Local Muslims deny Al-Arian fits government descriptionBy BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA -- At the Islamic Academy of Florida, the school Sami Al-Arian helped run, federal agents carted out dozens of boxes Thursday from the administration trailer. They talked at length to the principal, who tried to keep the day normal.
But it wasn't.
"I need everyone out," principal Abdul Biuk told a crowd of reporters gathered at the school's entrance. "I don't know what's going to happen."
It was a day of anger and confusion for many local Muslims. They expressed dismay at the federal government's description of Al-Arian -- their leader -- as the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United States.
They know him.
Imran Ismail, a University of South Florida student, heard Al-Arian give speeches at the academy's mosque on 130th Avenue, where he urged Muslims to get involved in American politics and encouraged them to vote.
Ismail studied Arabic with Sameeh Hammoudeh, the 42-year-old USF instructor who also was arrested Thursday.
"We are all shocked this has happened. I was shocked," Ismail said. "We were not expecting it."
"This is frustrating," said Mohammed Al-Dahoud, who taught seventh-grade math to Al-Arian's son at the Islamic Academy. "The government is just doing something to make the public feel that they are doing something."
Not so, says Norman Gross, one of Al-Arian's most persistent critics. He said Al-Arian has long associated with terrorists.
"He's been manipulating our system for years," said Gross, a Palm Harbor resident and the president of Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting.
His reaction to Thursday's arrests: "There is a God."
The news spread quickly through the Muslim community. Updates were posted on the local United Muslims Association website: "We ask that all Muslim brothers and sisters, and lovers of justice, be prepared to stand up and peacefully protest against these atrocities."
Aliyah O'Keefe heard it from her father, right before morning prayer. She turned on the television news. "We saw him getting in the police car," she said of Al-Arian. "I was frozen."
About noon, she heard about Hammoudeh's arrest and called his daughter, who attends Florida International University near Miami.
"She was crying and saying, "Why my dad? Why?' " O'Keefe said.
Speaking at a news conference outside Tampa's federal courthouse, Ahmed Bedier, the communications director for the Miami office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, worried the arrests could bring repercussions.
"It's not about Sami as a person," he said. "It's about a situation that could set a precedent for other Muslims across the country."
"The core of the judicial system is that all men are innocent until proven guilty," Bedier said. "In this case, it seems like the other way around."
-- Times staff writers Megan Scott and Tamara Lush contributed to this report.
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