Imam Mohammad Qatanani’s immigration case has been the focus of recent media attention. Imam Qatanani is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County. During the last four years I have had the privilege to work closely with him in the area of interfaith relations. Our congregations have joined with Christ Episcopal Church to sponsor the annual interfaith seder. In addition, the imam and members of his mosque have been part of an interfaith group (including members of Beth Shalom and the Episcopal Church) that meets to discuss a vision for future interfaith programming. We have seen members of our community and the Islamic community create social bonds bridging gaps perceived to be impediments to such relationships.
Pictured at the ‘007 New Jersey Region United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Synagogues of Excellence Awards ceremony are, first row from left, Rabbi David Senter of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, Father William Potter of S. Luke’s Church in Hope, and Imam Mohammad Qatanani of the Islamic Center of Passaic County. In the second row, from left, are Mohamed El Filali, outreach director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, and Larry Tornow, immediate past president of Beth Shalom. An award was presented to Beth Shalom for outstanding programming in interfaith work.
The case against Imam Qatanani focuses upon his application for immigration. According to immigration officials, the imam failed to disclose a 1993 Israeli military court arrest. Qatanani maintains that he was detained, interrogated, and held in administrative detention for three months. He further maintains that at no time was he charged with or convicted of any crime. His attorneys therefore advised him that he was not required to disclose the detention as an arrest and conviction on the application. Qatanani maintains that he disclosed the administrative detention when interviewed during the application process.
Government officials and community leaders have come together in support of the imam. Gov. Jon Corzine and Rep. Bill Pascrell are among the most prominent of those who have spoken out. I have been privileged to join them in speaking on the imam’s behalf. If I did not know the imam as a person, I would not be willing to support him publicly. I believe in this man. He is a man dedicated to human rights and the pursuit of peace.
Do we disagree on some major issues regarding the State of Israel? You bet we do. My hands are those of an individual who volunteered to till Israeli soil in Ofra, Harai Bet El (known as the west bank). My action is part of what the imam might perceive as an "occupation." That reality does not change the fact that I have a deep respect for this man and what he stands for — human rights and respect among all people. On a professional level, Imam Qatanani has been a consistent voice within the Muslim community for moderation. He was the first to speak out against the Sept. 11 attacks and has consistently spoken out against terrorism.
This does not change the fact that Imam Qatanani must face justice through due process. That process should be blind to the fact that he is a Muslim of Palestinian descent. There is significant fear of Muslims, and of Palestinians in particular. While I do not advocate that the immigration department, Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and any other agency involved in reviewing immigration applications do anything less than their job, innocent people cannot be sacrificed by painting populations with one brush. There are Muslim terrorists, but that does not make every Muslim a terrorist. I would not like to be judged by the actions of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, or Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli terrorist who perpetrated the massacre at the cave of the patriarchs.
It is important for us to remember that while we have United States birth certificates, our parents or grandparents did not. The imam’s story may very well find itself within our family history with some minor variations. One or two generations ago, it was Eastern European Jews applying for immigration status into this country. My great-grandfather was quarantined on Ellis Island and faced deportation as a result of poor vision. His fears and trepidations as the fate of his family was decided are not dissimilar to the journey being traveled by my dear friend, Imam Qatanani.
"Tzdek, tzdek tirdof," "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." It is my prayer that our justice system will adjudicate the imam’s case in a fair and impartial manner. Anything less is an indictment of the American justice system. If we allow fear to erode the process of law that we have created to secure the dreams of our founding fathers, we poison those dreams and create a society and culture that is unfaithful to the American dream.
Rabbi David Senter is religious leader of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes.