Muhammad Musri, an unusual imam, brokers Quran-burning debate

Imam Muhammad Musri is comfortable brokering interfaith dialogue, but in his bid to stop Florida pastor Terry Jones from burning Qurans on Saturday, he has waded into a controversy with global repercussions.

Phil Sandlin/AP
Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida (c.) speaks to the media with Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center (r.) on Thursday.

He has stood with Jewish and Christian leaders to support health-care reform. He waded into the Fatimah Bary runaway teen controversy. And he has reached out to Hispanics by teaching the Quran in Spanish.

But Imam Muhammad Musri, a young and by many accounts unconventional Muslim leader, may have found his greatest challenge as he stepped into a global controversy over Florida pastor Terry Jones' plan to burn Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11.

On Thursday, Mr. Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and overseer of six mosques, appeared with Mr. Jones to announce the suspension of the Quran-burning gambit. Jones later backtracked, saying Musri "clearly, clearly lied" to him by agreeing to a condition that the Park51 religious center planned for near ground zero in New York would be moved to another location.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

Musri said later he clearly told Jones that the best he could do was get him a meeting with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the so-called "ground zero mosque." Jones later appeared to have smoothed things over with Musri, saying Friday that he was planning a weekend trip to New York after all.

Musri, who has said placing a Muslim faith center near ground zero is "unnecessary" and a "clear provocation," is walking a difficult tightrope. On the one hand, his influence could garner him respect for ultimately helping to defuse a situation that has already caused global condemnation and protests in the Muslim world.

But Musri is likely to be criticized by some Muslims for brokering what some bluntly call an extortion attempt on the part of Jones, especially since the leader of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida has said he has only "suspended" the Quran-burning idea.

"Part of the difficulty that [Musri] faces is that he does not fit into expected patterns that most Americans expect of imams," says Islamic historian John Voll, who is on the faculty of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "There is a tendency to say, 'Why is he doing this?' But then you miss the idea that this may just be a young religious leader who is sick and tired of being in the midst of a society that is always angry … [and who understands] that going and talking to Pastor Terry is not something that is popular among Muslims any more than imams are popular among extremist Christians."

Musri has come under fire before from conservative bloggers. The Big Peace website, run by conservative Web publisher Andrew Breitbart, reported recently that a Musri-run mosque held a Hamas fund-raiser last year. That report also linked Musri to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is currently running for reelection, noting that Musri is a member of Gov. Crist's Faith-Based and Community Advisory Council.

Last year, Musri also waded into the controversy over runaway Ohio teen Fatimah Bary, who said she fled her family because she feared her father was going to commit an "honor killing" against her for converting to Christianity. "There's no such thing as honor killing in the Quran," Musri said at the time. But he acknowledged that all religions harbor extremists. "Is she a rebel teenager running away from home, or is she really in danger?" he asked.

Musri also appeared with Christian and Jewish leaders last year in support of federal health-care reform, calling it a "fundamental right for all … citizens."

Musri told CNN Friday that he believes Jones is a "good person at heart" who backed himself into a corner after his plan became worldwide news.

"He could not back down, and I felt that it's my responsibility, as the Muslim leader in central Florida, to go up to him and speak one on one with him and explain that he's putting American lives in danger and he should reconsider," he told CNN.

Mr. Voll says Musri is simply subscribing to "the good old-fashioned American suburban reaction to controversy, which is to sit down and talk about it." But some Muslim leaders believe Musri is facilitating what amounts to an extortion attempt by trying to influence the Park51 project.

"I don't think there would be anything productive resulting from a meeting that, at its core, would be a form of religious blackmail," says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in Washington.

The Pentecostal preacher's plan to burn Qurans set off worldwide condemnation and protests. Defense Secretary Robert Gates put in a personal call to Jones, urging him to cancel the pyre so as not to endanger US troops. President Obama said on Thursday that the Quran-burning would be a "recruitment bonanza" for Al Qaeda, the organization that planned the 9/11 attacks.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

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