Biography: No Land's Man, The Story of Sami Al-Arian
No Land's Man
Part of it is who he is. He's a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the United States since 1975 and who has been denied citizenship in this country. He's a devout Muslim and imam, or pastor, of his mosque.
He's a man who is respected and admired. He's a man who inspires fear, suspicion and even outright hatred.
That fear, suspicion and hatred caused his dismissal from his tenured position as a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida. An October appearance on the sensational news show The O'Reilly Factor resulted in hundreds of e-mails and phone calls to the university, some of them threatening his life. University president Judy Genshaft claimed that she placed Al-Arian on paid leave for his own safety and for the safety of the university. At an "emergency" meeting of the university's Board of Trustees two months later, it was decided that Al-Arian should be terminated. Having been barred from campus, supposedly for his own safety, he was denied the right to speak in his own defense.
The FBI has searched his home and seized the assets of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, an organization he founded. Affidavits used to obtain the search warrants alleged the ICP had ties to terrorists. They also seized materials from World Islamic Studies Enterprise, a think-tank affiliated with USF. Although some of Al-Arian's professional relationships leave many wondering, no criminal charges resulted from the seizures and no concrete evidence has emerged that proves he's done anything illegal. In fact, in reviewing the case of Al-Arian's brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar, whom the government detained on secret evidence for more than three years, Federal Immigration Judge Kevin R. McHugh ruled nearly two years ago: "Although there were allegations that (WISE and a related group, the Islamic Committee for Palestine) were "fronts' for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the Court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the (Islamic Jihad). To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded."
Like many Palestinians born after 1948, Al-Arian has never been a citizen of any country. He was born in Kuwait in 1958, but that didn't make him a Kuwaiti. It also didn't mean that his family was rich. Before Kuwait had the infrastructure and oil money that it has today, it was just a really hot developing country that invited Palestinians to come as foreign workers -- but not to become citizens.
The country was segregated by ethnicity, much like the United States in the 1950s, says Al-Arian. "I don't remember a lot of interaction with Kuwaitis."
Al-Arian attended a private school in Kuwait run by Lebanese. It was very advanced, he says, and he began to learn English in kindergarten. There were a few Kuwaiti children there, he said, but most of the other students were foreigners like him. Some of them arrived under similar circumstances.
Al-Arian's father had taken part in the effort to defend his home from the Israeli military in 1948, a year after the United Nations had issued its resolution to divide Palestine between the Palestinians and Jews.
There are differing points of view on the U.N.'s plan. On one side, the partition plan was a legal declaration that sought to give Jewish people a homeland in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
On the other side, the U.N. had divided a country that wasn't theirs to divide. The Jewish homeland was created in a region where people already lived -- and most of them weren't Jewish.
In order for a Jewish state to be created, Palestinian Arabs, who had inhabited the land for generations, were displaced. They did not agree to partitioning. The U.N. adopted the partition plan anyway, and the surrounding Arab countries attacked Jerusalem. Palestinians joined the fighting.
Prior to the partitioning, Al-Arian's paternal grandfather had owned soap factories with locations in Jerusalem and Jaffa. "When they had to leave in haste, he just left it there," says Al-Arian.
Al-Arian's father had fought to save his family's assets but was eventually forced to flee along with an estimated one-million of his countrymen.
Al-Arian recalls being told Palestinians were not allowed weapons under the British mandate. When the fighting began, they were not equipped for it. "While the other side was being armed on a daily basis with even tanks and heavy armaments."
"There was no army; it was all civilians trying just to get whatever they could," Al-Arian says. "I mean just rifles and trying to defend. But of course they were outnumbered and outgunned and everything."
In the end, rifles weren't enough.
"A lot of people left in haste," says Al-Arian. "Like my grandmother. I remember she was telling me she took whatever she could; other valuable things she hid." She died in 1983, still wearing the key to her abandoned home around her neck. She had always maintained hope that someday she would be able to return.
"The Jews would call it the year of the Independence; the Palestinians call it the year of the Catastrophe. It just shook Palestinian society and people to the core," says Al-Arian.
