The Magazine

Al-Arian Nation

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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The FBI's wiretaps, it develops, have not been restricted to Fedaa Al-Najjar and Hatim Naji Fariz. As specified in extraordinary, 121-page detail by the Al-Arian indictment, the FBI has been bugging every telephone and fax machine remotely connected to the man for close to a decade. And Justice Department prosecutors have consequently accumulated a definitive, intimate biography of their principal defendant, straight from his own mouth. They have him in constant communication with his Middle East-based peers in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad command council. They have him redrafting the last wills and testaments of soon-to-be PIJ suicide bombers--and making after-the-fact bank transfers to those "martyred" bombers' wives and children. They have him attempting to arrange ocean shipments of explosive precursor chemicals--pelletized urea fertilizer--from Saudi Arabia. They have him editing and circulating a 1995 PIJ press release boasting of responsibility for a bus bombing that killed seven Israelis and a 20-year-old American girl.

In short, they have him dead to rights, covered in blood. Al-Arian denies everything, of course. He calls himself a "crucified" innocent, like "Jesus," and not-so-subtly intimates that Jews--as on Calvary, one supposes--have secretly engineered his downfall: "There are very powerful political groups which are thirsty for my blood." Al-Arian's above-ground Jihadist comrades deny everything, too: They do not know this Sami fellow, the PIJ's Gaza City representatives rather weirdly claim--at an 800-mujahedeen protest rally organized specifically in Al-Arian's defense. What serious person, having read through the charges filed against him, could possibly believe such nonsense? Sami Al-Arian is a very, very bad man.

It is with considerable amazement, then, that we note the fact that the very, very bad man has somehow managed to retain a significant body of institutional support in the United States. Granted, there've been a few defections. Confirming their profession's reputation for vanity and cowardice, opinion journalists who not so many months ago were pounding their chests on Al-Arian's behalf--New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and that paper's editorial board, most prominently--have suddenly retreated, herd-like, into total, embarrassed silence. One honest gentleman formerly associated with Al-Arian's defense--but only one, so far as we can tell--has publicly and angrily repudiated their friendship. "He duped people like me" and "I feel personally betrayed," says retired Foreign Service Officer Arthur Lowrie. "It's just irrefutable. . . . All the wiretaps, all the telephone calls, all the faxes."

Nevertheless, two particularly important sets of backers have stuck by Al-Arian like glue. And their continued advancement of this altogether loathsome creature's interests poses an ironic but real and alarming threat, we think, to precisely those principles they imagine they are vindicating: academic freedom, on the one hand, and equal rights for Arab and Muslim Americans, on the other.

Early last week, the president and provost of the University of South Florida, citing his indictment and arrest as additional justification for the move, finally made good their threat and summarily invalidated Al-Arian's employment contract. Al-Arian's lawyer then announced an intention to challenge the decision in a formal grievance procedure. Whereupon the school's faculty union and the American Association of University Professors reaffirmed their willingness to defend the tenure privileges of an undercover assassin. Each organization seems badly confused about the facts of the case. Faculty union president Roy Weatherford, who earlier dismissed all terrorism charges against Al-Arian as "vague," "fantastic," and "irrelevant," now dismisses the grand jury indictment, too: "We haven't seen this evidence before and a lot of us won't take John Ashcroft's word for it." The AAUP, for its part, declines to retract its previous, "interim" conclusion that the allegations are "too insubstantial to warrant serious consideration as adequate cause for dismissal." And both groups, in any case, stubbornly insist that no university may properly fire a faculty member like Sami Al-Arian unless and until the courts have found him guilty of a crime.

Thus does the cause of academic freedom in the United States commit reputational and theoretical suicide. By willfully associating itself with a man who ought to be beneath the contempt of any self-respecting intellectual. And by surrendering--to the government, no less!--the academic community's authority to police its own ranks.