Florida witch hunt

When a tenured professor loses his job for vocally backing the Palestinian cause, Jeb Bush applauds, Bill O'Reilly boos and academics say it's the worst threat to free speech since Sept. 11.

Published January 8, 2002 9:57AM (EST)

When Sami Al-Arian, a computer science professor at the University of South Florida and a Muslim community leader in this Tampa suburb, agreed to go on Fox News' popular "O'Reilly Factor" Sept. 28, he thought he'd be discussing American Muslims' reaction to Sept. 11. Instead he found himself denounced by host Bill O'Reilly as a patron of terrorists for his work on behalf of Palestinian statehood, with O'Reilly demanding an explanation for incendiary anti-Israel remarks Al-Arian made 15 years ago.

And that was only the beginning of what has become the most intense debate anywhere in the nation about academic freedom in the wake of Sept. 11. Al-Arian's "O'Reilly" appearance triggered hundreds of phone calls and e-mails (as well as death threats) from critics outraged that USF would employ the supposed "terrorist." Three days after his Fox appearance, university president Judy Genshaft suspended the Palestinian-born Al-Arian with pay, ostensibly for his safety and that of the university community; just before Christmas, she fired him.

Genshaft made no pretext that Al-Arian's academic performance was at issue; he is both tenured and popular with his students. Al-Arian was terminated, she said, for failing to make clear he was speaking for himself and not the university when he appeared on Fox, thus making USF the vortex of right-wing fury about his views. "We are experiencing a level of disruption that no university anywhere is set up to deal with on an ongoing basis."

The question raised by Al-Arian's firing -- Can a university punish controversial speech by one of its professors? -- is not only polarizing Tampa Bay, it is sounding alarm bells throughout academe; and the story of how this local spat caught fire like autumn leaves suggests how fragile the national psyche remains four months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The firestorm has pulled in Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who personally appoints USF's trustees and has praised Genshaft's move, and Fox attack-dog Bill O'Reilly himself, who has defended the Palestinian academic's right to his views and denounced the university president for firing him.

The firing has been criticized by the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. On Thursday, Al-Arian will get a chance to defend himself to the university's administration in an appeal required under his union contract.

The Al-Arian story, like so much about Sept. 11, did not begin with the hijacking of those four airplanes. Instead, it goes back nearly a decade. In the early 1990s, Al-Arian, along with other Palestinian exiles in the Tampa area, founded an Islamic studies center at USF, inviting speakers ranging from mainstream to radical. "What we were trying to do," Al-Arian recalls, "was foster dialogue" across the broad range of Islamic political opinion. Al-Arian himself -- who taught in the university's engineering school since 1986, and also serves as the imam of the Islamic Community of Tampa, where he founded a well-regarded parochial school attended by over 200 children -- emerged as a passionate defender of the Palestinian intifada, occasionally given to the kind of hotheaded rhetoric familiar from liberation movements the world over. And he helped establish a charity to raise money for the families of Palestinians killed in the uprising.

USF first caught heat for its professor's political commitments in 1994. That year, terrorism maven Steve Emerson produced a controversial PBS documentary called "Jihad in America." It interspersed video footage of one of Al-Arian's anti-Israel speeches with images of Sheik Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric convicted in the first World Trade Center bombing, who had once appeared at one of the USF center's conferences. Emerson, citing anonymous sources, labeled Al-Arian's center "the primary support group in the United States" for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Emerson, it should be noted, is no neutral observer of the Islamic scene; a New York Times review of his 1991 book "Terrorist" found it "marred by factual errors and by a pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian bias." He lost much of his credibility as a journalist when he rushed to proclaim Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing the work of Muslim terrorists, but his stock recently rose again thanks to the insatiable hunger for "terrorism experts" post-Sept. 11, and he regularly appears on cable news shows. Al-Arian considers his 1994 documentary "a classic example of guilt by association," and traces his present plight to Emerson's never-proven allegations.

