident, when one of the Central Florida mosques under Musri’s authority was used—without his permission, he insists—to raise money to send medical supplies to Gaza. The meeting, whipped up by a visiting George Galloway, the pro-Palestinian member of the British Parliament, turned into a pro-Hamas rally. Outraged, Musri expressly prohibited any similar gatherings at his mosques or schools. More troubling, some in the Muslim world attacked him for publicly breaking ranks over the location of the New York center. Musri just shrugs his shoulders and smiles ruefully, both at the charges that he is a terrorist and that he is a sellout.

The Orlando imam does address the New York mosque issue in the second part of his sermon, whose theme is reconciliation and magnanimity. Musri explains that just because the Constitution gives Muslims the right to build the community center—which most Americans recognize—that does not mean it should be built near Ground Zero if it offends the sensibilities of some families of 9/11 victims. This should not be seen as a retreat or a defeat for Islam.

The sermon at the Goldenrod mosque goes over well. As the service finishes, Musri’s supporters surround him, clearly proud that their spiritual leader has suddenly become a national and world figure.

“He is very intelligent,” says longtime mosque member Sheriff Mohammed of Orlando. “I think he handled the situation in a very professional manner.”

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