Newark, N.J. – New Jersey residents may be pardoned for thinking that an admired religious leader and devout man of peace is being persecuted by bigoted government agents in their state.
That certainly is how much of the local media has chosen to portray the ongoing trial of Mohammed Qatanani, an imam at of one of New Jersey’s largest and most controversial mosques, the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC).
To Qatanani’s supporters, his trial is a cruel assault on a man guilty only of preaching “interfaith” harmony. Stoking this sentimental narrative, the New York Times has generously described Qatanani as a “revered imam” whose life has been so interrupted by federal immigration authorities that he must rely on the support and “hugs” of his congregation.
Coverage of the trial itself has come uncomfortably close to cheerleading. “Imam Receives Strong Support in Court,” was how the state’s leading newspaper, the Star Ledger, headlined a recent story from the trial, which did not fail to record one supporter’s breathless effusion that the imam “radiates peace.”
Politicians, too, have rallied to the imam's side. Governor Jon Corzine, who has addressed Qatanani’s ICPC in the past, is among the imam’s most prominent supporters. In his corner, the imam also has a rabbi, Roman Catholic and Episcopalian priests, and police officers who insist that the imam cannot be confused with an extremist.
Submerged in this adulatory din are some unpalatable – and hence under-reported – facts. Though one would scarcely know it from smitten newspaper scribes, Qatanani is on trial for a gravely serious offense: hiding a criminal record that includes support for terrorism. Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security charges that the imam, in applying for a green card, failed to disclose that in 1993 he was arrested in Israel and convicted of aiding Hamas. If convicted, Qatanani will be deported.
What has emerged in the trial so far sharply conflicts with the imam’s image as a model citizen. Exhibit A is his affiliation with Hamas. As a young man Qatanani was, by his own admission, a member of the student chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas. Later, according to the Israeli military, Qatanani would go on to serve the terrorist organization. In April, the IDF released a statement affirming that Qatanani “was convicted based on his own admission on charges of belonging to an unauthorized association and providing services to an unauthorized association, for being a member of Hamas and acting on its behalf.” An Israeli judge has provided corroborating testimony to this effect in the current trial.
For his part, Qatanani maintains that he had no connection to Hamas. His denials are difficult to credit, however. For one thing, his brother-in-law, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, was a senior Hamas commander in the West Bank, where he orchestrated scores of suicide bombings before being killed by the Israeli military in 2001.
For another, as terrorism analyst Steven Emerson observes, Qatanani seems to share many of terrorist group’s views. In a 2007 sermon, posted on the website of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Qatanani can be heard calling for a “Greater Syria” that “includes Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.” Citing the Koran, Qatanani says of this territory -- which includes Israel – that “it’s all Muslim land.” To believe otherwise is “means you believe in what the occupationer [i.e., Israel] did.” Qatanani quotes the prophet Mohammed urging believers that “if you conquer the Holy Land or Al Aqsa Masjid that you are in struggle till the hereafter.” Hamas would find little to object to in those words.
Indeed, Hamas has found friends at the ICPC before. It is notable that Qatanani’s predecessor at the mosque was Mohammed el-Mazein. A former chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, el-Mazein was identified by the FBI as a top fundraiser for Hamas. One agency memo noted that in 1994 alone, el-Mazein claimed to have raised nearly $2 million for Hamas in the U.S. In 2004, el-Mazein was arrested on charges of providing material support for Hamas. He is currently awaiting a retrial.
Judging by the early proceedings, Qatanani will have more legal luck. Despite prosecutors’ best efforts to focus on the more questionable aspects of the imam’s résumé, the defense, aided by sympathetic witnesses, has won the initial rounds.
Qatanani also has found an ally in political correctness. Lead government attorney Alan Wolf was pilloried as an anti-Muslim instigator when he recently pointed to a Koranic passage enjoining that god will cause unbelievers to “increase in illness and…be swiftly punished on the Day of Judgment.”
That was too much for Rabbi David Senter, one of the imam’s character witnesses. The rabbi professed himself “shocked” that “a representative of the U.S. government would use the tactics of hatemongers in an effort to tip the scales of justice.”
Leaving aside the revealing implication that it is an act of hate to quote the Islamic holy book, it would have instructive to learn how the imam interpreted the passage. If he is indeed the interfaith champion that his supporters suggest, he would have had little trouble condemning the passage.
It is therefore a sign of trouble ahead for the prosecution that the trial has instead dwelled on the imam’s much-touted personal warmth. Hamas or not, Qatanani seems likely to beat the government’s charges on the strength of his personality.
The imam's popularity is easily explained. At a time when many Islamic leaders are either disengaged from the war on terror or on the wrong side of it, the story of a Muslim figure genuinely committed to opposing extremism and advocating religious tolerance carries an obvious appeal. In Qatanani’s case, though, it is contradicted by one important thing: the evidence.