Those who had already lived in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which had been designated as Palestinian territories, were overwhelmed by the masses of refugees coming in.
Al-Arian's father was among the new arrivals who discovered that there was no work except for those who worked for the U.N. The U.N. had established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to help the Palestinians cope. It's still in operation today and is the longest-running aid program established by the U.N.
Al-Arian's father stayed in Gaza for six years before moving to Kuwait as a foreign worker. He returned to the region periodically to visit his father, and on one visit he met and married Al-Arian's mother. Sami Al-Arian was the first of five children, four of whom were born in Kuwait.
In spite of his residence in Kuwait, Al-Arian was still connected to Palestine. He spent summers visiting his maternal grandparents in Gaza and always remembered the olive trees and the landscape of his ancestors. His paternal grandfather was no longer there, however. He had been visiting Egypt when Israel invaded Gaza in 1956. They occupied the territory for just three months but Al-Arian's grandfather decided to stay put. In 1966, Al-Arian and his family joined him.
Palestinians weren't offered citizenship, but they were given other opportunities in Egypt, says Al-Arian. Then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser instituted a form of Arab socialism with programs that benefited Egypt's peasant class, as well as nationalizing private industry and property that had been in the hands of the ruling class. Under his rule, Palestinians had little difficulty moving into the country and had the right to attend public schools and universities.
That changed when Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970 and Anwar Sadat came into power and began to dismantle Egypt's socialist system. The country was in turmoil and even those as young as 14-year-old Al-Arian were keenly aware of the political climate.
It was around this time that Al-Arian first met Al-Najjar. Today, Al-Najjar is awaiting deportation in solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary for overstaying his student visa.
In 1972 Al-Najjar and Al-Arian were just young men attending high school in Egypt. "Immediately we bonded because we were both Palestinian and we had a lot of interests together," says Al-Arian, including literature, poetry, religion and social conditions.
They observed the impact of the protesting Egyptian college students with great interest, says Al-Arian. They also noticed the change in Egypt's treatment of Palestinians. Although Al-Arian had never lived in Palestine, being Palestinian was an everyday part of his existence. "We were always reminded, all our lives we were reminded of that." They were reminded not just in stories their families told about The Catastrophe but by their seemingly permanent status as outsiders. "Basically we didn't have any real rights," says Al-Arian.
After completing high school, both Al-Arian and Al-Najjar were sure their grades would get them into Egypt's top medical school; instead they got another reminder. The Egyptian government decided what students would study, and Al-Arian was told that he would study science. He wasn't just disappointed; he was in despair. With no state to fall back on, most Palestinians felt that studying medicine or engineering was the only way they could be assured of having a career wherever they went. Studying science wouldn't offer that security.
With his father willing to make financial sacrifices, Al-Arian applied to medical schools in London and an engineering program in the U.S. When he received his acceptance letter from Southern Illinois University, he decided to attend without waiting to hear from the medical school.
While he waited to leave for America, Al-Arian read Hemingway, stories about World War II and a lot of modern history, particularly the last 100 years in the Muslim world. His love for Arabic literature and poetry had already led him to write poems of his own. He kept a diary of poems that he wrote from adolescence to young adulthood and a lot of them were about Palestine.
In 1995 when the FBI invaded his home, they found the diary and put it on their manifest as terrorist writings. He laughs as he tells the story. "This is poetry that I was writing when I was 13 or 14, talking about the Palestinian orange groves and how beautiful they are and the olive groves, but because the word Palestine was somehow in it they characterized it as terrorist writings."
Although the FBI has given Al-Arian copies of the materials they took, they have never returned the original documents. "If there's anything I want to get back, it's this book because it's sentimental to me," he says.
During his last months in Egypt, Al-Arian also studied subjects that were a little less intellectual. He started watching American television shows to get an idea of the language and culture. "American series like Kojak," he says with a laugh.
He finally arrived in Illinois on May 21, 1975.
Land of the Free
In the footloose 1970s, Al-Arian was intent on keeping his mind on his studies even if those around him were not. His cousin, who had sent him the application to the university, liked to party and date, he says. He just wanted to hit the books. "I didn't have much social life at all."
