I don't know whether Sami Al-Arian is a victim of John Ashcroft's excessive zeal or an undercover terror-master for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Frankly, either seems possible. I haven't seen the evidence yet, and I don't necessarily trust what the news media says about such subjects in this climate. There appear to be substantial indications of his relationship with Islamist extremists. Whether he aided terrorists in a criminal conspiracy remains to be proved at trial.
What does seem obvious in the aftermath of the Florida professor's indictment, however, is that top Republican strategists sought the support of Al-Arian's voting bloc in 2000 -- and that his bust is stoking internal warfare among conservatives, with implications for 2004.
While this remarkable story has been touched upon in the mainstream media -- notably in Newsweek and the Washington Post -- the main actors, besides Al-Arian himself, have so far avoided the consequences. As I've mentioned before, the chief sponsor of Muslim influence in the Republican Party over the past few years has been Grover Norquist, the peripatetic lobbyist/activist associated with Americans for Tax Reform. With his long-standing clout among congressional Republicans, Norquist was already powerful before 2000, but that power was tremendously enhanced when his ally Karl Rove entered the White House. Among the projects that preoccupied Rove and Norquist during the 2000 campaign was capturing the Muslim-American vote for Bush.
They succeeded, in part by convincing candidate Bush to come out against the use of "secret evidence" in deportation and criminal proceedings. The symbol of that issue in the Muslim community -- and especially in Florida -- was Sami Al-Arian's brother-in-law and friend, Mazen al-Najjar, held for many months and eventually deported on the basis of secret evidence linking him to Islamic Jihad.
As published reports had established in 1999, both al-Najjar and Al-Arian were under investigation by the FBI during most of the previous decade for alleged ties to international terrorist organizations. Despite that ongoing probe, Al-Arian was courted by Norquist and Rove both during and after the election. As the engineering professor later boasted, the decision of major Muslim organizations to endorse Bush may well have provided his margin of "victory" in Florida, since the community's own polls showed 91 percent of some 60,000 Muslim voters (or more than 54,000) choosing the Republican. (Here, the future president posed at a Florida campaign rally with Al-Arian and his family.)
Since Al-Arian's arrest, the mainstream media have treated the Norquist-Rove connection very delicately, perhaps because both men are valued sources. But conservative pundits and journalists have lighted a fire under Norquist, seeking to punish the right-wing honcho for courting the Muslim community. Insight magazine has published investigative reports by Kenneth Timmerman about Rove's and Norquist's role in Al-Arian's White House visits.
Neoconservative publicist Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy summed up the complaint against Norquist in the New York Post, blaming him for "the Bush team's outreach to groups whose leaders and activities have repeatedly excused terror and/or opposed the administration's aggressive pursuit of the war against terror." (On his organization's Web site, Gaffney features links to a series of stories on the subject, including those by Timmerman.)
For the moment, neocons like Gaffney are treating Rove with greater deference than Norquist, presumably out of well-founded fear of retribution. (It's safer to assassinate Luca Brasi than the Godfather himself, after all.) No doubt they assume that the Muslim electoral strategy is dead anyway. The Muslim-American community's most politicized element, which sought an alliance with right-wing Republicans, may have little to choose between the major parties in 2004.
Last time, the second choice of the Muslim-American community was Ralph Nader. Poetic justice next time would be tens of thousands of those former Bush voters migrating to the Green Party -- attracted by a candidate like Cynthia McKinney -- and delivering Florida to the Democrats. In the meantime, conservatives who constantly yap about Democrats and liberals being "soft on terror" should remember that picture of George W. Bush with Sami Al-Arian. If the president and his advisors deserve the benefit of the doubt, don't his critics, too?
[11:00 a.m. PST, March 5, 2003]