Passaic Imam Deportation Charges Draw Mixed Reactions From Community

Imam Mohammad Qatanani, of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, faces deportation charges again after federal authorities appealed a judge’s decision to grant him residency in 2008. Authorities allege that Qatanani lied on his green card application by failing to declare an arrest and conviction by Israeli authorities in 1993.

According to a statement issued by Dr. Aref Assaf, spokesperson for the Americans 4 Qatanani campaign, the US Department of Homeland Security is attempting to use new documents that they claim prove Qatanani’s arrest and consists of a confession which states that Qatanani is a member of Hamas—the elected political party of Gaza, which is also classified as a terrorist organization by the US government. According to Assaf, Qatanani was detained, not arrested, and never confessed to anything. He also claims that the documents being used are written in Hebrew, a language that Qatanani does not speak, and alleges that the forms were not translated for Qatanani before he signed them. Assaf says Qatanani was tortured for a confession, and that he only signed the documents presented to him to be released from prison. Qatanani has given lengthy testimonies regarding torture he experienced at the Israeli prison during his first immigration trial in 2008.

As for the political climate of occupied Palestine during the time of Qatanani’s imprisonment, the US Department of State issued a report in 1994 on Israeli treatment of Palestinians in 1993. It stated, “There were credible reports that during 1993 Israel mistreated and…in some cases tortured Palestinians during arrest and interrogation…[and] ordered administrative detentions.” The report went on to claim that Israeli practices regarding it’s treatment of Palestinian civilians violated the Fourth Geneva Convention. The report also gave detail on an Israeli crusade that began in late 1992 and early 1993 which involved jailing hundreds of Palestinians under the claim that they are affiliated with Hamas. The United Nations Security Council called for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners that were in the same situation as Qatanani was during the time.

According to B’Tselem, a human rights organization based in Jerusalem, thousands of Palestinians are currently detained without trial by Israeli forces.

The news of Qatanani’s deportation charges brought Qatanani’s role in the community into the spotlight. According to community member, Nada Alzoubi, Imam Qatanani “has embodied true Islam by his demeanor of peace and acceptance.” Qatanani is widely revered in the community as a voice of inter-faith unity and moderation. Alzoubi continued, “It is heartbreaking that he be asked to leave the community that he has brought together…[the deportation charges are] an attack on a community by those who wish to bring it down.”

Alzoubi echoed a narrative being pushed by the Americans 4 Qatanani campaign that Qatanani’s case is not only against him, but against the entire community. In a statement issued on the campaign’s Facebook page, his son, Ahmad Qatanani, said, “While this case is certainly directed at Dr. Qatanani, it is not only about him or any one man. This is representative of a larger attack on the Muslim community and its leaders.” This notion of the entire Muslim community being targeted through Qatanani’s prosecution is widespread within the community and Qatanani’s allies.

Raja Abdulhaq, a Muslim and Palestinian activist, also holds beliefs consistent with the narrative of the Americans 4 Qatanani campaign. Although Abdulhaq is not a member of the Passaic community, he has worked with Qatanani in the past. Abdulhaq believes that the charges against Qatanani are meant to disrupt and intimidate the Muslim community. “The campaign…is part of a systematic approach to rid the Muslim community of it’s grassroots leaders,” he stated. Qatanani’s charges have brought into question the role of racism in this trial. Abdulhaq says, “The message we get as a community from such campaigns is that no Muslim is safe from social racism and prosecution, especially when refusing to embrace the mainstream position in regards to Palestinian occupation.” The US is notorious for being Israel’s strongest and most dedicated ally. Abdulhaq claims that Qatanani, a Palestinian, faces these charges due to discrimination and inherent pro-Israeli bias in the American legal and political system.

