Paterson Imam Mohammed Qatanani and his sons during a break in his immigration trial in Newark on May 9.
Photos by Walter Ruby
May 20, 2008
Character witnesses praised a Muslim cleric on trial in a Newark court last week, while prosecuting United States government attorneys were accused of putting Islam on trial along with Imam Mohammed Qatanani.
Qatanani, the imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, spent three days in a courtroom in the Peter Rodino Federal Building before Immigration Judge Alberto Riefkohl.
Riefkohl is to decide whether the 44-year-old Palestinian-born spiritual leader should be expelled from the United States to Jordan for having failed to mention in his application for permanent residency here that he was arrested and held by the Israeli military for three months in 1993.
The trial, which opened on May 8, went into recess after three days of testimony and is to resume on June 2, when Qatanani is expected to take the witness stand in his own defense.
Qatanani refutes claims by attorneys for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who cited Israeli documents alleging that Qatanani was tried and found guilty in an Israeli military court of having aided Hamas in 1993.
Qatanani claimed that he was actually held in administrative detention for three months and frequently tortured, but denied any link to Hamas and was finally released by Israeli authorities without confessing to any crime.
Qatanani’s position was buttressed by statements of strong support in court by a Conservative rabbi whose synagogue carried out exchange programs with the Islamic Center, and by local law enforcement officials, including Assistant United States Attorney Charles McKenna, Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale, and Bergen County Sheriff Leo McGuire.
They characterized him as a man of peace dedicated to interfaith dialogue and to improving social conditions in Paterson, a gritty, post-industrial city of 150,000. They pointed out that Qatanani cooperated with local law enforcement officials to help prevent any upsurge of Islamic violence in the city, whose large Muslim immigrant community is predominantly Palestinian.
Defense witnesses with expertise on Israel’s administrative detention policies testified that the Israeli military court system routinely allowed authorities to hold prisoners for months without charges or access to a lawyer. Witnesses also claimed that Israel countenanced techniques that Human Rights Watch characterizes as torture, some of which were subsequently repudiated by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Quoting the Koran
Yet on May 9, the trial veered from what happened to Qatanani during his three months in Israeli confinement, and took on a decidedly religious complexion during questioning of a character witness, Rabbi David Senter of Temple Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes.
The lead government attorney, Alan Wolf, read a passage from the Koran asserting that God will cause unbelievers and hypocrites to “increase in illness and…be swiftly punished on the Day of Judgment.”
Gesturing toward Qatanani, Wolf asked Senter, whose testimony emphasized Qatanani’s commitment to interfaith outreach, whether a person who believed in such language could really be the moderate figure Senter believed him to be.
Wolf did not say explicitly whether Qatanani might have cited the verse during a sermon.
Senter replied that he considered it wrong to quote the Koran out of context to impugn Qatanani. He went on to say that there are passages in the Torah that, if quoted out of context, would buttress the impression that believing Jews are “homophobes,” and sections in the Catholic liturgy, such as a Good Friday prayer recently revived by Pope Pius XVI, that suggest the modern-day Catholic Church is anti-Semitic.
Senter said later that he found Wolf’s citing of the Koran passage to be “frightening.”
“I was shocked that a representative of the U.S. government would use the tactics of hatemongers in an effort to tip the scales of justice,” Senter told a reporter.
At the opening of the third day of the trial, Claudia Slovinsky, an attorney representing Qatanani, demanded an apology from Wolf “unless the government is willing to admit that Islam is on trial here.”
Riefkohl responded, “I don’t think [Wolf’s question about the Koran] was proper, but [also] do not believe it was intended with malice.”
For his part, Wolf argued that it was “beyond absurd” to claim he was putting Islam on trial, but that he was actually “trying to see if Qatanani is a religiously intolerant person.”
Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress and an expert on church-state issues, said he “questioned the relevance” of Wolf’s citation from the Koran.
Even if Qatanani indeed used it in a sermon, Stern said, “it showed no evidence of an inclination toward violence” on the imam’s part.
Stern said, however, that two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings make clear that it is admissible to cite passages from holy books in court to illustrate a believing defendant’s mindset.
“As a matter of law, neither the Koran nor the Bible enjoy any special status” exempting them from scrutiny in court, said Stern.
Courtroom observers indicated the trial appeared to be largely going in favor of Qatanani, a diminutive man in a long white robe and neatly trimmed grey beard who attended the court session with his hijab-clad wife and six children.
Supporters of Imam Mohammed Qatanani rally outside Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark as the cleric faced charges he misled authorities about his detention in Israel in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, across Broad Street from the courthouse, hundreds of adults and children from the Islamic Center and other NJ mosques heard speeches in support of the imam, swayed to Palestinian dabka music, held regular Muslim prayer sessions, and shouted Takbir! Allahy Akbar! (“Proclaim the greatness of God”).
Muath Arbali, 21, who emigrated from Jordan at the age of 15, said he initially saw Jews in a negative light, but after hearing Senter speak at the mosque, changed his mind. “Now I really appreciate the Jewish community and understand that it is the Israeli authorities, and not the Jewish community, that are trying to take away our imam,” he said.
Yet, Steven Emerson, an author who writes frequently on terrorism and Islamic extremism, provided a very different portrait of Qatanani.
In an article titled “The Latest ‘Interfaith’ Leader With Terror Ties,” written for his group, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Emerson writes that Qatanani once prayed publicly for the acquittal of defendants in a case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, who were charged by the U.S. government with raising funds for Hamas. Its director was Mohammed Al-Mazein, Qatanani’s predecessor as imam of the ICPC. (That trial ended last October in a mistrial after the jurors deadlocked on most of the counts. The U.S. government has pledged to retry the case.)
Emerson also pointed to several sermons by Qatanani that can be found on ICPC’s Web site with English translation. In one sermon, the imam appears to condemn Christians to eternal hellfire, stating, “The worst punishment [will be inflicted upon] the hypocrites and those who have disbelieved, from the followers of Jesus, peace and blessing be upon him, [who] have disbelieved after the table came down.”
In another oration, Qatanani speaks of the centrality to Muslims of “Greater Syria,” which he seems to indicate encompasses Syria, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan.
“If you truly believe in these borders, you believe in what the [Israeli] occupier did,” Qatanani says. “It’s all the Muslim land, this is Greater Syria…. And it was narrated in a hadith [Muslim oral tradition] that they are the most beloved lands to Allah….You see, listen to the blessed Prophet…he gives the companions good tidings that the Greater Syria will be actually conquered.”
Dr. Robert Crane, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who converted to Islam and cofounded the NJ-based Center for Understanding Islam, argues that Emerson took Qatanani’s words out of context.
Crane said that the imam was only saying that non-believers who claim to be Christians, as opposed to genuine believers in Christian doctrine, will actually go to hell.
“When Steve Emerson claims that Imam Qatanani’s sermon demands that Muslims must conquer this Holy Land, he ignores the classical Islamic understanding that this refers to the triumph of faith among all Jews, Christians, and Muslims against the secular oppressors of the Persian and Byzantine empires,” said Crane.
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