NJ Muslim: From 9/11 detainee lawyer to judge

As the rubble of ground zero smoldered in the months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the investigation was just as hot across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

More than 1,100 Arabs and Muslims — most of them from New York and northern New Jersey — were rounded up and detained as the FBI feverishly searched for additional terrorists.

In few places was the spotlight as white-hot as in Paterson, where as many as six of the 9/11 hijackers lived or spent time in the weeks before the attacks. As agents went knocking on doors, asking questions about religious practices, finances and acquaintances, many Muslims were cowering on the other side, terrified of being thrown in jail for crimes they knew nothing about.

A young, soft-spoken Muslim immigration attorney named Sohail Mohammed represented many people rounded up in New Jersey in the post-9/11 dragnet. Along the way, he gained the respect and friendship of many top law enforcement officials for his efforts to build bridges between the Muslim community and law enforcement and to help defuse tensions in those incredibly tense days. He won over one official whose favor would prove crucial nearly a decade later: the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Chris Christie.

Christie, now the state's governor and a darling of the Republican party, nominated Mohammed to a Superior Court judgeship. Mohammed was sworn into office last week, becoming New Jersey's second Muslim judge.

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Mohammed, 47, says his religion has nothing to do with how he'll perform his new job.

"My faith, my ethnicity: that means nothing here," he said. "It's not an issue."

Not everyone agreed.

After Christie nominated Mohammed in January for the judgeship, the tough-talking, crime-busting former federal prosecutor found himself accused of cozying up to Islamic radicals. "Governor Christie's Dirty Islamist Ties," one of the kinder Internet headlines read.

Christie, whom GOP loyalists are now begging to run for president, stuck with Mohammed despite a vicious campaign by conservative bloggers who denounced Christie and raised fears that Mohammed would introduce Islamic Sharia law into the courts.

"Sohail Mohammed is an extraordinary American who is an outstanding lawyer who played an integral role post-9/11 in building bridges between the Muslim community and law enforcement," Christie said. "I was there; I saw it.

"Sharia law has nothing to do with this. It's crazy," Christie said. "This Sharia law business is crap; it's crazy and I'm tired of dealing with crazies. I'm happy he's willing to serve after all this baloney."

The fallout from the terror attacks was quick and extreme in Paterson, home to the nation's second-largest Arab-American community after Dearborn, Mich. Carloads of people descended on the city's Arab quarter, screaming obscenities and throwing things at veiled women on the sidewalk. Some radio hosts broadcast — falsely — that Arabs were dancing in the streets and on rooftops when the World Trade Center's towers fell.

Robert Passero, Passaic County's Superior Court assignment judge at the time, was feeling the pressure as well.

"They were recommending I close the courthouse because tempers were high," he said. "There were people from out of town riding through south Paterson making threats. It was very tense."

Passero had known Mohammed for years, taking an interest in him after the young man sat through one of his cases as a juror, then implausibly called the judge's office the following week to say he loved jury duty so much he wanted to do it again. Seeing the makings of a future lawyer, the judge encouraged Mohammed to go to law school, then mentored him along the way, even as Mohammed started a solo practice concentrating on immigration law.

Mohammed would get numerous calls each week from worried Muslims saying FBI agents had knocked on their doors and asked for personal information, including where they worshipped, the names of others who attended the mosque and whether they had ever declared bankruptcy.

"After 9/11 we wanted to forge a better relationship with the Muslim community, we wanted to understand them better, we wanted them to understand us better, explain our job, and that we are there to protect them, too," said Charles McKenna, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time and now head of New Jersey's Office of Homeland Security. "But we didn't have many entrees into that community. Through Sohail, we were able to go in and meet with a lot of the elders of the community. I think that community was a little afraid of the government at that time. A person with his gravitas gave us a foot in the door."

Mohammed undertook several initiatives that eased the mistrust and increased understanding between both sides.

He and other leaders of New Jersey's Muslim community met with FBI and other law enforcement agencies to educate them on Islam and Muslim culture. He helped arrange a job fair at a mosque in which the agencies recruited Muslims for law enforcement jobs. At the time, none of the more than 300 FBI agents assigned to New Jersey spoke Arabic.

Not long afterward, Mohammed and others offered to speak to law enforcement to explain Islam and Muslim culture. By all accounts, the sessions went well. They eventually were expanded beyond the FBI to other agencies, including the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"It was a tough crowd, but you have to have understanding," Mohammed recalled. "When you are ignorant about something or someone, that brings fear. If you get to know someone and more about them, you remove that fear and we can see people for who they are."

Mohammed began noticing a trend in federal immigration court after Sept. 11: The FBI was clearing suspects — or at least admitting it had lost interest in them as terror suspects — long before the courts dealt with their cases. As a result, many were languishing in county jails for months because the court system was overwhelmed.

One was a 19-year-old gas station attendant in Ocean County who shared the same name as Taliban leader Mohamed Omar. He came to the FBI's attention when customers recalled a co-worker at the station who bore a resemblance to 9/11 hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi and told the agency they remembered someone pumping gas who might have been one of the terrorists.

He wasn't, but the resulting attention led to Omar's detention on charges he had violated his tourist visa by working in the U.S. In less than a week, an immigration judge ordered him deported to his native Egypt. But he remained in custody for nearly four months, with Sohail Mohammed appearing in court repeatedly and inquiring about the delay.

Mohammed became ingratiated to many in law enforcement over time, which he attributes to his willingness to consider an opposing viewpoint.

"Even when I was an attorney, I would tell my clients you have to look at this from the other side, too," he said. "There was a balancing test between civil liberties and national security. We need both. I think that's why I earned the respect of law enforcement because I always emphasized both. You are defending this country every time you are serving justice."

Christie said Mohammed was a willing partner in peace.

"When we reached out our hands, the person who most vigorously and most frequently grabbed it back was Sohail Mohammed," the governor said.

Mohammed's confirmation hearing before the state Senate included two hours of grilling, including inquires about Sharia, the Islamic legal code, jihad and Hamas — questions few if any other state court judges have had to answer.

The current U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said those critics equated a Muslim-American's desire to serve his country to "an act of treachery."

"What is disturbing and revolting to me is the number of people who seem to believe that a Muslim has no place on the bench," he said. But proof to the contrary was all around during Mohammed's swearing-in ceremony.

"Sohail, take a good look around you," Fishman told him. "Look at who we are and why we are here — lawyers, judges, doctors, accountants, engineers, homemakers, police, prosecutors, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, probably even a few atheists, Palestinians and Israelis, Yankee fans and Met fans. That we all came is a testament to you. Years from now it will not be so notable that a Muslim serves on the Superior Court, and no one will ask if a nominee will follow Sharia law instead of American law."


Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark contributed to this report.


Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC