Dr Sami al-Arian, the Tampa-based Palestinian professor suspended from the University of South Florida (USF) after September 11, was arrested at his home in Tampa, Florida, on February 20 on charges of being a terrorist, specifically of being a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Three other Palestinians were also arrested in America — two in Tampa and one in Chicago, Illinois. The fifty-count indictment against them later published by US attorney general John Ashcroft also named four other men not resident in the US. They included Dr. Basheer Nafi, a London-based university lecturer who is also a contributor to Crescent International and a member of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).
The arrests and indictment need to be understood in the context of a long-running campaign against Dr al-Arian, a Palestinian academic who has long been active in Palestinian causes but has always strenuously denied any links with Islamic Jihad. Dr Sami al-Arian is a brother-in-law of Dr Mazen al-Najjar, the Palestinian academic who left the US for Lebanon in September after a five-year campaign to clear his name of similar unsubstantiated allegations. Dr al-Najjar had spent much of the previous five years imprisoned without trial on the basis of ‘secret evidence’ that he and his lawyers were not permitted to challenge, despite repeated court rulings that there was no legal basis for holding him. Last month, Dr al-Najjar was finally reunited with his family in Egypt; now, as his ordeal seems to be over, Sami al-Arian — who campaigned vigorously in Dr al-Najjar’s defence — finds himself in arguably an even worse position.
The political nature of Dr al-Arian’s arrest is clear from the circumstances. The early-morning raid on Dr al-Arian’s home in Tampa was televised, the press having been tipped off in advance by the police and FBI. As he was led away by the police, Dr al-Arian told the press: "It’s all about politics." Following Ashcroft’s announcement of the indictment, which charges these men with allegedly "financing, extolling and assisting acts of terrorism," Nicholas Matassini, Dr al-Arian’s attorney, said: "He’s a political prisoner right now as we speak." Matassini called Ashcroft’s indictment "a work of fiction." Al-Arian was reported to be calm and collected in the dock as he was charged, telling his family not to worry and that all would be well.
There was immediate reaction to Dr al-Arian’s arrest. Alluding to Ashcroft’s allegation that Dr al-Arian is a member of Islamic Jihad, NCPPF (the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom) president Kit Gage said: "Mere membership of an organization, in my belief, should not alone be the basis for prosecution. Unfortunately, this government is going that way." Gage went on: "A massive indictment at this late date that includes a huge array of charges, many of them using the relatively attenuated term of conspiracy, raises concerns."
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, was also "very concerned that the government would bring charges after investigating an individual for many years without offering any evidence of criminal activity." Omar Ahmad, a CAIR spokesman, said: "This action could leave the impression that Arian’s arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national security concerns." Similarly, when Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator, asked on MSNBC television: "Would the attorney general bring charges against Mr Al-Arian that he could not substantiate, when if it were so proven he would wind up with egg all over his face?" CAIR director Ibrahim Hooper responded: "Let’s see the evidence; let’s see it in open court." Robert McGee, another attorney for Dr al-Arian, reminded viewers on the Tampa Bay News 9 channel that charges against his client must be proved in a court of law. He urged viewers to avoid a rush to judgement.
The timing of the arrest is being widely linked to a case Dr al-Arian is fighting against the USF, which suspended him from his tenured position as professor after he was ambushed on Fox Television’s Bill O’Reilly show. O’Reilly accused him of having "terrorist connections," and openly called upon the CIA and FBI to investigate his activities, basing his allegation on previously discredited material. On September 27, 2001, the university suspended Dr al-Arian from his teaching post; on December 19 it sent him a letter of dismissal, later modifying it to state that he "wasn’t fired so much as subject to being fired." Sophistry aside, the university was in clear violation of his legal rights as well as academic freedoms.
Since then Dr al-Arian and many of his supporters, including faculty members throughout the US, have been fighting for his reinstatement at USF. On April 25 last year, the Executive Council and Delegate Assembly of the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York, American Federation of Teachers Local 2334, passed a resolution in support of Dr al-Arian. On June 20 Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sent a letter to USF president Judy Genshaft in support of his rights. On December 16 a federal district court judge dismissed a case brought by USF that asked the court to clarify the constitutional issues surrounding Dr al-Arian’s dismissal. USF had brought the case in an attempt to improve its position and win some support, but the court dismissed the case and left it to the USF administration either to fire or to reinstate Dr al-Arian.
This month the contracts of USF staff are up for renewal, and it would have had little option but to reinstate him as they had no legitimate reason for dismissing him, a decision which would have enraged Florida’s massive large community in the run-up to the elections for the State’s governorship, currently held by Jeb Bush, George W.’s brother. After the court ruling on December 16, al-Arian’s supporters had speculated that some new reason for not renewing his contract would be found before the contract issue arose; and so it has.
The allegations against date him back to November 1994, when he was first targeted by Steve Emerson, a now-discredited pro-Israel journalist, in a television documentary, "Jihad in America". Other American journalists later concluded that Emerson had fabricated allegations and distorted facts, and that he also had close connections with zionist circles and Israeli intelligence. Despite these revelations, the crusade against Dr al-Arian has not stopped since then. In 1995, Dr Arian and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a research institution he co-founded in 1990, were thoroughly investigated by the FBI; nothing was found to be amiss.
Later in 1995, a former colleague of Dr al-Arian’s at USF and WISE, Dr Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, was appointed head of Islamic Jihad in Damascus after the assassination of Dr Fathi Shiqaqi in Malta by Mossad agents in October 1995. Since then that fact has also been used to damn Dr al-Arian by association, although no direct evidence linking him with Islamic Jihad has ever been found.
The fifty counts in the new indictment against him and the other seven Palestinians are so vague that legal experts say they amount to nothing more than a fishing expedition. Most are based on the assumption that WISE and other legitimate Islamic institutions with which they have been involved are actually fronts for Islamic Jihad, allegations that have already been thrown out of court by judges considering the case of Dr al-Najjar.
Lawyers for the Palestinians under arrest in the US have said they will fight the cases all the way. Dr Basheer Nafi has denied all the allegations against him, and not been approached by British or American authorities despite being named in the indictment, probably indicating that the US authorities know that the case against him has no substance. The other three people named are in Ghazzah, Beirut and Damascus, and thus beyond the US authorities’ legal reach. They include Dr Abdullah Ramadan Shallah and Shaikh Abd al-Aziz al-Awda, the Islamic Jihad’s spiritual leader, who appear to have been included in the indictment for the sole purpose of damning the other indictees by association.
The continuing harassment of Sami al-Arian and others is indicative of the atmosphere of hatred against Muslims now created in the US, in which what is practically a police-state can trample on the rights of individual Muslims with impunity. In this atmosphere, other Muslims may well face the same problems, or worse, in the future.