"I really wanted to finish my studies as soon as I can," he recalls. "I knew that this was a burden on my father because of the exchange rate, sending somebody overseas. My father really sacrificed; he really was intent on giving me the best education."
Coming to the United States to study was a sacrifice for Al-Arian as well. Once a Palestinian refugee leaves Egypt for more than six months, their residency evaporates. "I no longer actually had a country or a place where I can say, "I can go back home.' There's no home for me as a Palestinian. I realized that before I was even 18, that I didn't have a place that I could call home."
Although Al-Arian didn't want to participate in the secular activities on campus, he did want to continue his religious observances. At the time, there was no mosque on campus, so Al-Arian started a Friday prayer group. Some of the students who came were devout, he says, but some were just there because it was a part of their tradition. Leading the prayers and giving the sermon fell to 18-year-old Al-Arian.
"I didn't know what the heck to say actually," he says. "I never had this experience before." He got through it the way he'd gotten through so many other things: He got books on the subject and he practiced. "After a while it became very natural for me," he says. Today Al-Arian is certainly not known for his fear of public speaking.
While he didn't mix with many Kuwaitis while living in Kuwait, he did become good friends with some after he arrived in the United States. They encouraged him to spend summers in Massachusetts where he took classes at universities and at community colleges. One class in particular made a lasting impression.
"I took my first American government course in the summer of '76," he remembers. "This is very ironic, the first thing when we got to class he talked about two things I never heard about before; he talked about something called due process."
He laughs as he recalls how he had never heard of such a basic American idea at that time. "He kept saying it and I'm trying to get the concept, I don't understand it. ... He kept, of course, explaining it and I was fascinated by the concept."
Then the professor talked about the right to dissent in a democracy. "The right to dissent and not be looked at as disloyal but this was something that we had the right to do," Al-Arian was told. Al-Arian learned a lot about the American political system though there were some things he already knew: civil war, slavery, the cold war and support to Israel. Arabs abroad were aware of American racism, but it was given a face by a famous Muslim convert. "Muhammad Ali became a big name, you know the boxer, the way he was treated and put in prison and all of that."
But Al-Arian knew there were also good things about America. "The fact that you have a president who after eight years gotta go, no matter how popular." He laughs. "Over there you only get to see presidents go when they die or it's a coup."
Al-Arian completed his undergraduate degree in just three years and applied to a graduate program in computer engineering at North Carolina University because his friends from Kuwait were there. "I always wanted to be part of a community; I didn't want to be alone," he says.
In North Carolina, Al-Arian was given scholarships and a position as a teaching assistant. With a steady job, the 20-year-old who had never dated decided it was time to get married. He called his mother in Egypt and said he'd be coming next summer and she should look around for a wife for him.
He remembered that his old friend Al-Najjar had a younger sister, and he asked his mother about her. He recalled that Nahla was very smart, religious and also very pretty. "What more could you want?" He found that at 17 she had completed high school and was attending university. His mother found other candidates, but he wasn't interested when he learned that Nahla was available.
They got engaged and married in the month that he was home on vacation. She gave birth to their first child, Abdullah, about a year after they returned to the United States. He was 21, and she was 18.
In Illinois, Al-Arian had mostly stayed in his apartment and studied. "(It was) a time for me to accumulate knowledge, just to absorb," he says.
His life in Raleigh, N.C., was different. The city was larger and there were more activities for him to become involved in. "I started to get more involved publicly. As a speaker, as an organizer, as an initiator of many organizations."
He got together with others to talk about religion and politics. "Politics in the Arab context is different than politics in the American context. When you say politics (here) it's very narrowly focused on Democrats, Republicans, elections this and that," he explains. When we (Arabs) say politics, we really mean social issues, economic issues, political issues, not just narrowly focused on the political process."
Al-Arian was involved in a number of groups, some whose aims were political and some that were just clubs for people from the Middle East. In the early 1980s, he participated in demonstrations against Israel's invasion of Lebanon. He was also actively involved in the Muslim/Arab Youth Association, a largely social group for students whose primary spoken language was Arabic. He was active in religious groups like the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Association of Palestine. He was a longtime member of the Muslim Student Association.
