FIVE MONTHS AGO, on September 24, 2002, an FBI electronic surveillance team recorded a telephone conversation between two Tampa, Florida, residents: a woman named Fedaa Al-Najjar and her friend Hatim Naji Fariz, the manager of a local medical clinic. The subject was Al-Najjar's husband, Mazen, a long-detained illegal alien--a prisoner of conscience, according to Amnesty International and a great many like-minded people here in the States--who just weeks before, after a multi-year legal battle, had finally been deported by the INS. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Al-Najjar, left behind in Tampa with the couple's children, was bitter. Her family and its circle of acquaintances were being persecuted because of their Palestinian heritage, she complained to Fariz. And Fariz was sympathetic--to a point.
Right, he replied, this is what they should always say in public--that they'd been targeted for official harassment by an American government hostile to their Muslim faith and irritated at their vocal campaign against Israeli human rights abuses. But it wasn't actually true, Fariz reminded his friend: The real reason her husband had been deported was that the FBI correctly suspected him of membership in an underground terrorist cell. And the full scope and nature of that cell remained a closely guarded secret, Fariz went on. So she needed to be more discreet; she was creating a security risk merely by alluding to the matter on an open phone line. After all, Fariz explained, the FBI did not yet know enough to arrest Mrs. Al-Najjar's brother-in-law, the group's clandestine ber-operative: University of South Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian--global chief financial officer, governing "Shura Council" secretary, and senior North American representative of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yes, him. The same Sami Al-Arian, our regular readers will remember, who, at the time this conversation took place, was enjoying an ongoing, twelve-month run as the world's favorite victim-symbol of neo-McCarthyite political repression in post-9/11 America. Through an improvident network television appearance shortly after the attacks, Prof. Al-Arian had resuscitated, and drawn national attention to, persistent charges that he was running a radical Palestinian propaganda campaign--or worse--out of his publicly funded campus office. And the president and trustees of that publicly funded campus, embroiled in unwanted controversy, had been threatening to fire him ever since. Which threat had served only to win the university still more severe, whiplash criticism from an entire galaxy of influential journalists, academics, and civil rights advocates. All of whom proclaimed the historical record devoid of evidence that Al-Arian had genuine "terrorist connections," or any such malarkey, and all of whom therefore felt free, as well, to proclaim it an outrage--against both the Constitution and Our Schools--that the good professor was being punished "just for his ideas."
For quite some time now, we have been arguing that Sami Al-Arian's defenders were misguided about all this--naive, or simply ignorant, about their would-be hero's true character, intentions, activities, and "ideas." But we do not feel the need to argue it any longer. Two weeks ago, on February 20, Al-Arian was indeed, at last, arrested by the FBI, having been named, along with Hatim Naji Fariz and six other confederates, in a massive, fifty-count federal terrorism-conspiracy indictment that promises to send him to prison for the rest of his life. That result is not guaranteed, to be sure, and he will have a full and fair trial before it arrives--ours being a sweet land of liberty, the professor's loyalists to the contrary notwithstanding. But one crucial judgment about Sami Al-Arian need not await an ultimate adjudication of his criminal guilt or innocence. That judgment, it seems to us, is already inescapable: The man has made an abject fool out of every non-terrorist friend he has ever had.
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.
Then, worse perhaps, there are the multiple advocacy outfits that routinely pretend to speak for America's Islamic faithful, and just as routinely wind up slandering them. This time, especially, our Muslim neighbors' self-appointed representatives have done them a political and moral disservice above and beyond the farthest boundaries of decency. For this time, they have sanctified a murderous anti-Semite as prototypically One of Us--and explicitly suggested that the Semites are behind his troubles.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says "nothing has been brought forward to indicate any criminal activity" by Al-Arian. What we're seeing, instead, is the "Israelization of American policy and procedures," a police-state frame-up manufactured top to bottom by the "attack dogs of the pro-Israel lobby." The American Muslim Political Coordination Council thinks it a "disturbing" sign of sectarian bigotry that federal prosecutors have "inserted religious expressions like Jihad and martyrdom" in the indictment of . . . a Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader accused of financing martyrdom attacks. The Arab American Institute calls the charges against Al-Arian "specious." The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reports that there is "no evidence" against him whatsoever.
And all of these groups decry the Justice Department for conducting a "terrorists among us" smear campaign against Muslims generally--while simultaneously embracing, as a representative American Muslim, a man who really is a terrorist among us. American Muslims surely deserve better. As do we all.
Even from a jail cell, it seems, Sami Al-Arian's poison spreads.
--David Tell, for the Editors