The Al-Arian argument
By STEPHEN BUCKLEY, Times Staff Writer
He is listening to Steven Emerson on the radio. A former CNN correspondent, Emerson made a 1994 documentary, Jihad in America, that introduced the public to Islamic extremists in the United States. Among them, Sami Al-Arian.
This morning Emerson is on WMNF, with host Rob Lorei. Al-Arian has tuned in from an office at the Islamic Academy of Florida, a Temple Terrace school he founded.
He hears Emerson say that Al-Arian is a hatemonger, a man who has cleverly used his professorship at the University of South Florida as a cloak of legitimacy for terrorist activity.
"That's a lie, that's a lie!" Al-Arian shouts.
Emerson suggests that Al-Arian raised funds for terrorists.
"That's not true," the professor retorts, talking to the radio.
After about an hour, Al-Arian can contain himself no longer. A few minutes before Lorei opens the phones, Al-Arian calls in.
Lorei asks Al-Arian: "Did you say "Death to Israel?' "
The professor replies: "Death to Israel, to us, it's like when President Reagan said, called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. What did he mean? Did he mean that every single Russian is an evil person? Of course not! He was talking about the system that was running the Soviet Union. ...
"And "Death to Israel' in Arabic, given to an Arabic group, they understand what it means. It's death to the occupation, death to the system that has been chasing the Palestinians and making them dispossessed for over half a century, a policy of complete, complete dismantlement of their institutions ..."
Lorei: "I want to get Mr. Emerson back. ... Steven Emerson, are you still there?" By now, Emerson has left the studio and has called back on his cell phone. "... What about that, that it's calling for an end to occupation?"
Emerson says that when terrorist groups call for "Death to Israel," "They don't intend to just say, "Death to Occupation.' They kill school children, they kill mothers, they kill old people, they kill Holocaust survivors, they kill anybody! 'Cause they want to kill as many Israelis as possible ..."
He hangs up.
Lorei: "Emerson said a moment ago that you support the tools of terrorism."
Al-Arian: "I do not support that. I said that over and over again. ... Morally, religiously, Islam is against the killing of any civilian, of any mother, of any father, of any ethnicity, and I do not support, you know, Palestinians being killed by the Israeli army."
The show ends, Al-Arian slumps in his office. Drained, he heads to Taco Bell for lunch; he devours a taco and a couple of chalupas.
* * *
Sami Al-Arian won't remain silent. He refuses to let accusations pass unanswered or let detractors go unchallenged.
It is a grace, and it is an albatross.
If he chose silence, maybe he could resign from his job as an engineering professor at USF, find new work, ease away from the glare of controversy. Maybe silence would prompt a suspicious government to back off; maybe his critics would move on.
Instead, he is on the radio, in the news columns, on television, arguing with enemies and investigators and interviewers.
He says this is the beauty of America. Unlike Kuwait and Egypt, nations where Palestinian families like his were official nobodies, the United States is a place where he can make his case.
He is not an American citizen -- the controversy has derailed his application for five years. Still, he speaks. He says remaining silent would be deeply un-American.
His critics say that what is deeply un-American, illegal even, are Al-Arian's reckless rhetoric and dangerous associations of years past. They say he won't stay silent because he is arrogant and manipulative and blind. They say he doesn't believe in the system; he just believes he can beat it.
The story of Sami Al-Arian revolves around an argument that is for now unresolvable: Is he driven by a passionate search for justice? Or have his ego and passions turned him into a front man for terrorists?
* * *
The morning of Sept. 11, Al-Arian arrived at the Islamic Academy of Florida before 8.
He was in a good mood. That afternoon, President Bush planned to make a major announcement, and Muslim and Arab activists hoped it would address an issue dear to them: secret evidence.
Al-Arian, whose brother-in-law served three years in prison on charges based on classified evidence, had worked since 1997 to get lawmakers to heed his cause.
"It was going to be a memorable day," Al-Arian says.
Bush's announcement was scheduled for 3 p.m.
Al-Arian didn't teach at USF on Tuesdays, so he planned to spend the day at the Islamic Academy. He was chatting with some students when the academy's vice principal ran up.
"Did you hear what's going on? A plane hit the World Trade Center."
Al-Arian, his wife, Nahla, and his brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar, the one who had been jailed on secret evidence, gathered around the TV in Al-Arian's office. They watched the second plane slice into the south tower.
Within 30 minutes, calls began to pour in. TV stations wanted to come film; newspaper reporters wanted interviews.
About 10 a.m., Al-Arian issued this statement: "Whoever did this is not a Muslim, is not a religious person." He quoted a verse from the Koran that says that if someone kills an innocent person, it is as if he had killed all of humanity.