Al-Arian organized conferences and began giving lectures on the Palestinian cause. He didn't just feel that this was his right, he says; he felt that it was his obligation. And his speaking was well received. Once, he recalls, he took part in a panel on Palestinian issues at the University of Michigan and shared the stage with professors considered to be intellectual heavyweights. He felt honored. "These were very well known throughout America, and I was amazed that the university actually invited me to talk about the Palestinian situation. I was only 23, a graduate student," he says.
By then he was also a father of three. Earning his Ph.D. took seven years instead of the four or five he had originally planned.
USF and Tampa
At the time Al-Arian finished his Ph.D., he had never heard of Tampa. His adviser encouraged him to apply for a position as a professor of engineering at the University of South Florida, and he decided to come for a visit.
He loved it. He loved Bayshore Boulevard, he loved the palm trees and he loved the proximity to the water. It reminded him somewhat of Egypt, he says. "I remember the chairman at the time he was trying to entice me and he showed me around and he took me all over, then he took me to Dale Mabry and said, "This is where the Bucs lose.'" He laughs.
He accepted the position and moved to Tampa in 1986, where he once again set out to become part of a community. He founded the mosque where he is now imam and an Islamic school, which he still runs. He spoke about Islam in Christian churches and synagogues.
He also became involved in non-religious groups. He's a member of HOPE, a community organization that works to improve public education and other civic issues.
According to his personnel file, Al-Arian was known as a tough but fair teacher, and he consistently got higher-than-average ratings on student evaluations. Students said they felt better prepared for the real world of computer engineering after taking his course. He won numerous teaching awards and praise from others in his field for his research.
He also made his views on the Palestinian issue public knowledge.
Jamil Jreisat, a professor of foreign relations at USF, first noticed Al-Arian when the USF student newspaper, The Oracle, published a letter to the editor from Al-Arian. Jreisat doesn't remember the exact content of the letter but it was critical of Israeli policies and defended Palestinian rights. "It stood out because you do not hear those views very often. Very often you see a lot of letters praising Israel, defending Israel and so on, and rarely do you see an articulate point of view representing Palestinian interests. And that's what struck me, that this man knows a great deal about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict."
He knew a great deal, and he wasn't afraid to talk about it or organize around it. For all of Al-Arian's participation in furthering the Palestinian cause, the two groups he started while he was at USF would gain national attention, both positive and negative. They were the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP) and the World Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE). Of the two, only WISE had any affiliation with USF. WISE used space at the university and shared resources. The think-tank also co-sponsored events with USF's Center for Middle Eastern Studies
ICP was more of a popular organization, says Al-Arian. "You bring people, you're talking to them, and you're trying to get their support, all that petitions, that sort of thing. That is totally different from WISE. WISE was purely intellectual, academic-type of activity and research; you're bringing the experts and that."
The groups had different goals and a different impetus. ICP was formed in response to the first intifada, or uprising, which began on Dec. 9, 1987, when the killing of four unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli military sparked a movement. This was before the time of suicide bombers and other terrorist acts that we read about today.
There were demonstrations, strikes and boycotts of Israeli goods. Palestinians started their own schools as well as social and political institutions. Civilians stood up to the Israeli army, which tried to crack down on the demonstrations. Kids threw rocks and petrol bombs at armed soldiers, but they didn't use firearms.
The Israelis did. They shot protestors and children armed only with rocks. Then Israeli chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, called for the "breaking of the bones" of protesters as a way to maintain control. Many Palestinians died, but their plight drew international attention. And Israel didn't look good.
For the first time, national news stories aired daily about the Palestinian cause, and there was hope that the uprising could bring about change in Israeli policies. Al-Arian and other Palestinians in the U.S. were hopeful too. The ICP would serve two purposes. First the organization would keep the Palestinian cause in the American consciousness by talking about the occupation from the Palestinian point of view. "Obviously the Palestinian voice is not very much heard. You have very powerful Zionist and Israeli forces here; not only do they have a platform but also they try to silence the other side, so very rarely you're going to hear about the Palestinian point of view," says Al-Arian.
