Shmuley Boteach and Imam Qatanani: Unrequited love or political lynching?

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Baseless charges have no place in a political campaign. Neither do pretentious impressions. Shmuley Boteach, Republican candidate for District 9 in New Jersey, is guilty on both counts. His much-touted unrequited love of the Arabs will not endear Arab voters or their empathy. Reminiscing about past Muslim gestures of goodwill towards Jews won’t hide his deep ties to Islamophobes. Instead of focusing on the real issues that matter to the voters, Shmuley, lacking a coherent political agenda, has unabashedly hijacked a legal case facing a Muslim leader and turned it into a political ploy against his Democratic opponent, Congressman Bill Pascrell.

The desperate Boteach is repeating the mistakes of Steve Rothman, who lost the primary elections to Pascrell. Rothman played the ‘I-love-Israel’ card in a desperate attempt to woo Jewish voters, but the tactic proved fruitless. Rothman, some will argue, may not have gone as far as Shmuley in questioning Pascrell’s friendship and support of Mohammad Qatanani, the popular Paterson Imam who is facing a retrial in an immigration court in late November. That friendship was a key factor in securing Muslims votes and money.Shmuley’s weapon of choice against Pascrell has been the reputation of Imam Qatanani. Misquoting the Imam’s words and relying on baseless claims by self-described Islam experts such has Muslim hater Steve Emerson. Shmuley attempted to question the moderate views of the Imam. This personal crusade to defame a respected Muslim leader has not garnered measurable popular acceptance except with known anti-Muslim sites and organizations. Shmuley, in an article published on June 14, criticized Pascrell for his ties with the Imam. He made it a condition for speaking with the Imam if he were to ‘renounce his ties with Hamas.’ The Imam decided to ignore Shmuley’s demand arguing he was never a member of Hamas and as such no need was there for a statement.

It’s apparent that Boteach needs a reality check when he claims that his ‘internal polling’ show 40% of the Arab vote siding with him. Except for a few diehard and discredited Republicans, Shmuley will be resoundingly rejected by Muslim voters. As for the general populace, in spite of the infusion of Super PAC money, the race seems so certain to end with a landslide victory for Pascrell that polling outfits have decided not to conduct any more elections polls in the contested district.

More than this, Shmuley needs a check of his moral compass as well. He may claim to be a friend of the Arabs and brother of the Muslims, but his actions thus far portend only evil-intentioned rhetoric and actions. It is a fitting analogy to recall that with friends like Shmuley, the Muslim community does not need enemies.

But Shmuley’s incessant attacks would become more insane and bizarre even after a surprise face-to-face conversation between the Imam and Shmuley took place at a Republican fundraising event in Alpine where Governor Christie was the show’s star. The conversation was frank and both sides laid out their positions. Shmuley claimed his willingness to visit the Imam’s mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) ‘without conditions,’ a claim promptly refuted by the Imam. In a June 15 article, Shmuley wrote to Pascrell saying that, “Should the imam publicly repudiate those ties and condemn Hamas for its murderous intent against innocent Israelis, a meeting between us would be welcome.” The Imam offered to host the candidate at the ICPC but Shmuley’s conditions would have to be withdrawn; namely, his demand that the Imam disassociate himself from Hamas. Poignantly, the Imam reminded Shmuley, who is a rabbi, that men of faith have the responsibility to dispense good and to encourage others to do the same. For his part, Shmuley said his faith is a guide in his decision to run for public office.

Consequently, arrangements were being made for an exploratory meeting to agree on general parameters of a visit by Shmuley to the ICPC. A letter to the effect was sent on October 3, 2012, to Shmuley outlining our expectations:

“The Muslim community has an open door policy with members and leaders of all communities and organizations. Our record is very clear and solid. The community, however, feels the candidate Shmuley Boteach has inflicted a serious violation of accepted norms and protocols when he used the Imam’s friendship with Cong Bill Pascrell as political tool. If candidate Shmuley Boteach was not a man of faith, the community would have disregarded this serious personal attack on one of its leaders as another cheap example of political expediency, pandering and tactics. The community has a big issue with Rabbi Shmuley more than it has a gripe with candidate Shmuley… Only when candidate Shmuley complies with our reasonable request that an opportunity would avail itself for a potentially fruitful and also normal relationship with our leaders and the members.”

No positive response ever came. Instead, Shmuley, living up to expectations, blew his cover by going public with another variant of his tirade against the Imam, this time demanding the deportation of the Imam. He conveniently chose to ignore a 2008 court order which granted the Imam permanent residency which, according to immigration Judge, Alberto J. Riefkohl, also found the government’s case “was incomplete and that the testimony of key witnesses, two federal agents, was not credible.” Riefkohl wrote, “Their testimony is tainted by the lack of an accurate record and their inconsistent and contradictory testimony.”

The court was never provided with any signed confessions or trial documents, as Shmuley claims.

Shmuley is out of synch with so many private, public and elected officials who have vouched for Imam Qatanani good character and moderating influences. Shmuley must not have read our report of Governor Christie’s showering accolades on the Imam when he hosted him for a Ramadan Iftar in July: “In all my interactions with the Imam, he has attempted to be a force for good in his community, in our state with law enforcement, with those of us who have gotten to know him over the years.”

For someone who is, by all measures, a known TV celebrity and seasoned media-savvy personality, Shmuley’s obsession of and demands on Imam Qatanani are insane. All his tricks have failed to sway voters or change the public discourse. The Imam’s reputation remains intact. For here you have Shmuley trying so many questionable tactics to attack the Imam hoping for a different result when all he has gotten so far is one and the same outcome: total disregard from the District residents; from the Republican Party’s leadership including its superstar governor Christie. More astoundingly, would-be natural supporters of pro Israel lobbies are distancing themselves from Shmuley. Even Ben Chouake, president of the pro-Israel NORPAC, is questioning Shmuley’s logic confirming that Imam’s ordeal “is a judicial case, not a congressional one,” one which cannot be blamed on Pascrell.

For sure Shmuley is a bewildered soul. And he can’t blame the Muslims for his fate, although he complained about my views to both Pascrell and even Israel’s PM Netanyahu. I am reminded of Albert Einstein famous definition of insanity when one tries ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ His political and maybe his spiritual salvation may begin when he ends the misguided political lynching of Imam Qatanani.

Dr. Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.

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