A Florida pastor’s plan to burn copies of the Koran has sparked outrage around the Islamic world and concern among US officials that it could result in a "recruitment bonanza" for Al Qaeda, as President Obama put it on ABC's "Good Morning America” Thursday.
But for American Muslims – already in the eye of a political storm over the proposed mosque near ground zero in New York – it’s seen as a teachable moment critical to how the US public views Muslims and Islam.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) announced Thursday morning that it will distribute 200,000 copies of the Koran in response to the Pastor Terry Jones’s plan to burn 200 copies at his Gainesville, Fla., church on Saturday – the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"People may be surprised to learn about the commonalities between the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah," said Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, the largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization in the US.
In recent days, Pastor Jones has been the center of a delicate balance between freedom of expression and the need to prevent any dangerous responses in the US and abroad.
Opponents of stunt grow
The number of organizations and prominent individuals speaking out against the Koran burning continues to grow, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Southern Baptist Convention, the Vatican, the US ambassador and the commanding general in Iraq, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Rev. Franklin Graham (who once called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion").
CAIR has written General James Mattis, commander of the US Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is headquartered in Tampa, Fla., asking that he personally visit the Florida church in order to head off the planned Koran burning.
“I believe this attempt to desecrate copies of the Quran will harm our nation's image throughout the Muslim world and fear that those who seek to harm our nation will exploit the burnings to promote their own political agendas,” Mr. Awad wrote to Mattis Wednesday.
Meanwhile, as public opposition to the proposed mosque near ground zero grows and Sept. 11 approaches, Muslims are preparing for anti-Islamic acts, encouraging adherents to participate in 9/11 remembrance ceremonies, and changing how they observe the end of Ramadan – typically three days of festivities likened to Christmas for Christians and which happens to fall on Sept. 11 this year.
CAIR's Awad will be going to Gainesville Friday to give the sermon for the end of Ramadan. He will also hold a news conference there on Saturday following any Koran burnings.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has issued a “precaution advisory” to members of the Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and Sikh-American communities advising places of worship to have an emergency plan, listing FBI field offices, and urging parents to report incidents of bullying or harassment at schools.
CAIR recently issued an online “Teachable Moment Community Response Guide” designed “for representing Islam and Muslims to your local community in the media and to successfully respond to current challenges and other possible incidents against our community.”
“We as a community must use this trying time as a perfect opportunity to tell our own story,” the guide states. “By being proactive, we make it easier for our friends and allies from other faiths to stand with us, as they have already shown they will.”
'Islam under attack'?
In New York, the imam in charge of the Islamic center two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center says he might not have chosen that location if he'd known what trouble it would cause but that to change now would play into the hands of Islamic radicals.
"If we move from that location, the story will be the radicals have taken over the discourse," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told CNN's Soledad O'Brien on "Larry King Live" Wednesday night. "The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack."
Asked whether he would consider moving the site, Imam Rauf said that "nothing is off the table.”
“We are consulting, talking to various people about how to do this so that we negotiate the best and safest option,” he said.
Controversies over the Koran burning and the mosque near ground zero come as another story focuses on Muslims in the US.
In Eugene, Ore., a federal jury is deciding whether a man's failure to disclose $150,000 on federal tax forms was an effort to smuggle money to Muslim fighters in Chechnya or just an oversight by an accountant, the Associated Press reports.
Prosecutors allege that Pete Seda was a Muslim radical with ties to groups that smuggled cash to the mujahideen in Chechnya. His attorneys portrayed the Ashland, Ore., man – an arborist and immigrant from Iran who had lived in the US for more than 30 years and been a US citizen for 16 years – as a pillar of the community who stood for moderate Islamic principles.
Mr. Seda, also known as Pirouz Sedaghaty, has pleaded not guilty to a count of conspiracy to defraud the US government and a count of filing a false return with the IRS. Although Seda was the head of the US chapter of Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation Inc., which has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, he is not charged with terrorism.