Bush's announcement was canceled; it has not been rescheduled.
* * *
The two weeks after Sept. 11 were a blur. Al-Arian tried to keep the school running, shepherded students through their grief, took part in community gatherings, did 10, 15 interviews a day, held ecumenical services at his Al-Qassam mosque in Tampa.
About 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, Al-Arian took a call in his office at USF. It was a producer from the O'Reilly Factor, the Fox News interview program.
Al-Arian had seen the show a couple of times and knew the host was a prickly conservative commentator named Bill O'Reilly. He didn't know much more.
Al-Arian asked the producer, "Why me?"
She told him the show was looking for Muslim reaction to Sept. 11. She asked questions about two controversial groups he led several years ago.
She mentioned that several of the hijackers had spent time in Florida and asked if he knew any of them. After 70 minutes, Al-Arian told her he didn't know how O'Reilly planned to cover so many issues in five minutes. He said he wouldn't go on.
She called back at 4:15. This time, he says, she promised that O'Reilly would focus on Muslim reaction to Sept. 11. He said yes.
Al-Arian arrived at WEDU's studios at 6 p.m. and fell into a chair. He didn't even have time for makeup. O'Reilly, speaking into his earphone from Fox studios in New York, pounced immediately: Why had he called for "Death to Israel?" Why had Al-Arian given terrorists a platform? How could he not have known that one of his associates would go off to head the Palestine Islamic Jihad?
The interview ended with this exchange:
Al-Arian: "We've been -- we've been looked at, and a judge -- a judge has said that we are not a threat to national security."
O'Reilly: "All right."
Al-Arian: "Even the government itself said we're not."
O'Reilly: "Okay. All right, Doctor. I'd still shadow you. I'd go to Denny's with you, and I'd go everywhere you went. We appreciate you coming on."
The taping over, the professor and his wife went to a dinner sponsored by a group of black Muslims and didn't get home until after midnight. A message left by an answering service said something like, "You should fear for your life. ... We're going to get you, you bastard."
Al-Arian changed his number right then.
That night, USF president Judy Genshaft came home late, too. A message left on her answering machine early in the evening said, "You might want to take a look at O'Reilly. I think we're going to have trouble."
Genshaft turned to her husband and asked:
* * *
O'Reilly's audience saw thousands of pages of court documents and seven years of legal controversy truncated into a 991-word interview.
The case against Al-Arian first unfolded in 1995, when the FBI raided his home, as well as the offices of Islamic Committee for Palestine and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise. He led both groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He had created the ICP in 1988 to draw America's attention to the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, which began late in 1987. Al-Arian says the group focused on Muslim causes all over the world -- Algeria, Bosnia, Somalia, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 1990, Al-Arian formed WISE, associated with USF's Committee for Middle Eastern Studies. During its five years in existence, WISE mainly published a journal (with such titles as Arabism and Nationalism and Democracy in Jordan) and invited academics to speak.
The government said the evidence showed that both WISE and ICP drew terrorists. ICP meetings attracted Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted of plotting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and Sheik Abdul Aziz Odeh, spiritual head of the Islamic Jihad.
WISE gave a daylong audience to Hassan Turabi, a Sudanese scholar and politician whom many activists and academics considered a terrorist.
In May 1995, Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, one of the leaders of WISE, left for the Middle East. In October of that year, Israel assassinated the head of the Palestine Islamic Jihad. A month later, Shallah surfaced as the new head of that organization.
Investigators also said that the groups, ICP especially, were used to raise money for terrorist groups. They pointed to suspicious bank transfers, and letters such as this one, which Al-Arian wrote Feb. 1, 1995, after a terrorist attack killed 19 Israeli soldiers:
"The link with the brothers in Hamas is very good and making steady progress, and their (sic) are serious attempts at unification and permanent coordination. I call upon you to try to extend true support to the jihad effort so that operations such as these can continue."
Al-Arian says the letter was a response to a Kuwaiti friend's inquiry about the relationship between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and whether to support them.
He says that in his letter, "I ask others to support them, but I don't support them personally. It's really a half-hearted response. The notion I wanted to communicate was, "Do not stay idle."'
He says Shallah's taking over as head of the Islamic Jihad surprised him because the economist always seemed focused on scholarship. He says he and Shallah have had no contact -- directly or indirectly -- since 1995.
He says he did not always share the views of people who came to WISE or ICP events. Rahman wasn't invited to the 1990 ICP conference because his rhetoric -- directed mainly at what he said was a corrupt Egyptian government -- made Al-Arian uncomfortable. He showed up anyway.
(Al-Arian says that based on conversations with peace activist Ramsey Clark, who helped represent the sheik, he does not believe that Rahman planned the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, or any other terrorism.)
Odeh returned to the Occupied Territories three years ago, he says.
"If he was on any terrorist list, Israel would have never let him in," Al-Arian says.
As for Turabi, a 100-page transcript shows that academics spent the day asking him questions such as: What's the relationship between the Islamic state and society? Why are Muslim societies so polarized? What is the role of women in Islamic society?
Al-Arian stiffens at allegations that he "brought" Odeh, Rahman, Shallah or Turabi into the country. They all received visas or, in the case of Rahman, held a green card.
Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Al-Najjar, helped run both WISE and ICP. In an October 2000 immigration hearing for Al-Najjar, Judge R. Kevin McHugh wrote, the "Court finds notable that, even assuming (Al-Najjar) invited terrorists into the United States, it is the Government that authorized the entry of these individuals into the United States."
The judge also found that there was "no evidence before this court that demonstrates that either (WISE or ICP) was a front for the Islamic Jihad. To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and that ICP was highly regarded."
He didn't consider secret evidence in that ruling. A few weeks later, he did review a summary of the secret evidence and decided the government had no case against Al-Najjar.
* * *
About 1 p.m. on Sept. 27, the day after O'Reilly, someone called the College of Engineering and asked to speak with Al-Arian. He wasn't there. The caller said something like, "I'm going to come and kill him."
The threat prompted the university to empty the engineering building.
Twenty-five minutes later, the caller rang again. This time, he said, "I just called a minute ago, and I was very upset. I was out of line and said some things that I shouldn't have said." He said he was sorry.
(The second call was not reported by the university for several weeks because, as police put it to Genshaft, "Death threats have no expiration dates.")
That day, some 150 hostile e-mails, calls and letters rained in, lambasting USF for harboring a terrorist. Genshaft spent the morning shuttling from meeting to meeting, grappling with the mushrooming crisis.
That afternoon, two top university administrators met Al-Arian at a Bennigan's near campus. David Stamps, USF provost, said the evacuation showed that Al-Arian was disrupting the campus; he said they were putting him on paid leave. A three-line letter made it official.
Stamps later said that during that meeting, he told the professor to stay away from campus. Al-Arian says that isn't true.
The afternoon of Oct. 5, Al-Arian attended a meeting on campus of the Muslim Students Association. On Oct. 8, USF police called Al-Arian to campus to pick up another letter from Stamps. It said that by coming on campus on Oct. 5, he had violated the terms of his leave.
After a Dateline NBC segment featured Al-Arian, another burst of angry e-mails came to the school. Others wrote Al-Arian directly.
One said: "IT'S A JOKE YOU'RE A PROFESSOR, YOU RAGHEAD! I SAW YOU SMIRK ON T.V., I KNOW YOUR'E INVOLVED. GO BACK TO STUPID IRAQ OR WHEREEVER THE HELL YOU'RE FROM....U.S. WILL PREVAIL. WE WILL KICK SOME A--, YOU WILL BURN!..."
It ended, "WITH SYMPATHY...AN AMERICAN CITIZEN...P.S. PEACE TO ISRAEL."
On Dec. 19, Stamps sent Al-Arian another letter. This one said the university planned to fire him.
He is still waiting to find out if it will.
* * *
Three weeks later, Al-Arian received another phone call from the O'Reilly Factor. A producer wanted to know if he would come back on the show. Al-Arian said no.
Fifteen minutes later, the host himself called. He wanted to tell the professor that he opposed USF's decision to let him go. He said he planned to devote another program to the controversy, and asked if Al-Arian would join him.
"We'll give you all the time you need," O'Reilly told him.
Al-Arian said he tried to measure O'Reilly's motives. Was he being sincere? Was he just interested in good ratings?
Al-Arian turned him down.
The next day, O'Reilly told his viewers:
"All we want is for the state of Florida to investigate whether or not the professor used the campus to raise money for foreign groups. I think the firing at this point...is unfair."
* * *
On a frosty January morning, minivans crawl through the parking lot at the Islamic Academy of Florida. Students -- boys dressed in blue pants and white shirts, older girls in white scarves and floor-length blue dresses -- hustle across campus to make it to mosque.
Al-Arian spends most of his days on this verdant, 14-acre campus in an unincorporated swath of Temple Terrace. He founded the school 10 years ago and has seen it grow from 23 students -- and three of those were his -- to 275.
"It's the thing I'm most proud of," he says, again and again.
In his office, high above the television is a clock in the rectangular shape of a Palestinian pound, the currency used when Palestinians lived under British rule. A sign above his fax machine reads: And say, "My Lord, Increase My Knowledge!"
Throughout the day, two cell phones -- one in each trouser pocket -- ring incessantly.
He answers in a thin, gentle voice, a tone at odds with the scorching rhetoric of some of his speeches years ago. In person, he is mostly business, relentlessly polite, funny in patches, quick to tell a story, just as quick -- and outspoken -- with his opinions.
It is not unusual to see him holding a phone to each ear. Reporters call, lawyers call, political activists call, editorial writers call, friends call, Muslim leaders call. Sometimes it's a university or a foundation, seeking a resume, in case he needs a job soon. He tells them, sure, he'll send one when he can.
Until last week, when someone got copies for him, he couldn't get to his resume. It was locked in his office at USF.
* * *
Al-Arian arrived at USF in 1985, by way of Kuwait and Egypt, Illinois and North Carolina.
He was born in Kuwait in January 1958, the son of Palestinian refugees. His parents had moved there a decade earlier, when the nation of Israel was born. Al-Arian says his mother's forebears trace their roots to Jerusalem, 1,400 years ago.
In Kuwait, Palestinians were officially labeled "foreign contracted labor," which meant they could own no property or businesses, had few legal rights and could be expelled without warning.
Which is what happened to the Al-Arian family in 1966. Al-Arian says that when his father refused to become an informant for Kuwaiti intelligence, the government made him leave.
His family moved to Egypt, where neighbors thought he was wealthy. His dad ran a clothes and linens shop; the family lived in a two-bedroom apartment and owned a used Chrysler Plymouth. None of it mattered: They still couldn't be citizens.
In June 1967, when the Arab-Israeli war erupted, Gaza fell after three days. His grandmother, who around her neck still wore a key to the apartment she left behind 19 years earlier, was distraught. His father demanded near-silence in the apartment as he twirled the radio dial from station to station, desperate for news. For the first time, Al-Arian saw his father weep.
"It was like somebody had died in the house," he says. "I realized that the Palestinian people were without power, without a voice."
By 16, Al-Arian had a library of 1,500 books, and was reading Freud and Hemingway and Sartre. He spent hours discussing books and ideas with his best friend, Mazen Al-Najjar.
They dreamed of going to one of Egypt's top medical schools and thought their excellent grades would get them in. In fact, restrictions on how many Palestinians could enroll in these schools meant that Al-Arian and his friend had almost no chance.
Says Al-Arian: "The whole thing made me very, very angry."
* * *
Al-Arian started to study engineering in Egypt and, to his surprise, found that he enjoyed it. When a cousin living in Illinois suggested he pursue engineering at Southern Illinois University, he applied. He came in 1975.
He finished in three years with a grade-point average of 3.78, before graduate school led him to North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He earned his master's and Ph.D.
He had never heard of USF before applying for a job. Then he visited the Tampa Bay area and fell in love with the arresting gulf vistas and the palms bending in the breeze. They reminded him of the Middle East.
Even before he moved to Florida, he was an activist. In 1981, he launched the Islamic Association for Palestine, which he left two years later because he says it had grown too radical.
"They wanted to make it more Palestinian oriented, and I wanted to open it to other ethnic groups," he says. "The language, the rhetoric, was too exclusive for me."
Today the organization is one of the most aggressively pro-Palestinian groups in America.
IAP was his first step to becoming one of the most important Palestinian activists in the United States. He became known not only as a good organizer, but as a riveting speaker. Back then, he appeared taller than his 6 feet, his beard free of the white and gray hairs that have since overtaken it. Between the late 1980s and mid 1990s, his tone was hard and bitter.
At one event, he said: "We assemble today to pay respects to the march of the martyrs and the river of blood that gushes forth and does not extinguish. From butchery to butchery, from martyrdom to martyrdom, from jihad to jihad."
At the ICP's annual conference in 1988, and again in 1990 at an event commemorating the 1,000th day of the intifada, he used the phrase "Death to Israel."
He said, in Arabic:
"God is One, Mohammed is our Leader, the Koran is our Constitution. Struggling in the cause of God is our way. Victory to Islam, death to Israel. Revolution, revolution until victory. March, march towards Jerusalem. There is no deity but God. Mohammed is the Messenger of God. God is great. Victory to Islam."
At another speech in 1991, a few weeks after the end of the Persian Gulf War, he said, "God cursed those who are the sons of Israel, through David and Jesus, the son of Mary. ... Those people, God made monkeys and pigs."
In the same year, he also said: "Let us damn America, let us damn Israel, let us damn them and their allies until death."
* * *
Al-Arian's most incendiary comments were made in Arabic, to Palestinian audiences about Palestinian issues. He says rhetoric in the Middle East is melodramatic and hyperbolic, like rhetoric all over the world, only more so. For those reasons, he says, outsiders can't judge him.
There are outsiders who agree with him, and still judge. Middle Eastern rhetoric might be melodramatic, they say, but his words were still irresponsible and inflammatory.
Were they meant to incite terrorism?
When he said "jihad," he says he did not mean "holy war." He meant "effort" or "struggle," and he says the Koran teaches that "the greatest struggle is against yourself -- your whims, your desires, your habits, your weaknesses."
When he referred to "the sons of Israel" as "monkeys and pigs," he says he was quoting from a passage in the Koran about those who earn the wrath of God.
When he said "Damn America," he says he didn't mean it literally: "I was very surprised to hear myself say that, and I've never said anything like that again."
When he said "Death to Israel," he says he did not wish violence on Jewish people and would never say it now because, "I'd be misunderstood."
Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University historian, said "Death to Israel" reminds him of a visit to Iran in 1988, a decade after its revolution.
"Death to America was all over the place," said Bulliet, who has written extensively about the Middle East. "But the Iranians were extremely welcoming. It didn't connote death to individual Americans. Rhetorical overstatement is not uncommon in that part of the world. In this country, we would say, "down with.' "Down with Iran.' "
Avi Shlaim, an Oxford University professor who has studied the Middle East for 30 years, takes the words at face value. He said the phrase is shorthand for "wiping Israel off the face of the map. It means the destruction of the polity, and secondly, it means genocide, death to Jews."
Though Al-Arian says he won't say "Death to Israel" now, he maintains it is a "racist, apartheid state" that "has no moral or legal right to exist."
"I despise Israel," he says one day in his office. "I wish it would go away tomorrow. There are many Jews who do not support Israel. It's unfair to the Jews as much as it's unfair to anybody else."
Al-Arian says his ideal solution for the Middle East conflict is a secular "binational" democracy in which Muslims would control Jerusalem, and all Jews and Palestinians would hold a right of return.
"Call it Israel, Palestine, Ispal, Israel/Palestine, Palestine/Israel, I don't care," he says.
He does not believe Ariel Sharon or Yasser Arafat can bring peace to the region. Arafat is "not honest, not very smart, the ultimate survivor." Sharon, he says, is the Israeli version of Osama bin Laden.
"He and Sharon have the same mentality, the mentality of extremists and fanatics," he says. "They see themselves as being at a higher level than others. They dehumanize people. When Sharon kills Palestinians, he doesn't consider them human beings. Just as when Osama bin Laden killed those people on Sept. 11, he didn't consider them human beings."
He says he works closely with Jewish colleagues in political and legal activist groups.
One of them is Kit Gage, a lawyer married to a Jewish man who has raised her two daughters Jewish. She has worked with Al-Arian for four years on the National Committee for the Protection of Political Freedom, which focuses on constitutional rights issues, with special emphasis on classified evidence.
She lives in an elegant, airy home in Takoma Park, Md., a haven of hip lefty thinking on the edge of Washington, D.C. A minivan in her driveway bears a bumper sticker that reads, "Practice Armed Resistance and Conscious Acts of Solidarity."
She says she has never heard Al-Arian say anything ugly about Jews or Judaism. She once tried to talk to him about the "Death to Israel" statement, but "he didn't want to talk about it." She wanted to tell him that "we all make statements or have done things in our lives that we regret...."
"I've been in enough demonstrations during the Vietnam era, when I heard people say, "Off the pigs!' " she says. "I don't think that meant people wanted to kill police officers. I would never say "Death to Israel,' but it's the same kind of statement."
* * *
One week in mid February, Al-Arian and his wife are in their 1993 Pontiac Trans Sport headed to Lakeland, where he will give a speech at the Unitarian Universalist Church. He wears a navy blue suit with a light blue shirt, and a red, white and blue tie.
On the drive over, they listen to music in Arabic, by an Egyptian singer known for his clever protest lyrics.
Nahla is nervous. Earlier in the day, she rushed into her husband's office, cheeks flushed. She put her hand to her heart.
"Oh God, Sami, I am so scared," she had said. "I feel my heart sinking."
"Why? What are you worried about?"
"All this media, all these reporters," she said, referring to that night's speech.
He removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and yawned.
"I'm so worried about you ... about us," she said.
Now, hours later, he says he reads and watches every news report about him.
"I need to know how people are thinking," he says. "I need to know what's going on."
"I can't," she says. "It's really painful."
"She takes it personally."
"Well, I'm human."
"I'm not saying you're not," he says, and reaches out for her arm.
The conversation wanders to politics and winds up back at Israel. He says he has never taken students from his academy to the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
"If the Jewish people are willing to talk about Palestinian suffering, we'd be more than happy to take our children there," he says. "They want us to recognize their suffering, but they don't want to recognize our suffering."
* * *
They arrive at 6:55 p.m., five minutes before Al-Arian is scheduled to speak. An audience of about 150 -- middle-aged men and women, young professionals and lots of retirees -- has crowded into a lecture hall on this brittle cold night. Several people wear American flag pins in their lapels.
Al-Arian walks to the podium with a manila folder, but spends the next 75 minutes lecturing without notes.
He starts with his family history, weaves his way to Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, describes the creation of the state of Israel and its impact on Palestinians.
He begins softly, but as he reaches the September 2000 intifada, he shakes his fist, points his finger, thumps the podium.
He recounts border scenes where Israeli soldiers shout to grandfathers and young mothers:
"You bitch, go there!"
"You monkey, go there!"
"You dog, go there!"
Near the end of his speech, a woman seated in the back of the room interrupts.
"Does the reverse work?" says Phyllis Balsam, 67, of Lakeland. "What about when the young terrorists kill innocent Israelis? I've only heard a one-sided thing here, and I think this is a disgrace!"
Al-Arian leans over the podium.
"Please," he says. "Give me your patience."
A few minutes later, he addresses Balsam's question.
"I do not for one minute support the killing of any innocent civilian, and I don't just believe that politically. I believe that religiously and morally as well. This is unacceptable, and I could never stand for that."
He answers questions for an hour. It is past 9, and people are trickling out. In one of the last questions, a man asks if Israeli armed settlers are "innocent civilians" or "aggressors."
"They are legitimate targets," Al-Arian says. "I'm against the targeting of any innocent civilians. That does not include people who are armed, or soldiers."
* * *
To Norman Gross, Al-Arian is an arrogant schemer, a man who "doesn't seem as interested in teaching computer science as he is in pursuing his own agenda."
Gross heads something called Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting, or PRIMER. He sends out faxes, calls meetings with members of two local synagogues, brings in speakers, writes letters to the editor, calls reporters, organizes petition drives.
All to make sure that Israel gets a fair deal in the news media. For much of the past decade, he arguably has been the most persistent critic of Sami Al-Arian.
Gross is 78, an amiable, white-haired grandfather of four, whose home on a shady, tranquil street in Palm Harbor is bright with art from South America and Africa. One recent day, two books sat on a living room table: Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul and The Secret War Against the Jews.
Gross was an educator for four decades in Rochester, N.Y. He taught social studies for 17 years and helped guide the schools through desegregation. He was a teachers union activist in Rochester and vice president of the Urban League.
He says Al-Arian isn't "guilty by association. He's guilty in association" -- in association with terrorists.
Gross has heard all of Al-Arian's explanations. He forces a mock sigh.
"Poor Sami," he says. "Always misunderstood."
He wants to know why Al-Arian doesn't categorically denounce terrorism. He believes that ultimately, Al-Arian wants to see Israel disappear.
"There's no need to be so vigorous in the pursuit of destroying us," he says, jamming his hands into his pockets. "We're not going away."
* * *
Vincent Cannistraro worked for the CIA for three decades, where he rose to become chief of the agency's counterterrorism operation and investigated the bombing of Pam Am Flight 103. He served in the Reagan administration as the National Security Council's chief of intelligence.
Retired and living in the Washington area, he speaks with a gruff confidence and laughs when someone asks his age. "Old enough to have worked for the CIA for 27 years," he says.
He was drawn into the Sami Al-Arian case five or six years ago, when he took part in a panel discussion about media coverage of allegations against the professor. He didn't know much about those accusations then, but he was surprised by "how politicized the whole thing was." The discussion was "highly charged," he says.
After that, he wanted to know more about the case against Al-Arian: "So I did what I know how to do. I gathered some intelligence."
He won't say whether he has seen the government's secret evidence, but he will say this: "There is no evidence. There was no evidence before 9-11, and there isn't any evidence now. I assure you, if they had the evidence to indict Al-Arian as a terrorist, it would have been done."
Three times during a telephone interview he says, "I'm not defending Sami Al-Arian."
"I just don't believe that you're guilty until proven guilty," he says. "There is a judicial process to bring (the government) to that conclusion."
He has sent Judy Genshaft a letter saying that he does not believe Al-Arian was involved in the attacks of Sept. 11; he believes that academic freedom is being trampled and considers it a "moral outrage" that the professor's job is in danger.
"It's a propaganda campaign," he says. "Some facts are right; some are in error. For Judy Genshaft to basically bend to the winds of hysteria" is wrong.
A few minutes later: "It's so anti-American, it's unbelievable."
Again, just before hanging up: "I'm not defending Al-Arian. I'm defending a principle."
* * *
The Al-Arians' neat, spacious apartment in East Tampa is distinctly American: a large television, Blueberry Morning and Fruity Pebbles cereals atop the refrigerator, the Stars and Stripes tacked to the front door.
It is also distinctly Middle Eastern: Koranic scripture on wall hangings, bookshelves with titles including Dispatches from Palestine and The Politics of Dispossession, a living room table with a plate of baklava.
All five of Al-Arian's children are Americans, with a Middle Eastern, and Muslim, overlay. At Duke, when 21year-old Abdullah goes out with friends for pizza, he can't order pepperoni. At Georgetown, 20-year-old Laila loves Dawson's Creek and Alicia Keys and the New York Knicks, but in public she covers herself in traditional Muslim garb.
One night at home recently, 11-year-old Ali Al-Arian writes e-mail to a friend: "hey, ahmad, wussup? hey, how's saudi?"
A few minutes later, bright-eyed Lama, 8, brings her father a permission slip for her Brownies field trip before sitting next to Mom to do some reading homework.
When Ali remains at the computer playing "3D Pinball Space Cadet," Nahla Al-Arian grows impatient.
"What do you have to do?"
"No homework?" She is incredulous. "You have a test today. How did you do?"
"I got minus three," he says.
"I don't know."
"You should have studied."
Later, Al-Arian says, "I'm going to have children in college until 2020. The most important thing to me is to make sure they're in good colleges. If they deserve it, we'll make sure we do everything possible to make it happen."
Leena, 16, is a senior at the Islamic Academy and is already taking classes at USF. Abdullah's and Laila's expenses at Duke and Georgetown are more than $65,000 a year combined.
Some of Al-Arian's critics have wondered aloud how he can afford two of America's costliest universities. Abdullah and Laila have won more than $50,000 in scholarships, grants and loans, Al-Arian says. He and his wife dig the rest out of their pockets. The professor says they do that by living frugally -- by not buying a new car, by moving from a house to an apartment, by not visiting relatives overseas.
Al-Arian makes a base salary of roughly $66,000 a year, and sometimes earns $14,000 more for teaching summer school. (He has never been paid for his work at the Islamic Academy of Florida.) He pays $1,300 a month in rent for a 1,650-square-foot apartment, which includes a garage. He owns the 1993 Pontiac minivan and leases a 1999 Toyota Camry.
He has owned a small investment property (a four-store shopping plaza in Tampa) since the late 1980s, but it only recently began to make money -- after he invested about $40,000 in renovations. (The $40,000 came from the sale of his house last summer.)
He owns no stock, except through his USF retirement fund.
"An apartment and a small property," he says. "That's what I have to show for myself after 27 years here."
* * *
Four times a week, Al-Arian teaches at the Islamic Academy of Florida. On this afternoon, the 11 girls in his Islamic Studies class are learning more about the hajj, the annual pilgrimage by millions of Muslims to the sacred city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The room is small, and Al-Arian fills it. Pacing with a black marker, his command is sure, his pace swift. He is a lover of history and details, and imparting the intricate rules and traditions of the hajj bring him pleasure.
He explains why everyone dresses in the same simple garb for the hajj.
"What's the significance of these clothes?" he asks the class.
"Everyone feels the same," one student answers.
"That's right," he says, and smiles. "You can't tell the rich man from the street sweeper."
Al-Arian says he misses teaching at USF, where by all accounts, he was a respected professor, and where by all accounts, he kept politics and religion out of his classroom.
In 1993, USF's College of Engineering named him Teacher of the Year. The next year, he won another teaching award, which came with a prize: a $5,000 raise.
On student evaluations the past three years, with 5 as the top score, his evaluations never averaged lower than 4.4.
He considers himself a tough professor but does allow that he always "gave students a lot of credit for trying."
* * *
Judy Genshaft is in her office at USF, on a speaker phone that gives her clear, deliberate speech a hollowed out sound.
She says that everywhere she goes -- the doctor's office, meetings with other university presidents -- everybody wants to know the same thing: What's going on at USF? She says she spends at least 50 percent of her time picking at and turning over the dilemma: What to do with Sami Al-Arian?
The interview is a preview of what USF will argue if it fires the professor. In 44 minutes, she uses the word "disruption" perhaps a dozen times.
"This is not about academic freedom," she says. "It's not about tenure. It's not about free speech. It's about disruption and safety."
Genshaft says the university got a dozen death threats against Al-Arian after his appearance on the O'Reilly Factor -- more "than we have had in the (46-year) history of this institution."
She says she can't fill positions at the school; that funding sources have threatened to cut off grants; that U.S. congressmen and senators have called asking, "What's happening there?"; that one professor has taken to calling the embattled campus "ground zero."
She bristles at complaints that the university flouted due process and held Al-Arian to a different standard than other professors.
"This is a unique -- U-N-I-Q-U-E -- case, an extraordinary case," she says, and suggests that Al-Arian should have been fired years ago because "he has been known to have ties to terrorists. It's been willful, organized, repeated."
"You have to have the history," she says. "It's got to be framed in the context of his past."
* * *
Back at Al-Arian's apartment, he plays a video called Jerusalem's High Cost of Living. It is a documentary of the first days of the most recent intifada, which began in September 2000.
In the program, the narrator is also the photographer, recording scenes and interviews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Al-Arian, lounging on a pastel-green leather love seat, is soon joined by Lama, who spreads out on his lap for a few minutes.
For an hour, the narrator takes viewers into the heart of the conflict. There are crowd scenes, of agitated young men in the streets, listening for gunfire and scampering when it comes.
"All these people are totally unarmed," Al-Arian says.
There are scenes of Palestinian teenagers lofting stones from behind a garbage dumpster. Scenes of protesters shouting, "God save us from America! God save us from Israel!" Scenes of a crowd jammed into a hospital, awaiting word on a young man named Osama Jeddah, shot in the head by the Israeli military. The video shows his anguished mother waiting quietly.
Later, she wails and screams when someone inadvertently lets news slip that Osama Jeddah is dead.
"Who told her?" Osama's father shouts. "Who told her? He's still alive!"
The Al-Arian living room is silent. Nahla Al-Arian rocks slightly and blots her eyes with tissue.
On the love seat, Sami Al-Arian's face is gray.
"God is One! God is One!" someone is shouting on the video.
Al-Arian wipes a tear with his hand, whispers something to himself. He pulls out a handkerchief, blows his nose and takes a sip of tea.
* * *
A couple of weeks later, just before 9 a.m., Al-Arian is giving a sermon. The blue suit from the speech in Lakeland is gone, replaced by an imam's robes and a white cap known as a kufi. He is barefooted.
It is the Festival of Sacrifice, one of the most important days of the Muslim calendar, and a crowd of more than 500 men at the mosque has flowed over into side rooms. Al-Arian speaks for 30 minutes, alternating between English and Arabic, his voice rhythmic, his tone fervent.
Just the day before, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced that it is investigating Al-Arian, without specifying what the FBI is looking for. Al-Arian thinks the government is seeking new evidence to indict him under the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping antiterrorism bill passed in the wake of Sept. 11. His brother-in-law already has been returned to jail.
In his sermon, Al-Arian doesn't mention the government's announcement. Instead, he focuses on traditional themes for the day: unity, sacrifice and struggle.
"Islam is a just religion," he says to a crowd of boys and businessmen, grandfathers and students. "Islam will not tolerate or give in to anyone or cult who declares that anyone else's life is worthless."
"Today we are told that Islam oppresses women," he shouts, but in Islam, "women have exactly the same rights and duties as men."
Al-Arian calls himself a moderate Muslim, and he is eager to tick off the ways. The Islamic Community of Tampa Bay, which he runs, allows music at the complex, a position rejected by most of Islam. Also, 20 percent of the community's governing board must be made up of women.
The community also urges members to vote and be politically engaged, another stance shunned by many Muslim leaders.
In 1994, Al-Arian voted in a Tampa referendum although his citizenship application hadn't been approved. The state declined to prosecute him. He says immigration officials told him in March 1997 that they would decide on his citizenship status in 30 days. He hasn't heard from them since.
Still, he considers America his adopted nation. He says he values what it values.
"In Kuwait and Egypt, the system was not with me. You couldn't go to college. You couldn't argue with (the system). You conform, and that's it. There's no alternative. Here I can rally public opinion, I can go to politics, I can go to court. That's the American dream to me."
In the 27 years since he arrived in America, some 30 relatives have come to this country. Every one of them has become a citizen; he is the only one who has not.
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