Christie's Muslim choice sworn into judge's office

| 15 Feb 2012 | 08:38

    PATERSON — 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 hunted for additional terrorists. In few places was the spotlight as white-hot, and the fear among Muslims as deep, as in Paterson, where as many as six of the 9/11 hijackers lived or spent time in the weeks before the attacks. Agents were knocking on doors, asking questions about religious practices, finances and acquaintances, and many Muslims were cowering behind those doors, terrified of being thrown in jail for crimes they knew nothing about. Into this maelstrom stepped a young, soft-spoken Muslim immigration attorney named Sohail Mohammed. He represented many people rounded up in New Jersey in the post-9/11 dragnet and quickly saw the vast chasm between the Muslim community and law enforcement. Along the way, he gained the respect and friendship of many top law enforcement officials for his efforts to build bridges between the two sides and 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. Now-GovernorChristie nominated Mohammed to a Superior Court judgeship in January. Mohammed was sworn into office last week, becoming New Jersey's second Muslim judge. Christie, who has become a darling of Republicans, with party loyalists begging him 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." 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 FBI and other agencies recruited Muslims for law enforcement jobs. When a group of young Muslims was detained by security guards at Giants Stadium for praying near an air intake vent during a game, Mohammed got the state's sports authority to provide a room where anyone of any faith could go to pray or just enjoy a few moments of quiet. He also pushed the U.S. Justice Department to provide a list of pre-approved charities to which Muslims could donate without fear of being suspected of terrorist ties, an endeavor that failed when the feds refused. And when cable TV stations needed a "good Muslim" to interview, they called him. Mohammed, now 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." Mohammed's confirmation hearing before the state Senate included two hours of questioning, some of which Christie described as "disgusting," 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, "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." 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."