Controversy returned a year later when the former co-editor of the USF center's journal, who had disappeared after just six months' work, turned up in Syria as general secretary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The FBI, apparently convinced the center was a front for terrorism, seized its computers, videotapes and files and froze its accounts; USF, painted by the media as "Jihad U," suspended Al-Arian with pay and hired a prominent Tampa lawyer to conduct its own independent investigation. After 15 months the FBI and the university both cleared the center of any connection to terrorism or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A federal judge later affirmed their findings, calling Al-Arian's enterprise -- which by then had folded its tent -- "a reputable and scholarly research center."

But that wasn't the end of the saga. Apparently still hoping for pay dirt, Tampa FBI officials decided to arrest Sami Al-Arian's brother-in-law, a soft-spoken scholar named Mazen Al-Najjar, for unspecified terrorist associations. Al-Najjar -- the brother of Al-Arian's wife, Nahla -- had arrived at Tampa in 1981 and earned a doctorate at USF. Al-Najjar was arrested under then new antiterrorism laws allowing suspects to be held on the basis of secret evidence, without the precise charge being revealed in court. For the next three and a half years, Al-Najjar would remain in Bradenton prison without anyone -- not his lawyers, not even the judge -- ever seeing the purported evidence against him.

The secret-evidence arrest of his brother-in-law galvanized Al-Arian and his family. While continuing to teach at USF, Al-Arian threw himself into building a national effort to challenge such cases. "The whole idea of secret evidence," he recalls, "was so repugnant, such a repudiation of everything we thought the American system stood for." The radical campus speaker evolved into a canny coalition-builder, winning friends in Congress ranging from the liberal David Bonior to conservatives like Henry Hyde and Bob Barr and rallying Tampa religious leaders to the case. Indeed, prior to September 11 Congress was close to passing a bill sharply restricting secret-evidence trials.

In May of 2000, a no-nonsense federal judge declared Al-Arian's brother-in-law's detention unconstitutional, an immigration judge declared the terrorism charge unfounded and a year ago December Mazen Al-Najjar at last went home to spend Ramadan with his family.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The terror attacks on New York and Washington left Al-Arian and his family both sickened and fearful. "This is un-Islamic by every definition, to have innocent people being killed. I don't see anyone who can claim religion here. This is an evil act," he told local papers. Members of the mosque donated blood, and Al-Arian helped organize an interfaith service. Muslim schools in the area immediately received threatening calls. "This is worse than any nightmare could be," brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar told a reporter. "I am sad for every reason, for what happened to the victims, for what happened to the world."

It was, Al-Arian thought, to talk about the Islamic community's response to the attacks that he agreed on Sept. 28 to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor," a show he had never seen. Instead, host Bill O'Reilly peppered him with the very charges from 1996 that had long ago been discarded by the FBI and discredited by a federal judge. The transcript is almost comic in its crude tabloid-like melodrama: USF "may be a hotbed for Islamic militants," O'Reilly warned his audience. He quoted a speech Al-Arian gave 15 years ago: "You did a little speaking engagement in Cleveland, and you were quoted as saying Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel. Did you say that?" Al-Arian tried gamely to defend himself, saying that "death to Israel" meant "death to occupation, death to apartheid." He also tried to point out how similarly incendiary President Bush's talk of a "crusade" seemed to much of the Muslim world.

O'Reilly wasn't having any of it. "I appreciate your coming on the program, but if I was the CIA I'd follow you wherever you went. I'm saying I'd be your shadow, doctor."

In a sense, that was exactly what happened. O'Reilly's interview, and several Fox rebroadcasts, inspired hundreds of e-mails and calls to USF, and numerous death threats. That barrage of mail landed on the desk of USF's president, Judy Genshaft, who had taken the job just 18 months earlier. And Genshaft was faced with a dilemma: How to balance those threats with the tradition of academic freedom?

Genshaft's initial response, three days after the O'Reilly show, was to suspend Al-Arian with pay. It was, she declared, a step designed to protect both professor and campus. "I will protect this university as a safe and secure learning environment," she said, and pointing out that Al-Arian was not under any investigation by the FBI or police.

