Mohammed Qatanani is an imam at of one of New Jersey’s largest and most controversial mosques, the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC). In 2008 he went on trial for a gravely serious offense: hiding a criminal record that includes support for terrorism. Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security charged that the imam, in applying for a green card, had failed to disclose that in 1993 he was arrested in Israel and convicted of aiding Hamas.
What has emerged in the trial sharply conflicted with the imam’s image as a model citizen. Exhibit A was 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.
In his trial, Qatanani found an ally in political correctness. Lead government attorney Alan Wolf was pilloried as an anti-Muslim instigator when he 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 been 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.
His supporters contend that he preaches only “interfaith” harmony. Stoking this sentimental narrative, the New York Times 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 came uncomfortably close to cheerleading. “Imam Receives Strong Support in Court,” was how the state’s leading newspaper, the Star Ledger, headlined a story from the trial, which did not fail to record one supporter’s breathless effusion that the imam “radiates peace.”
Politicians, too, rallied to the imam's side. Governor Jon Corzine, who had addressed Qatanani’s ICPC in the past, was among the imam’s most prominent supporters. In his corner, the imam also had a rabbi, Roman Catholic and Episcopalian priests, and police officers who insisted that the imam should not be confused with an extremist.
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This profile is adapted from "A Man of Peace?" by Jacob Laksin (June 9, 2008).