The second purpose of the organization was to motivate Palestinians in America to stay with the cause, says Al-Arian. "They also were looking for someone to guide them in what was going on because obviously many Palestinians felt they were at the end of their rope in terms of where this is heading," he says. "So they needed someone to reassure them, someone to address them basically on the justness of the cause and the need to continue until Palestinians become independent and they have their land back."
The ICP hosted five conferences between 1988 and 1992. None of them was associated with USF in any way, and none of them took place in Tampa. At each conference there were anywhere from 20 to 25 different speakers from Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Somalia, Kurdistan, Iran, Iraq and other nations, says Al-Arian. "We talked of Palestine as being the central cause, but we talked about many issues."
But it was talk about the intifada that would later come back to haunt him.
"Sami Al-Arian in his other role is a Palestinian nationalist who was supporting the (first) intifada which began in December 1987, and he was drumming up support against the Israeli occupation in Palestine any way he could," says Art Lowry, a former adjunct professor at USF who helped to create the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
The Center held joint conferences with WISE, and Lowry knew Al-Arian to be a respected scholar, he says. But there was another side to him too. The side that was shown in spliced together video footage appearing on Dateline NBC, where Al-Arian spoke at rallies to his fellow Palestinians about the need for the intifada to continue. The rallies were not ICP-sponsored events, says Al-Arian. Local groups planned them, and he attended and spoke to the crowd.
"In that sense he was a propagandist, a polemicist for the Palestinian cause. I suppose both at the conferences ... there are all kinds of pleas for money for Islamic charities, not just in Palestine but in Indonesia and in Pakistan and all over the Islamic world," says Lowry.
No evidence has emerged to support the allegation that Al-Arian raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad through the ICP. It wouldn't have been illegal at that time anyway. But in today's climate, any hint of support for the Islamic Jihad makes evidence unnecessary in the court of public opinion. And Al-Arian's words at the rallies don't help him out.
In 1991 Al-Arian spoke at a rally, and what he said has gotten a lot of media attention. The phrase frequently reported is "death to Israel." The full quote is, "God is one; Muhammad is the leader; the Qur'an is our constitution; struggling for God is our approach, victory is for Islam; death to Israel; a revolution, a revolution until victory; a march, a march towards Jerusalem; a revolution, a revolution until victory; a march, a march towards Jerusalem; and there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is His messenger. God is great, and victory is for Islam."
Asked what he meant by "death to Israel," Al-Arian says that he meant death to the occupation, death to the policies that oppress the Palestinian and deny him a homeland. He does not mean kill every Israeli.
But he doesn't mean don't kill any.
"I believe in armed resistance against occupation as it's allowed under international law," he says. No innocent civilian should be killed, he says. Israeli soldiers and armed settlers, however, are all fair game.
His critics don't buy his explanation. For the critics, there is likely no explanation that would be acceptable.
It's not completely implausible that he was referring to the death of the occupation. As Jreisat points out, protestors around the world have used that kind of language to refer to a repressive regime or oppressive policies.
When it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, emotions run high, and the language on both sides ranges from angry to downright hateful.
When Rehavam Ze'evi, the Israeli tourism minister, was killed last October, papers around the world replayed some of his controversial rhetoric. The Israeli papers Ha'aretz and The Jerusalem Post, and American news outlets Knight Ridder and the Boston Globe reported Ze'evi saying, "We should get rid of the ones who are not Israeli citizens the same way you get rid of lice. We have to stop this cancer from spreading within us." They also stated that during a radio interview, he once argued that, "one Jewish life was worth a thousand Arabs."
His views are certainly not representative of all Israelis; in fact, his racism was acknowledged and even denounced by some. However, he wasn't alone in his contempt for Palestinians, and his racist attitude didn't stand in the way of his becoming an appointed government official.