In retrospect, it seemed a move designed to buy time. And it didn't work. After O'Reilly, the Tampa Tribune -- the more tabloid of the area's two major newspapers -- decided to make a crusade of its own, ressurecting the years-old charges in its editorial pages and news columns, branding Al-Arian a "hate-monger" in its headlines. (By contrast, the more sedate St. Petersburg Times, while criticizing his old speeches, declared that Genshaft's "first responsibility" was to protect an academic's right to speak.) Soon the university changed its tune from protecting Al-Arian and the campus to protecting the campus from Al-Arian, warning him in an October letter that he risked disciplinary action should he even set foot on campus after hours.

Still, controversy did not abate: "The death threats are not subsiding," Genshaft sighed in early October. And as the controversy rose, so did the political stakes: Genshaft's boss, after all, is Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. Over the summer, Bush had stopped by the USF campus and delivered a speech on academic freedom, but that was then and this was now.

Finally, on Dec. 19, the school let drop the other shoe: Al-Arian was fired, effective immediately. The professor, Genshaft said, had not made it clear on Fox that he was speaking for himself and not the university.

It was a peculiar accusation: Professors who appear on TV programs are hardly expected to issue such boilerplate disavowals. But Genshaft won immediate support from her boss. "Professors have the right to say things that are unpopular," Bush said. "But they do not have the right to disrupt the life of a university." Al-Arian, he declared, "continues to make very provocative statements" -- as if provocative statements are grounds for firing a scholar. None of the Florida press corps, apparently, thought to point out that it was threatening callers, not Al-Arian, who were doing the disrupting -- or that Al-Arian's offending rhetoric had been uttered when today's USF students were still in elementary school.

While Genshaft may have pleased Bush, her decision to fire Al-Arian elevated the case into a high-profile academic freedom controversy. And in a bizarre irony, one of the first to leap to the professor's defense was ... Bill O'Reilly. "You don't sack a tenured professor for saying stuff you don't like," he growled on his program. "This president of the University of South Florida should resign. She's a coward."

For Al-Arian's family, the firing comes at a particularly painful time. In late November the INS rearrested his brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar. No secret charges of terrorism this time: Instead, the INS is moving to deport him for overstaying a long-expired student visa. But as a stateless Palestinian he has nowhere to go, and supporters say the Justice Department is using his case to create a precedent for unlimited detention of Palestinian deportees.

In some ways, as a civil liberties issue, Al-Arian's firing pales beside his brother-in-law's second detention. After his earlier three-and-a-half-year stint in prison, with secret charges against him, again Al-Najjar is accused of no crime. But he is now being held in solitary confinement, in a maximum-security federal prison, strip-searched twice daily and forbidden contact visits with his family.

Yet the firing of a university professor for his views, past or present, has its own profound and disturbing echoes of witch hunts past. The plight of the Al-Arian family -- one member jailed awaiting deportation, the other fired from his teaching post -- recalls the precise conditions that inspired the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union during World War I: on the one hand, roundups of immigrant radicals, and on the other hand, the firing of antiwar academics like James McKeen Cattell, the founder of Columbia's psychology department, and political scientist Scott Nearing, who after being fired from the Wharton School of Business, achieved cult status for books on "Living the Good Life" in rural Vermont and Maine.

The very institution of academic tenure was created to ensure that scholars feel free to speak out on public controversies, whether in or outside their official academic portfolio. What's more, in a world haunted by terrorism, the stakes in the Sami Al-Arian case go beyond civil libertarian abstraction. If anything helps fuel terrorism, it is a sense that politics cannot work. Sami Al-Arian may be a militant Palestinian nationalist -- but he is a militant who proved to himself, and to his communities both in the US and abroad, that politics and democratic institutions like courts can work, by clearing his name and freeing his brother-in-law. Firing Al-Arian because of public hysteria over spurious charges turns the hiring and firing at USF over to a gang of hecklers and telephone thugs. And like the rearrest of his brother-in-law, it sends a disquieting worldwide message that democracy will betray those most clamoring for it.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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