Al-Arian fires back at Tiger Bay questionsBy ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- Sami Al-Arian, the controversial University of South Florida professor under federal investigation, blamed the media Thursday for helping fuel anti-Muslim fervor after Sept. 11 and for depicting him as a terrorist.
Al-Arian, placed on leave from USF last September, responded passionately Thursday to the unusually hostile and pointed questions from a packed audience at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. He occasionally raised his voice as he emphasized his point but took the questions in stride, thanking each person who asked one.
"I never incited people to violence or murder. It never happened," he said. "Bring one person that I ever asked for one violent act. One witness. I don't think that's too much to ask."
He repeatedly blamed the media -- including the New York Times and Tampa Tribune -- for spreading misinformation about his alleged ties to the Islamic Jihad and past anti-Israeli statements.
"You're being fed by one source of the same mind, the same agenda," he said.
Al-Arian, who was accompanied to the luncheon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club by his wife, son and attorney, proclaimed his love for the United States and the freedom it represents. A stateless Palestinian, he has not been granted U.S. citizenship.
"I love this country. In this country, I can fight back," he said. "Many have pleaded with me to stay quiet. I believe in freedom of speech now more than ever."
But Al-Arian's pleas of innocence didn't stop questions from the mix of local politicians, professors and community and business leaders:
What about allegations that he supports violence? "The murder of civilians is absolutely wrong," he said. "There is no justification for that. ... Whoever does that is not following Islam." Later, he said he's not opposed to violence against military targets. "I didn't say I'm a pacifist or against violence."
Why did he say "Death to Israel?" at a conference years ago? "Death to Israel meant death to apartheid, death to oppression," he said.
Was the Islamic think tank he founded, World and Islam Studies Enterprises, a front for terrorism? "WISE never took the cause of the Islamic Jihad," he said, despite reports that a former group leader headed the Islamic Jihad. "It's regrettable that someone from WISE took over Jihad. We regret that. We could not have foreseen that."
Before answering questions, he gave a brief speech about his life and his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who spent more than three years in jail on secret evidence linking him to terrorists before being released. He was arrested again to be deported, though no country has agreed to take him.
Al-Arian was under federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected WISE was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists. In February, federal authorities said Al-Arian remained under investigation but would not elaborate. He has not been charged with a crime.
The tenured computer science professor made national headlines again after his alleged ties to terrorists were aired on national television a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
USF president Judy Genshaft put him on paid leave, and she later announced that she intended to fire him. She delayed her decision, which she is expected to make before classes start at the end of the month.
Darryl Paulson, a fellow USF professor, won the award for the toughest question for asking Al-Arian how he communicates with his students when he clearly has a communication problem with much of America.
"I don't think any student has ever complained," Al-Arian said. "I have never brought my politics to the classroom."
Genshaft has not used the alleged ties to terrorism as a reason for terminating Al-Arian.
Instead, she has said he violated contractual agreements and that his presence on campus would jeopardize the safety of students and faculty.
But talk of firing Al-Arian has caused a debate about academic freedom at USF and in universities across the nation. Several higher education groups and individual professors have written to Genshaft to support Al-Arian.
"I think in the United States, there is value for academic freedom," he said. "University professors do have the freedom to express views no matter how unpopular."
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