And it's not just right-wing Israeli radicals like Ze'evi who spew venom about those who are viewed as a threat. The vitriol in many of the e-mails sent to USF as a result of Al-Arian's O'Reilly appearance would make Satan proud. This one was sent by a proud American whose e-mail address suggests that he's from right here in Tampa:
In it, he tells Al-Arian to go back to Iraq, "or wherever the Hell you're from." He goes on to say "it's a matter of time before we whack you and cut off your baby Bin Laden dick and make you eat it!!" He calls Al-Arian a "camel humping sandnigger" and then invokes "the power of the savior Jesus Christ to kill you and all involved with mass murder."
The truth is that many Palestinians are suffering. Their houses are bulldozed; innocent women and children are killed. Their lives hold the same value as the lives of Americans and Israelis, yet the atrocities against them are underreported and dismissed as "self-defense."
Some may think the statement, "death to Israel" is inexcusable, but the anger behind it is understandable.
Even more inflammatory than Al-Arian's statements are his purported ties to terrorists. Both of the organizations that Al-Arian was involved with had contact with someone who would either turn out to be involved in terrorist activity later, or be suspected of being a terrorist without ever being convicted of anything.
The ICP had an encounter with the blind sheik, Omar Abdul-Rahman, now serving time for his participation in the first World Trade Center bombing. Abdul-Rahman arrived at an ICP conference uninvited and unannounced, says Al-Arian, and he won't let the blame for Abdul-Rahman's entrance into the country be laid at his feet.
"He came from Sudan to the United States. Somebody gave him a visa. We did not invite him, so obviously an American consulate or an American embassy gave him a visa. He entered through United States borders, so somebody, an INS agent, has approved him. He applied for a green card, so someone at the INS interviewed him and gave him a green card," says Al-Arian. "We had absolutely nothing to do with that. So for people to insinuate that somehow I brought him was just unbelievable."
Abdul-Rahman went to many Muslim conferences in an effort to present his cause, often unannounced, says Al-Arian. Al-Arian says he didn't like having to make room for Abdul-Rahman on the program and he didn't like his rhetoric, but it was an open conference and Al-Arian let him speak. It was uncomfortable, he says, but considering his belief in free speech, silencing Abdul-Rahman would have been uncomfortable too.
Abdul-Rahman didn't stand in front of a podium and announce his plans for terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but he did use words like "infidel" which, Al-Arian says, he would never use himself. "I don't like that. I don't like to call people infidels; I like to leave that to God. God is going to judge who is a believer and who is nonbeliever," he says.
"I am championing, and I'm not ashamed of that during that time, we are for self-determination, we are for independence, we are for the Islamic trend in Palestine." Within the Palestinian movement, there are secular trends and Islamic trends. During that time, the issue of suicide missions and bombings weren't part of the discussion, says Al-Arian.
"Of course what happened after that is some of these trends turned to more of not just resistance, and resistance against the army, but they started doing these bombing and these attacks against civilians, which to us is inexcusable and is wrong and should never be allowed."
The Islamic trend is about bringing an Islamic viewpoint to the Palestinian issue. "It has to do with what the whole notion of what religion is within a society. You can have a major role or you can put it aside where it doesn't have any role."
Of all of Al-Arian's activities, the World Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE) has caused the most controversy. It is also the organization that Al-Arian had the least involvement in.
Arthur Lowry, a former State Department employee and adjunct professor at USF, was one of the founders of USF's Committee for Middle Eastern Studies. "I had just come several years previous from being the political adviser to the U.S. Central Command down at MacDill, which has responsibilities for the military activities of the United States throughout the Middle East, basically from Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to Egypt and the Sudan. And if any university was well situated to have a center for Middle Eastern studies it was USF, which is co-located with the U.S. Central Command."
At the same time, Al-Arian and others were beginning WISE. Lowry discovered that the two groups had the same objective: to further understanding between the Middle East and America on a strictly scholarly, academic level. The Committee's involvement with WISE was not spurred by Al-Arian, says Lowry, but with WISE's first director Khalil Shikaki. Shikaki's brother Fathi was one of the founders of the Islamic Jihad and at that time was its leader. Khalil was known as a moderate however, and had publicly denounced all acts of terrorism. Today he is a noted political analyst and professor in the West Bank who's widely quoted as an expert on Middle Eastern issues in the media.
