New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's nomination of Sohail Mohammed to be a state judge shows the governor's tin ear for radical Islam. Not only did he appoint a longtime mouthpiece for radical Islamists to be a judge, but Christie has also turned a blind eye to the activities of one of Mohammed's clients – radical imam Mohammed Qatanani, head of one of New Jersey's largest mosques.
Qatanani has a history of Hamas support and was related by marriage to a leading Hamas operative in the West Bank. This fall, Qatanani will return to a New Jersey immigration court, where the Department of Homeland Security is fighting to have him deported. In his initial application for a green card filed in 1999, government lawyers say Qatanani failed to disclose a conviction in an Israeli military court for being a Hamas member and providing support to the terrorist group.
Oddly, Christie – a Republican who was then the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey – sided with Qatanani against DHS, allowing a top lieutenant, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, to testify as a character witness at Qatanani's first immigration trial, and publicly embracing the imam at a Ramadan breakfast at his mosque. Christie later appointed McKenna as New Jersey's head of homeland security..
As general counsel to the American Muslim Union (AMU), Mohammed often represented clients subject to government allegations concerning terrorists. The AMU often is highly critical of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
One online newsletter even included a claim that a "Zionist commando orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks" and shows support for a "Rabbi" from the extremist Jewish organization Neturei Karta, which denies the right of Israel to exist and supports its dismantling.
The AMU has criticized some of the response to the September 11 attacks, especially regarding the PATRIOT Act. Explaining why the AMU had become more politically active and was holding voter registration drives, one employee of AMU said: "Right now, the Patriot Act—basically it's unconstitutional…I believe it targets Muslims unfairly. If someone's going to come out with a bill that's discriminatory, I'm not going to vote for them."
As general counsel, Mohammed bucked several high-profile terror support prosecutions. After authorities shut down the Holy Land Foundation near Dallas for alleged Hamas support in 2001, Mohammed told the Record of Bergen County, N.J., that the government was unjustly singling out Muslim organizations."People see this as another example of how heavy-handed the administration has been thus far," he said.
The move was newsworthy in New Jersey because an HLF officer, Mohammed El-Mezain, preceded Qatanani as imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County. El-Mezain and four fellow defendants were convicted of illegally routing millions of dollars to Hamas in 2008.
During a lecture given a year earlier, Qatanani included the HLF defendants in a prayer for relief from oppression. "Oh Allah assist our brothers and sisters in Philistine [Palestine], and Iraq and Chechnya," he said. "O Allah remove occupation and oppression and o Allah improve the matters of our community … to assist our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land Foundation, ask oh Allah … to assist them and to remove the difficulty that they have been inflicted with all of the brothers and sisters in this country, oh Allah to prove them non-guilty."
Additionally, Mohammed publicly defended Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative Sami Al-Arian following a 2003 indictment which alleged he was a North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Appearing on MSNBC, Mohammed criticized the fact that it took years of investigation before the indictment was issued. "It all points out to the distrust that the Muslim community have, which is this is nothing but a witch-hunt," he said. "This is nothing but a politically motivated indictment, and all you are waiting for is the right opportunity to indict the person, the climate is right."
Al-Arian, a longtime professor at the University of South Florida, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide goods and services to the PIJ. In sentencing him, a federal judge said the evidence made it clear he was "a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. You were on the board of directors and an officer, the secretary. Directors control the actions of an organization, even the PIJ; and you were an active leader."
In addition to defending accused terrorists, Mohammed is defensive about acknowledging their motivations. He was critical of a case brought by Christie's office when the governor was U.S. Attorney. The Fort Dix defendants were accused, and later convicted, of plotting a mass casualty attack on the New Jersey military base as an act of jihad. Dix. Mohammed objected to the use of the phrase "Islamic militants" in the government's case.
"Don't equate actions with religion," he said.
