When the University of South Florida suspended computer-science professor — and alleged terrorist — Sami al-Arian last year, the Muslim American Society’s Shaker Elsayed defiantly claimed, “This is becoming a war on Muslim institutions.” Joining him in this sentiment were a wide array of Muslim and Arab activists and two prominent journalists. But on February 20, al-Arian was one of eight people arrested in a 50-count indictment alleging, among other things, that al-Arian was the North American leader of the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), raising money and providing support and logistical advice to the group responsible for the deaths of innocents — including more than 100 Israelis and two Americans.
His arrest should prompt a reexamination of the claims made by his defenders upon his dismissal from the university. Erick Vickers of the American Muslim Alliance branded the action “discriminatory and bigoted against Arabs and Muslims,” and claimed that it was symptomatic of “bigotry and prejudice against the entire Muslim community.” Ziad Asali, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said his group “strongly suspects that this is a case of ethnic discrimination and that if Professor Al-Arian was not an Arab, a Palestinian, and a Muslim, he would not have been dismissed.” Striking a theme that al-Arian was just a nice guy with strong political beliefs, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) stressed that al-Arian was “a respected leader in the community and a committed civil rights advocate.”
But even then, the evidence against al-Arian was substantial. Since 1995, the Tampa Tribune has been publishing articles detailing al-Arian’s close ties to both PIJ and Hamas. So damning were the articles, in fact, that the real question is why USF waited until after 9/11 to sever all ties with al-Arian. The first piece, dated May 28, 1995, documented how al-Arian used a group he founded, the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), to cavort with known terrorists and openly plead for funds for PIJ and Hamas.
Conferences organized by ICP featured what the Tribune dubbed a “militant all-star team”: Islamic Jihad founder Abdel Aziz-Odeh, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers), leading Hamas official Mohammed Sakr, and high-ranking Sudanese terrorist Hassan Turabi. The Tribune also reported that ICP publications had “articles [that] solicited contributions for the Islamic Jihad and Hamas.”
Al-Arian also openly worked with two people with very close ties to PIJ. One of his associates at the World Islam Study Enterprise (WISE), a think tank that was closely allied with ICP, was Khalil Shikaki, a former USF adjunct professor and brother of one of PIJ’s cofounders. Working with Shikaki and al-Arian was USF adjunct professor Ramadan Abdullah, who in the fall of 1995 moved to the West Bank and became the leader of PIJ. ICP’s activities were not benign. Shikaki admitted to the Tribune that ICP gave money to Hamas to support the group’s charitable efforts. But any funds donated to Hamas eventually make it easier for the organization to achieve its goal of killing innocents. Hamas accrues the vast majority of its political strength by providing social-welfare services such as medical care and housing. Without those efforts, there would be substantially less support among Palestinians for Hamas’s terrorist activities.
The original 1995 Tribune article had an almost immediate impact. The following month, USF cancelled its contract with WISE, though it did not try to fire al-Arian. Over 60 additional Tribune stories in the ensuing years likewise did not compel USF to rid itself of the increasingly controversial professor. But then came 9/11. And two weeks later, in a much different political landscape — one with far less sympathy for terrorist tactics employed by Palestinian radicals — al-Arian went on Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor. On that program, Bill O’Reilly re-aired the public case against al-Arian — and the professor did little more than stumble and stammer in response. That was enough for USF to realize that al-Arian represented far too much risk. Citing security concerns and a drop in alumni contributions, USF discharged al-Arian.
Fearing a threat to academic freedom, several high-profile journalists, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Eric Boehlert of Salon.com, rushed to al-Arian’s defense. Brushing aside the well-documented record of al-Arian’s ties to terrorists, Kristof wrote that USF fired al-Arian “essentially for being a fiery Palestinian activist who embarrasses them.” Kristof waved the flag, claiming that the real issues in the al-Arian case were “what kind of universities we desire, how much dissent we dare tolerate and how we treat minorities in times of national stress.” But not content to make it simply a First Amendment-style case, he vouched for the character of the man — writing that al-Arian is “harshly critical” of “repressive Arab regimes” and “denounces terrorism, promotes inter-faith services with Jews and Christians, and led students at his Islamic school to a memorial service after 9/11 where they all sang ‘God Bless America.’”
But Kristof was not the worst offender in the should-have-known-better camp; that distinction belongs to Salon.com’s Boehlert. The headline of his first piece says it all: “The prime-time smearing of Sami Al-Arian: By pandering to anti-Arab hysteria, NBC, Fox News, the Tribune Company, and Clear Channel radio disgraced themselves — and ruined an innocent professor’s life.” Notice the word “innocent” — a bold claim, given that Boehlert does not refute the facts detailed in the Tribune article; he merely attacks the credibility of the author. Boehlert also targeted O’Reilly: O’Reilly’s accusatory and hectoring interrogation of al-Arian, filled with false statements and McCarthy-like smears, climaxed in a chilling parting shot in which the host repeatedly told his stammering guest that if he were with the CIA, ‘I’d follow you wherever you went’ — clearly implying that he believed al-Arian was a terrorist.” Boehlert concluded by taking a broad swipe at the media: “The al-Arian story reveals what happens when journalists, abandoning their role as unbiased observers, lead an ignorant, alarmist crusade against suspicious foreigners who in a time of war don’t have the power of the press or public sympathy to fight back.”
Now that al-Arian is facing multiple felony counts — based on solid evidence including documents and wiretaps — his defenders are no longer singing from the same hymnal. Some — the Arab and Muslim groups — have dug in their heels, while others — the journalists — are either silent or agnostic.
The post-arrest defenses used by Arab and Muslim groups largely take the line that al-Arian is being targeted because of his religion/ethnicity or for holding unpopular views. “The arrest of Professor Sami Al-Arian today conforms to a pattern of political intimidation by an attorney general who seems to be targeting the American Muslim community’s leaders and institutions in a drive to erode Americans’ civil liberties,” trumpeted a Muslim American Society press release. Sarah Eltantawi, media director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said: “Dr. Al-Arian is being punished for the non-crime of sparking dissent.” The press release of the American Muslim Alliance quoted al-Arian’s lawyer as saying the “arrest was politically motivated because of [the professor's] support for creation of a Palestinian state.” (If that’s true, President George W. Bush ought to be very careful — since that is his stated goal as well.) CAIR called the arrest “a fishing expedition by federal authorities using McCarthy-like tactics in a search for evidence of wrongdoing that does not exist.”
For their part, Kristof and Boehlert are no longer running interference for al-Arian. Boehlert did not respond to NRO’s phone and e-mail requests for comment, but shortly after the arrest, he wrote a noticeably detached, straightforward news piece. What a difference a year can make to a headline: “Is Sami al-Arian guilty of terrorist plots?” Without stating his own opinion, as he had done in his articles a year earlier, Boehlert let the slight bias of the piece be driven by the quotes of lawyers and union reps. The piece ends with the following quote from the vice president of USF’s faculty union: “We are committed to treating him like any other person who’s innocent until proven guilty.” Kristof chose not to write a follow-up column after the arrest, but in an e-mail to NRO, he was rather tepid: “The indictment certainly troubled me, but obviously at this point al-Arian is presumed innocent and we have to treat him as such, so it’s difficult to reach any major conclusions.”
Maybe the actual indictment of al-Arian made Kristof think twice about his stand, but he and others easily could have reached several “major conclusions” before rushing to al-Arian’s defense.
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.