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Muslim cleric Muhammad Musri presented a gentler view of Islam than is typically held by non-Muslims when he addressed the Orlando Chapter of the Adventist Forum at Florida Hospital Church on Sabbath afternoon, February 25.
The imam candidly acknowledged the adverse social conditions that exist in many predominantly Muslim countries. However, he maintained that in general such situations exist “in spite of rather than because of” Islam. Local cultures and political causes have commandeered Islam, he said, using religion as the excuse for behaviors that Islam neither advocates nor justifies.
He also noted a certain pattern in the media when reporting terrorist acts. If the perpetrator comes from a Muslim-dominant country, Musri said, he’s inevitably labeled an “Islamic terrorist.” Whereas others who are guilty of horrendous crimes aren’t first and foremost labeled as “Catholic terrorists” or “Protestant terrorists.” In reality, he said, in many cases the perpetrators aren’t even practicing Muslims.
Musri’s presentation included a PowerPoint statistical analysis of the makeup and growth patterns of both North American and worldwide Islam. He noted that there are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, second in number only to Christians. He also explained various tenets of the Muslim faith and answered written questions that had been submitted earlier as well as taking questions from the floor.
The questions, though judiciously worded, addressed many of the issues that non-Muslims have concerning Islam. For example: “Some prominent people are alleging that the American Muslim leaders are not doing enough to denounce and distance themselves from the violent philosophy and behavior of radical Muslims. What is your response to that?”
The imam left no uncertainty concerning his utter abhorrence of all violent behavior, noting that the word Islam actually means peace. “So it’s an oxymoron to talk about an ‘Islamic terrorist.’ Would you ever say someone was a ‘peaceful terrorist’?”
He pointed out that American Muslims account for only about 1 percent of the U.S. population and don’t control major media outlets. He told how after 9/11 the Islamic Society of Central Florida had taken out newspaper ads, purchased billboard space, written opinion pieces and spoken up at every opportunity to register their strong disapproval of what had happened--but such efforts tend to get drowned out in the media rabble. “That kind of news isn’t as interesting” as the more sensational things that happen, he noted.
Musri has a gentle demeanor and an infectious smile. He speaks calmly, rationally, respectfully, in measured tones. He clearly has found great meaning in his Islamic faith. He doesn’t become defensive or combative, and his candor about both the positives and negatives in his faith tradition adds greatly to his overall credibility.
Musri presides over the 10 Orlando-area mosques that make up the Islamic Society of Central Florida, occupying a position that in the Adventist Church structure would be similar to a conference president. Without question, he’s the most high-profile Muslim leader in Central Florida. And he has served as a spokesman for Islam in the national media and on various government panels. He produces a local weekly television television program and is a frequent lecturer on Islam at universities and colleges. He plays a major role in almost all interfaith activities in the Greater Orlando area.
On April 1, he and two friends—a Reform rabbi and a United Church of Christ pastor—will launch a monthly radio broadcast on a local National Public Radio affiliate in Florida called “Friends Talking Faith.” Details about the broadcast and its presenters can be seen at thethreewiseguys.com.
When in 2010 fundamentalist Christian preacher Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, had onlookers around the world figuratively holding their breath because of his threats to publicly burn some two hundred Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11, it was Imam Musri’s negotiation that ultimately defused the crisis, at least at the time. (Jones later ritually burned a Qur’an. Despite the absence of media fanfare, word of his action spread via the internet, resulting in Muslim rioting overseas and at least thirty deaths.)
Some of those attending the Forum meeting had a bonus experience: The Islamic Society of Central Florida hosts a monthly open house for the public at which they explain the beliefs and practices of Islam and provide a multi-cultural meal. Coincidentally, it fell on the same weekend and started not long after the Forum presentation ended. Some fifteen attendees of the Forum attended the open house as well.
In addition to the listening to Imam Musri for nearly two hours, they then listened to another two and a half hours of lecture (from another capable Muslim presenter), PowerPoint, film clips and Q & A at the Center for Peace (established by Musri after 9/11). After the meal, more explanations, questions and answers continued in the mosque next door.
—James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.