When the Rev. Terry Jones was preparing to put the Koran on trial last month, his supporters could find only one Muslim willing to take part in the bizarre proceeding, which ended with the holy text being set ablaze.
Mohamed Elhassan, a 50-year-old computer store owner who leads a tiny Sufi congregation in Irving, Tex., readily agreed to defend the Koran. He’d debated Islam with Jones’s supporters before and wasn’t put off by the prospect of interacting with Jones himself, though he knew that the pastor had threatened to burn the Koran in September.
“I thought it would help other Muslims, other Christians and Terry Jones himself. I thought we were just going to discuss the Koran. That’s why I went there,” Elhassan said.
But he had never seen anything quite like Jones’s mock trial, in which the walrus-mustached pastor dressed up in judicial robes at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville and solemnly pronounced the Koran “guilty” of inciting terrorism and violence. Elhassan said he had no idea that the Koran would be desecrated at the end of the trial — an act that led to three days of deadly violence in Afghanistan.
“They didn’t tell me that,” he said plaintively, in a telephone interview from his home in Irving, near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Elhassan, a native of the Sudan who is now an American citizen, likes to call himself a sheik. He wears a cleric’s flowing white robes and claims hundreds of followers throughout Egypt, Sudan and in the United States.
But he is unknown as a scholar or holy man in the state he has called home for two decades. Religious leaders in Texas say they have never heard of Elhassan, including the imam at the mosque where he worships.
“This so-called leader, we have never heard of this person,” said Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh, the head of the Islamic Center of Irving. “I believe the whole thing is made up.”
Elhassan has only a handful of followers who chant with him on Saturdays and Sundays at a small prayer center, located in a strip mall, that he founded in 2001 for other Sufi Muslims — a sect that embraces mysticism and a personal relationship with God.
Elhassan has sought the spotlight before. Last year he declared himself a candidate for the president of Sudan, but never made it onto the official ballot.
He said he agreed to serve as the defense attorney at Jones’s mock trial because the Koran teaches that Muslims should engage in peaceful dialogue with Christians.
But there was also a more pragmatic reason. It was spring break and he wanted to take his wife and five kids to Disney World — to “kill two birds with one stone,” as he put it.
The family enjoyed their trip to the Magic Kingdom, but on the appointed day when their minivan drew close to the church, Elhassan’s heart filled with trepidation.
“I said to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m not going to back down,’ ” Elhassan recalled. “All I wanted to do is give a message to Mr. Terry Jones that the holy Koran is a good book.”
Waiting inside was Ahmed Abaza, a former Muslim and the owner of the Truth TV. Abaza was broadcasting the mock trial and also serving as “the prosecutor.” Elhassan had appeared on the Truth TV before, and it was Abaza who had invited him to come to Florida to defend the Koran.
After several hours of debate about the Koran’s true meaning , Jones called an end to the proceedings and listened as a jury rendered its “verdict.” The Koran was “guilty” of “crimes against humanity.” Jones then ordered the book doused with kerosene and burned in a portable firepit.
Elhassan and his family couldn’t watch.
“I just stood and I told my family, ‘Let us go, I cannot see it,’ “ he said. “I was coming to defend it so how can I see it burning?”
In the aftermath of a spectacle that led to at least 21 deaths and 150 injuries in Afghanistan, Elhassan said he now pities Jones but does not regret his own actions.
“I feel sad of him and the people who follow him,” he said. “He’s doing something he’s going to regret later.”
Now back home in Texas, Elhassan says he has been questioned by others about his participation in the trial. Some of his small group of followers have asked that he no longer lead prayers. Others have refused to drive for the taxi fleet that his family owns, he said.
“There are some people who blame me, who say you don’t need to go there,” he said. “You were in the place of the devil. I told that that is your response. My response is I believe in my book, the holy Koran. It tells me to go and dialogue with them.”