There are times when he blows too hard, or misdirects his anger. Even Placido Domingo has the occasional off night. But when Christie settles on a suitable target, his scorn can scatter his enemies like crows from the trees.
Such was the case last week, when he directed a blast of righteous anger at a campaign to thwart the appointment of a prominent Muslim lawyer to the Superior Court in Passaic County, mainly on grounds that the lawyer is, well, a Muslim. “I just thought this was a ridiculous and disgusting situation,” Christie told me when I called him this past weekend, a couple of days after his explosion. “I think it is terrible to try to exclude someone from office based only on his religion, and that’s what was happening here.”
A bit of background: The lawyer in question is an Indian-born Seton Hall graduate named Sohail Mohammed, who represented, while in private practice, Muslims who had been detained by the FBI after the Sept. 11 attacks. None of the men was ever charged with anything related to terrorism. During that tumultuous period, Mohammed also served as a liaison between New Jersey’s Muslim community and law-enforcement agencies. This is how Christie, who became the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey soon after the attacks, first came to know him.
Earlier this year, Christie nominated Mohammed to the Superior Court. Almost immediately, the anti-Muslim blogosphere erupted. Pamela Geller, the doyenne of Web-based anti-Muslim prejudice, wrote, “Governor Christie looked and sounded like he could be presidential. He’s not. He’s in bed with the enemy.” The blogger Daniel Greenfield wrote, “New Jersey, the Garden State, has just taken its first step toward becoming the Sharia State.”
Shariah is Muslim religious law, which some Republican politicians, unaccountably, fear will be imminently imposed on the U.S. (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have all invoked the specter of Shariah on the campaign trail; even the mainstream Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty believes Shariah may pose a threat to the Constitution, his spokesman told The New Republic.)
Mohammed was eventually confirmed for the judgeship. But Christie was furious at the way he was treated, in part because of the crushing stupidity of the idea that New Jersey is going to become a Shariah state (I’ve read most of the writings of Osama bin Laden, and even his capacious vision of a reborn caliphate does not include Passaic County). What was worse, in Christie’s view, was the way state senators of both parties grilled Mohammed on his beliefs. At one point in his confirmation hearing, Christie told me, Mohammed was asked to define “jihad” -- this, for a state judgeship!
“I was disgusted, candidly, by some of the questions he was asked by both parties at the Senate Judiciary Committee.” Christie said last week at a news conference. “This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”
Christie is not known to be soft on terrorism. He successfully prosecuted a group of Muslims who were conspiring to attack Fort Dix. So what angered him about Mohammed’s treatment?
“The lack of evidence,” he told me. “I’m sorry to invoke my law-enforcement experience, but we’ve had cases in New Jersey against Muslims in domestic terror cases, and there was evidence in those cases. I believe the determination about someone needs to be made on facts, not feelings.”
Shades of 1960
It was more than baseless accusations that set Christie off. He said the attacks on Mohammed echoed an earlier, less-tolerant period in American history. “The whole business of bringing up Shariah law reminded me of the presidential campaign of 1960,” he said.
“President Kennedy had to stand up in Houston and say his own personal faith wouldn’t intersect with his public life. Since then I thought we wouldn’t have any more of this ridiculousness about people being unable to separate their personal faith from the obligations as public officials. People would laugh today at the idea that a Catholic running for president would have a hot line to the pope.”
Christie’s bravest statement was to acknowledge that Mohammed’s post-Sept. 11 work defending Muslims was not just legitimate but also necessary -- because some Muslims were inappropriately detained. Christie is the rare figure in American politics who keeps his equilibrium while talking about the war on terrorism. It’s possible, he suggested, to fight Muslim extremists while at the same time acknowledging that the vast majority of Muslims has nothing to do with terrorism, except as victims.
“I think al-Qaeda would like it to be a clash of civilizations. They want it to be everybody versus everybody. They are a terrorist movement that believes the only way to achieve their ends is through violence, and they don’t discriminate, they kill Muslims who disagree with them. They certainly didn’t worry about whether there were any Muslims in the towers on 9/11.”
I asked him if he thought his denunciation of the “crazies” would hurt his standing in the Republican Party. “What happened was motivated by ignorance and political opportunism, but I think it’s actually bad politics, because most thinking and voting Americans think that no one should be excluded from office because of their religion,” he said. “A deep faith in God is part of what makes America a great place. Most Americans think that people, as long as they peacefully follow their faith, shouldn’t be demonized.”
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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