Abdulhaq drew parallels of Qatanani’s trial to the case of Dr. Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian, a college professor and Palestinian civil rights activist, was indicted under the Patriot Act in 2003. He faced charges of racketeering for the Palestine Islamic Jihad—which is designated as a terrorist organization by the US government. Al-Arian eventually accepted a plea deal where he was deported to Turkey. Drawing a connection between Al-Arian and Qatanani’s cases sheds light on how the Muslim community perceives Qatanani’s charges as unjust and an offensive motion towards the Muslim and Palestinian community in New Jersey. It also reveals a perceived pattern in the community, where members feel unjustly targeted by the legal system due to discrimination based on faith and ethnicity.

Although many community members condemn Qatanani’s charges as unfair and a product of discrimination, attitudes on Qatanani’s service to his community varies.

Bareeq Barqawi shed light on largely unspoken concerns within the community regarding Qatanani’s service to community members, especially women. Barqawi, a recent divorcee, performed her Islamic divorce at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. Barqawi claims that Qatanani is “corrupt” and described him as “unlike any Imam [she has] ever interacted with.” She claimed that her ex-husband insisted on having Imam Qatanani perform their divorce. During the proceedings, Barqawi felt that she was not served fairly by Qatanani.

Barqawi said, “[Qatanani] allowed my ex-husband to say awful lies about me, questioning my…reputation…rather than quoting verses from the Quran and hadith not allowing him to speak about a woman…in this manner.” Barqawi claims that Qatanani favors men over women, and does not give women seeking divorce the respect or rights they deserve under Islamic law. Barqawi continued, “…he insisted I have to give up my mu’akhar…my father and I gave up and said we don’t want the mu’akhar so I could just get my Islamic divorce and move on.” Mu’akhar is the financial right of a woman in Islam to receive a monetary settlement in the case of divorce from her husband. After giving up her mu’akhar, Barqawi sought legal advice. She said, “I hired an attorney to fight for my rights, since the Imam did no such thing.” She went on to claim that her attorney knew of Qatanani, and described him as well-known for telling women to give up their mu’akhar during Islamic divorce proceedings.

Barqawi’s experience is just one of what seems to be a pattern of several women served by Qatanani in divorce proceedings. Qatanani’s behavior in these cases gives a false impression that Islam is at the core of the mistreatment of women seeking divorce in the local Muslim community. However, Barqawi made sure to stress that Qatanani was violating her Islamic rights, and that Qatanani’s behavior during her divorce proceedings is the source of her grievances, not the laws of Islam. According to Barqawi, Qatanani is a “fraud” who needs to be “outed…for his consistent denial of a woman’s rights in Islamic divorce.”

Some community members acknowledge Qatanani’s controversial reputation while still refusing to acknowledge any legitimacy to Qatanani’s deportation charges. Community member Aimann Rasheed believes Qatanani’s charges to be “frivolous” and feels that the case “is more of an effort to intimidate Muslims in this country.” On the subject of Qatanani’s performance as a community leader, Rasheed said, “…he is controversial, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of his thoughts and actions, but no one can deny that he has had a net positive effect on the community and deserves to stay.”

According to a statement by the Americans 4 Qatanani campaign, forensic evidence is Qatanani’s biggest challenge in his ongoing trial. The statement stressed that although fingerprints of Qatanani’s may be found on certain documents, Qatanani did not know what he was signing on any documents written in Hebrew. The statement continued to shed light on Qatanani’s intended legal strategy, which relies heavily on character witnesses. Employers of Qatanani prior to his entrance into the United States, as well as members of mosques that he has worked at who regularly attended Qatanani’s sermons, are among Qatanani’s character witnesses. These character witnesses aim to illustrate Qatanani’s moderate social and political views, as well as establish that he never advocated for Hamas in his professional life.

According to Americans 4 Qatanani, his trial will most likely stretch out for several months before a verdict is reached.

Montclair State | New Jersey

Nadia Abbas

Nadia is a senior at Montclair State University where she is studying Communication & Media Arts and Sociology. She is a social justice and human rights activist who aspires to utilize media as an engine of change.