Earlier this month, around two thousand Muslims gathered at the largest mosque in the state of New Jersey and sang late into the night. They weren't gathering for Friday prayers -- though services at the mosque do regularly draw that many people -- but to celebrate a judge's decision in the immigration case of their spiritual leader, the imam Mohammad Qatanani. After trying for nearly three years, the Department of Homeland Security just couldn't prove that Dr. Qatanani, who is Palestinian, presented a terrorist threat to the country. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Qatanani was detained and tortured by the Israeli army and eventually convicted of recruiting members for the Islamic militant group Hamas. He didn't disclose that on his immigration forms, and the government tried to deport him for "willfully misrepresenting" the facts.
The victory was a battle hard-won: For months, Muslims across the tri-state area waged a campaign to support their beloved imam. Many had never been politically active, until he was threatened with deportation. The campaign was covered by news outlets as far flung as Al Jazeera, Haaretz, the largest Israeli newspaper, and a Catholic news channel from Italy, which sent a film crew to the mosque. Protesters wearing "Americans4Qatanani" T-shirts came by the busload on the day of the trial. They prostrated themselves for a thousand-person prayer service on a blue tarp on the steps of a courthouse in Newark (and ate lunch in the African-American masjid nearby). In a homemade video, local law enforcement officials and clergy vouched for the imam's creds as a voice of moderation and tolerance. For two months, this community experienced a rapid-fire coming of age. At a mosque where everyone knows someone who was deported, they drew the line at the prospect of losing their imam.
There's an aura of historical inevitability to the events in the imam Qatanani's life, right up the trial he faced here. Given the times in which we live, and the tense geopolitics into which he was born, questions of innocence and guilt are almost irrelevant -- even an innocent man with his biography would have probably ended up in the same situation. As a young man raised in a refugee camp in the West Bank, he came of age in a time of rising political conflict and violence. In his first year of high school, he watched an Israeli solider beat up a boy in front of the entire class, so that it made a blood stain on the classroom floor. He experienced a routine detention and torture. Then the imam was recruited to lead a large mosque in the U.S., just in time for September 11, 2001, and was subsequently put on a government watch list.
Perhaps the only aspect of his life that wasn't inevitable, in fact, was the way in which he turned his mosque into a way station of openness after 9-11. He partnered with a local minister and sent teenagers to lecture about Islam in 150 churches across the state. He allowed the FBI to conduct presentations and recruit within the mosque -- so frequently, in fact, that local law enforcement agents became his friends. One testified for him at his trial and another wrote a letter on his behalf. Despite his virulent opposition to the Israeli occupation, he befriended a Zionist rabbi and invited him to speak at the mosque, housed in a former synagogue in the old industrial town of Paterson.
The word ecstatic doesn't do justice to the way people felt that triumphant night. The local Mister Softy truck passed out free ice cream to anyone who asked. The sheriff from neighboring Bergen county stopped by to tell his friend the imam that he had never felt as proud to be American as he did that day. In addition to shouts of "Alu-Ahkbar," "the American justice system works!" was the cheer of the hour -- and people yelled loud enough to forget that they ever doubted the truth of that statement. Nearly hidden in the middle of a crowd of men, the 5' 7", smiling imam wore his traditional white robe and basked in something like relief and vindication. That weekend, he would break the Ramadan fast at the mansion of none other than state Governor Jon Corzine, who was probably mighty glad to learn that his invitee wasn't a terrorist after all.
It may seem strange that a man who was being lauded as a moderate by friends in such high places -- all of them pulling the puppet strings on power on his behalf -- was being called a dangerous terrorist by the government at the same time. It seems equally strange, given his widespread popularity and the genuine affection that many public figures had for him, that he was living on the brink of deportation for the better part of two years.
Seven years after 9-11, we're living with these poignant contradictions: In parts of the country, local government and federal agencies are increasingly at odds -- at times it appears that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. A proclaimed government crackdown on "immigration form fraud" since 2005, especially among religious leaders, has become the latest excuse to investigate suspicious imams. While Muslim-Americans are at their highest rates of participation in political life, they are still walking some very fine lines -- afraid not to appear too angry, lest it provoke fears of unhinged radicalism ("We're upset, yes of course," the mosque bookkeeper once told me, as he stood beside an Americans4Qatanani banner whose backdrop was an American flag. And then he immediately qualified himself. "But we're not going to do anything." By anything, he meant violence.)
When you look at the evidence against this government proclaimed-terrorist, the case becomes even stranger. One highlight from the imam's trial included a moment when the DHS prosecutor handpicked a line from the Koran. He then asked the rabbi that was testifying as a character witness for the imam, to read it. (Yes, this moderate imam, whose life experiences include being born in a refugee camp and being tortured at the hands of Israelis -- who keeps a plaque which reads "The Key to My Heart is in Palestine" above his desk -- counts a Zionist rabbi as one of his closest friends). Would the rabbi explain whether a hypothetical person who makes such a statement could, in fact, be tolerant of other religions? The rabbi retorted that there was a lot of material in the Torah and the Christian Bible that could be considered just as intolerant. For cheap shots such as these, a man's life was in limbo for three years, his community at a loss.
But even more disturbing is the kind of evidence the government used in the case. Not only was it full of holes, but historically inaccurate in a way that reveals some of the peculiar machinations occurring behind the scenes at the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Department of State.
The government based its claim that the imam was a terrorist on Israeli military court records from 1993, when Imam Qatanani was taken into custody for two months and tortured. These documents, the judge agreed, could not pass muster in the American justice system. 1993 was just after the period of the First Intifada, the mass Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. The imam had been crossing into the West Bank from Jordan, where he was studying for his doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence. At a border checkpoint, he was asked to report to the police. He arrived at the police station the following Sunday wearing his best clothes, expecting to be interviewed. Instead he was detained for nearly three months and repeatedly tortured -- he was bound to a kindergarten-sized chair with no front legs, insulted and threatened with violence. He was confined to a closet, sleep-deprived, and subject to blasting music (At the trial, a former Israeli judge and expert witness for DHS admitted that the treatment the imam endured was par for the course in West Bank detention centers). Indeed, the imam's situation was hardly unique: tens of thousands of Palestinian men passed through the Israeli military court system at the time, according to Lisa Hajjar, a UCLA professor and author of a book on the topic. The only way to get out was to confess to a crime, says Hajjar, and more than 80 percent of detainees did just that. The system, as Hajjar and Human Rights Watch researcher, Eric Goldstein, has pointed out, was a vast mill for prosecuting a population.
As the Newark immigration judge noted in his decision in the case, some of the Israeli documents obtained by DHS were illegible. One was missing the imam's name and another presented a similar name with a different spelling. As such, it was unclear whether he was even present in the courtroom at the time of his conviction, or if the document even referred to Dr. Qatanani. And the copy of the confession he supposedly signed, after a few months of being treated in a manner that the global community -- not to mention Israel's own Supreme Court -- has described as torture, was missing. Whoever signed that confession admitted to recruiting Jordanian students to the terrorist organization Hamas.
In his consideration of the case, the immigration judge duly noted that, even if the confession had been found, the Israeli military court system of that era has been globally discredited and consequently considered an unreliable vehicle for delivering justice. That consensus was apparently not shared by the Department of Homeland Security. The prosecutors pressed on as if in a historical vacuum. That's troublesome, considering that DHS was aided by the Department of State in obtaining evidence in the case. The case underscores the fragility of using foreign court documents from fraught political time periods as evidence in American courts. There is no doubt that someone at the State Department understood the nature of that tenuous political situation and knew that documents from Israeli military courts might lack basic credibility. No doubt that someone at the State Department would have known the likelihood that the imam had been tortured into confessing was dangerously high. There could have been someone who advised the Department of Homeland Security to not go forward with a case that was full of holes. Someone who might have said that doing so undermines the integrity of the agency and principles of international justice, such as the Geneva Convention, that the U.S. has signed. If someone did say something like that, their voice was silenced by another agenda. While DHS should be applauded for doing its due diligence, due diligence that is necessary to keep Americans safe, there was a point -- years ago -- where this case was no longer about safety.
The imam didn't disclose what happened to him back in 1993 on his original immigration forms, which he filed in 1999. But after his green card application was mysteriously held up for years on end, he asked for a meeting with the FBI. At that meeting, in 2005, he told the government about his detention, and thus began an investigation into his past and a denial of his green card, in 2006, on terrorist grounds.
A question lingers: should he have had to disclose what happened to him in the first place? On the standard visa application the imam filled out, an applicant must disclose whether he or she has even been arrested or convicted for any crime beyond a minor traffic infraction in one's home country. Immigration Services and DHS announced in 2005 that the agency would be cracking down on fraudulent answers to questions of this type, and since then, the agencies have brought almost a dozen cases against Muslim religious leaders. Because the imam reported to the Israelis out of his own free will, he says he was never technically arrested, and therefore didn't lie on his immigration form (Later, an FBI agent claimed that, in a discussion about the difference between detention and arrest, the imam admitted to having being arrested, though the agent's notes from that meeting were mysteriously misplaced). The imam says he didn't know a Palestinian lawyer made a plea bargain on his behalf to get him out of jail -- and the government's spotty evidence couldn't prove otherwise. To a man who believes he is innocent -- who was tortured into admitting guilt -- the difference between being arrested for a crime and detained against one's will isn't just one of semantics, as the government agents seemed to see it. It's a question of human dignity. That -- and the fact that if he had disclosed his past, he would never have been allowed into America -- caused him to check the "no" box on his forms. But considering circumstances, was he lying when he did that?
His prosecution here may have been almost inevitable, but there was nothing inevitable about the fact the Dr. Qatanani won in court. His popularity across the region made him an especially visible figure -- it surely helped his cause. With nearly 70 percent of immigration cases resulting in a deportation decision, others aren't so lucky. Doubtlessly, many of those cases are being brought with the same prosecutorial missteps and agendas, and the similar misuse of foreign documents, that occurred in the case of Dr. Qatanani. Only those cases, as the Muslims cheering that night knew all too well, don't reach the light of day. While they applaud the personal victory: the rest of us can applaud what it exposed about the workings of the system, and shudder at its lessons.