When Florida pastor Terry Jones finally made good on the threat he'd been toying with in the press for months, to burn a Quran in his church, it set off days of deadly protests in Afghanistan. And while U.S. military officials and lawmakers work to undo the damage he caused, and President Obama condemns the book-burning, Jones is seeking retribution. His church in Gainesville, Florida, denies responsibility for the riots.
There is a Dallas man involved in all of this: Sheik Mohamed Elhassan, who played defense attorney in Jones's mock trial and failed to sway the "court" at the Dove World Outreach Center. He's the man referred to in most news reports simply as "a Dallas imam." And he's not shying away from the controversy. As a matter of fact, he says, he is looking for a local church where he can mount an appeal.
Reached by phone this afternoon, Elhassan told Unfair Park that while he doesn't feel Jones gave him enough time to make his case, he's still "proud to be a defender of the Holy Quran."
Even after the violent response to the Quran burning in Jones's church, Elhassan says he doesn't feel responsible for the backlash. "I went there to make it not happen," he says.
He says he appreciates Jones giving him a forum to defend the Quran in terms of Sufism, a more mystical, new-age reading of the text. "I admire Terry Jones for doing that," he says.
"From my heart, I feel very OK. But I have some people who don't like that from my Muslim brothers. I see their faces, they don't want me to go and talk. But this is my opinion. I'm not living in Sudan, or Saudi Arabia. I'm living in a free land," Elhassan says.
Elhassan says he heard Jones's church was looking for someone to bring a legal defense of the Quran in their court, and was glad to be the one they picked."They put an ad on their channel: 'Whoever feels in himself he has the power to defend Quran is welcome,'" he recalls. "I was chosen by accident. It was not a setup, as other media said."
Elhassan says he knew Jones had threatened to burn a Quran in the past, but understood that this time the church was simply holding a trial.
"They said they were not going to do it," he says. "So I went there. But when they did burn the Quran, I was not there." He says Jones gave him and his family the opportunity to leave the church before the book met its sentence.
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Still, Elhassan says he didn't nearly get a fair shake in their trial, and he's looking to make it right.
"It was far from fair. It was not fair," he says, "so now we are doing an appeal. I am looking for a brave priest like Terry Jones, because I am going to bring all the evidence that the Quran is not guilty." Today, he says, he's making calls to local churches in Dallas and Irving, hoping to find another pastor interested in church into a courtroom for the Quran.
Elhassan, who was born in Sudan, is no stranger to debate -- he ran against Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir last year, and says he faced the same backlash he's hearing now from traditional Muslims who disagree with his "New Testament" view of the Quran. He says he has serious issues with the hardline, traditional readings of the text, and he's writing a book about his reading of the Koran -- with working titles like Jesus Among Us With the Quran, or The New Understanding of the Quran.
"Now Terry Jones has made a path," he says. "People need to understand the meaning of the Holy Quran. Whoever follows the Old Testament needs to ask himself why he does not go to the market and kill everybody, any nonbeliever wherever he finds them."