"Here's a guy who's a good scholar, written a lot of publications, who has a good record at the University of Wisconsin, very high recommendations, who is very comfortable in the American environment having gone to Columbia," says Lowry.
In terms of bringing the university and WISE together, Shikaki was key. "He was the one who established their credibility in a big way," says Lowry. Later, Shikaki returned to his teaching post in the Palestinian territory of Ramallah, and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah replaced him. "Ramadan Abdullah was pretty much beyond suspicion because he replaced Khalil Shikaki; he was a good scholar, he never gave any indication of his true character, if that was his true character at the time. He was very innocuous and scholarly," says Lowry.
Al-Arian has repeatedly said that he did not know of any ties Shallah had with the Islamic Jihad and that he gave no indication of them, if he had any, while he was in Tampa.
The Committee and WISE banded together to share resources and pursue their interests. "By 1991 or '92 it was pretty clear to us that one of the most significant things happening in the Middle East was the growth of these extremist Islamic groups in every country in the region," says Lowry. "In some countries they were very strong; in other countries they were just beginning."
And it was important to recognize that they were not all homogenous, says Lowry. Some of them were mainly directed at American policy involving Israel, and others were directed mainly at the American military presence in the region after the Gulf War and the continued build up of the American military presence, he explains. Some were more interested in the secularization of their societies and the destruction of Islamic institutions. Others were against capitalism, for example the open-door policy in Egypt.
"We felt that everybody in America had to understand these groups. Had to begin to understand Islam, and had to begin a dialogue, a real dialogue, with Islamic intellectuals." This included intellectuals like Hassan Turabi, a controversial political figure in Sudan whose views many Americans disagreed with. "(Turabi) was one of the principal intellectuals in the Arab world of these Muslim groups, of these radical, fundamentalist groups."
Turabi's name keeps coming up because several years later, Sudan was on the State Department list of states supporting terrorism and Hassan Turabi was considered a terrorist. He was controversial, but academics and government officials were eager to attend when WISE and the Committee organized a roundtable discussion with him. More than 20 scholars from 13 different universities attended and the dialogue flowed freely, says Lowry.
"We had a daylong discussion of some six hours of give and take and a lot of people being very tough on Turabi. "Why do you do this? Why are you trying to Islamize the southern Sudan?' It was a real dialogue and he's a brilliant person whatever his real beliefs are."
It was a great scholarly success. Lowry transcribed the full text of the discussion, and WISE sold it for $10. It was a hot item. Copies were sold to the military, to intelligence agents, and to libraries around the world, said Lowry, because there were not many publications by Turabi in English."
Five years later he turns out to be called a terrorist, says Lowry, and maybe he is. But at that time he was not in the United States at the invitation of USF. That was a little side trip. He was in the United States at the request of the United States congress, says Lowry. "The House of Representatives sub-committee on Africa had invited him to come and testify, which he did." Turabi is always mentioned when allegations that WISE sponsored terrorists are bandied about, says Lowry. But at the time the roundtable was considered a rousing success -- even by USF. "When they (conferences) were taking place, the university was very pleased in the person of the Vice Provost John Hodgson; he attended a lot of the conferences," says Lowry. "He was very pleased with our activities, what we were trying to accomplish, until it became controversial."
In 1994 terrorism "expert" Steve Emerson produced Jihad in America, a documentary that featured a brief segment on Al-Arian. In it, Emerson suggested that Al-Arian had ties to terrorist groups, without substantiating his claims. The documentary spawned a series of articles in The Tampa Tribune, where reporter Michael Fechter rehashed Emerson's claims that terrorism had come to Tampa. Fechter also offered nothing more concrete than shadowy associations and insinuations. The articles prompted an FBI investigation and an independent investigation by attorney and former USF president William Reese Smith Jr., at the request of Betty Castor, who was USF president at the time. She hired Smith in an attempt to get to the bottom of what WISE was doing. Smith concluded that the group was a scholarly organization and a benefit to the university, but the best the Castor administration would say was that the group hadn't done anything illegal, says Lowry.