Then there's this exchange with MSNBC's Chris Matthews about two months after 9/11. Mohammed bristled at Matthews' reference to the "Islamic terrorists" behind the attacks:
MATTHEWS: What else do they have in common, the people who blew up the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon? What else do they have in common?
MOHAMMED: All male.
MATTHEWS: Keep going.
If you're a policeman, you have got to use your brain here. What else do they have in common? They all come from Middle Eastern countries. They're all Islamic zealots.
MOHAMMED: Well, you cannot call them -- and anybody who professes or who says that he believes in a religion, a peaceful religion, cannot take the banner and crash a plane, and you blame every single person who follows this faith.
Even while fighting to stay in the country, Mohammed's former client, Qatanani, has participated in radical rallies and programs. During a rally in New York last March, demonstrators repeated a chant that subtly calls for Israel's destruction. "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
It's a familiar chant at pro-Palestinian rallies. A Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea would cover all of what is now the state of Israel. In his remarks, which came after the chant, Qatanani expressed his agreement.
"Palestine will be free one day," he told the rally. "And we will see it very soon by your actions, by your standing for justice, justice, freedom, the liberation of the land will be very soon."
Just before the 2008 ruling in Qatanani's favor was issued, and while he was still the U.S. attorney, Christie praised the imam at a Ramadan breakfast held at Qatanani's mosque. "My view is he's always had a very good relationship with us, and he's a man of great goodwill," Christie said, reportedly embracing him.
The U.S. Attorney's office was not a party to the case, Christie said, and his praise for Qatanani was not meant to be "a commentary on the dispute between the imam and DHS" but after 9/11, he found the imam "to be a constructive force in attempting to strengthen our relations with that community."
During the original immigration trial, one of Christie's assistant U.S. attorneys, Charles B. McKenna, testified as a character witness for Qatanani. In his ruling, Immigration Court Judge Alberto Riefkohl said he was particularly impressed by "law enforcement officers that took time from their respective duties to appear before the Court" on Qatanani's behalf. Other supportive testimony came from the sheriffs of Bergen and Passaic counties and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-Paterson.
Qatanani's visa application was prepared by Mohammed's law firm and Mohammed sat with his client during an interview with DHS and FBI agents in 2005, immigration court records show. "QATANANI advised that he trusted his attorney, Sohail Mohammed, so he signed the I-485 form."
During the interview, Qatanani admitted having spent three months in an Israeli prison but he did not disclose that on his application for permanent residency. He also admitted being in the Muslim Brotherhood, but said he left the group in 1991 when working and going to school while raising a family left him with no time.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a global religious and political movement that seeks to spread Islamic law. In a 1991 document, a member of the American branch explained that the group's goal was " a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and "sabotaging" its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions."
An immigration judge ruled in Qatanani's favor in September 2008, saying the Israeli government documents and the testimony of U.S. law enforcement officials were not credible. However, the Board of Immigration Appeals sent the case back to the original judge in October 2009, finding that Judge Riefkohl committed a series of errors in downplaying the Israeli evidence and the agents' testimonies. The appellate panel found that the Israeli evidence was "properly authenticated and that there was no adequate basis for the Immigration Judge to give them 'very low evidentiary weight."
The judge's assessment of the law enforcement agents' testimony was "clearly erroneous," the board's decision said.
In his original immigration trial, government attorneys presented Israeli court records showing Qatanani was convicted by an Israeli court in 1993 of being a Hamas member and of providing support to the terrorist group.
When he applied for a new visa, Qatanani marked "no" to questions about whether he had ever been "arrested, cited, charged, indicted, fined, or imprisoned for breaking or violating any law or ordinance" in other countries.
"An alien who has provided material support to a terrorist organization is inadmissible to the United States," government attorneys wrote. "Therefore, by answering the questions in the negative, the respondent cut-off a line of inquiry relevant to his eligibility for adjustment of status."
Immigration officials have successfully used similar misrepresentations to deport people tied to terrorist groups.
Christie's support for Islamists such as Qatanani and Mohammed betrays either naivete or calculation. Either is troubling.