"And all positive things we'd done were never mentioned," says Lowry. "The university never said, "Look, we know what this committee has done with WISE, we know the kind of activities that they've conducted with WISE and they were all very legitimate. They were all very worthwhile activities because they were trying to further the understanding of Islam in the United States in academic community and elsewhere." Al-Arian and his wife, Nahla, both applied for American citizenship in December of 1993. Nahla took her citizenship test in June of '94, and Al-Arian took his in September. Both passed easily. By June of 1995, Nahla had been sworn in as a citizen, however Al-Arian hadn't heard anything from the INS after passing his exam. It was around this time that Tampa Tribune articles alleging that Al-Arian had ties to terrorism were gaining the attention of the FBI, says Al-Arian.
The INS charged that Al-Arian had voted illegally and that would prevent him from becoming a citizen. An INS investigation into the illegal voting incident revealed that Al-Arian had made a simple mistake. A member of his mosque had been trained to sign up new voters. He told Al-Arian that since he had been notified that he'd passed his citizenship exam, he was essentially a citizen -- the ceremony was just a formality. He filled out the registration slip for Al-Arian and Al-Arian signed it.
Later, after voting in a local election for the first time in his life, Al-Arian described the experience to a lawyer friend of his. The friend was concerned. It wasn't legal to vote without completing the full citizenship process, he told Al-Arian. Al-Arian tore up his voter registration card on the spot. This scenario was recounted during an INS investigation, and the state declined to prosecute.
The citizenship application was once again under consideration. However the INS was still moving slowly. Suspecting something was up, Al-Arian filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see his INS files. The request was initially denied because the INS stated that the file contained 18 classified documents. After some legal wrangling, the documents were declassified.
The top secret information the INS was holding included 17 pages of articles from The Tampa Tribune, and one page from another newspaper, recounting the Tribune reports.
In October of 1995, Al-Arian's application for citizenship was once again reopened. He still hasn't heard a word on its status.
Part of it is what we say. As Americans, we say that certain rights are inalienable: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We say everyone has the right to free speech. We say that due process is a shield against inequity. We've inspired some, educated some and made some angry beyond reason.
Part of it is who we are. A society of unparalleled diversity, where some cultures are a little more equal than others. A society with a highly educated population that uses the constitutional rights we take pride in too little and are willing to toss them aside too quickly.
As a nation we're respected and admired. As a nation we've inspired fear, suspicion and even outright hatred.
Al-Arian has never been a citizen of any country. He may never be a citizen of this one. But the controversy he's mired in reflects American society in a fundamental way. It has forced people to ask if we really have the right to dissent. Do we believe in due process? Is guilt by association the same as guilt by a preponderance of the evidence? Should the accused even get to see the evidence?
"To the extent that we deprive people of those rights, to a speedy trial, knowing who the accuser is, and things like that, to the extent that we lose that, then we start to resemble the very forces that we're arrayed against," says Roy Kaplan, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice. "And we have to keep that clear even though it might be abhorrent or it might be unpalatable."
Kaplan has known Al-Arian for more than 10 years and has worked with him on different interfaith initiatives. He does not agree with Al-Arian's stance on the issue of Palestine and he does not agree with his statements. "I have read about some of his statements and I don't feel comfortable about those statements. I don't feel good about those statements."
But he wasn't surprised by them. Al-Arian has always been open about his position. "I knew where he stood," says Kaplan. "I don't appreciate some of those comments that were made several years ago. I personally wouldn't make those comments about enemies or people I would presume to be enemies. On the other hand, we have freedom of speech, press and assembly -- last time I looked anyway."
But those who just see him as a figure in the news aren't getting the full picture, says Kaplan. "In the community I have seen him work in a non-proselytizing way. I have seen him work to try to promote understanding and to work with other religious faith traditions," he says. "I can't speak about ulterior motives; all I can see is the person and I've known him for 10 years now and that's what I see. As far as his work in the community, he's done things that have assisted in the development of better interfaith relations and I think there are probably a lot of us out there that know that."
And to the extent that it's possible, that is what Al-Arian says he will continue to do. He will keep running his school, leading his congregation, and he will keep trying to reach out to other faiths to promote understanding. He will also continue to speak out for the Palestinian cause, he says.
That's his right.