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USF after Al-Arian

Many would like to forget him, but the professor's arrest has stilled some dissent.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
Published April 17, 2005

TAMPA - Sami Al-Arian is the University of South Florida's own private ghost. You can't see him on campus anymore, but he's still there.

It has been two years since Al-Arian was put in prison to await trial on terrorism-related charges, and in most visible ways USF has returned to normal.

The gathering spots in the center of the campus, where speeches, protests and rallies were almost daily occurrences, are quiet again.

Faculty-administration relations, bruised by the dismissal of Al-Arian, who was a tenured engineering professor at the university, are more cordial if not entirely warm.

Fundraising is no longer threatened by angry alums. The administration, the board of trustees and faculty have reached new understandings. "Two years have passed . . . things are better than they were," said Roy Weatherford, president of the faculty union.

But Muslim students and even some faculty members say the political climate on campus has become chilly. "People are afraid to speak out today," said Sarah Mitwalli, a 19-year-old senior with U.S. and Egyptian citizenship.

The Al-Arian trial is scheduled to begin May 16, but the first gavel may not fall for some time after that. Linda Moreno, one of Al-Arian's attorneys, said last week her client may seek a change of venue, which would push back the start date for months. Any of Al-Arian's three co-defendants may make the request, she said, which could result in the defendants' being tried separately or being moved to another trial location together. Or the request could be denied. "There are a number of possibilities," she said.

Al-Arian and the three other men are accused of supporting, promoting and raising money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the U.S. government has classified as a terrorist organization.

The other defendants are Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz. The indictment says they used USF as a cover, a place they could bring other members of the organization under the guise of academic conferences and meetings.

Parents advise a low profile

"We knew (the arrest of Al-Arian) would affect us for years," said Sarah Mitwalli.

The Muslim Student Association was once politically active on a number of issues, she says, but since the arrest it has adopted a less confrontational, more educational role. Disappointed, Mitwalli and a few other students formed a new group called OASIS - the Organization of Arab Students in Solidarity.

Thus far, though, the student response to OASIS has been underwhelming.

Naveed Kamal, 21, a U.S. citizen born to Pakistani parents, is a spokesman for the Muslim Student Association. He agrees the association has taken a step back from politics. "When I was a freshman, the association was very active - we were having a rally (in support of Al-Arian and other Palestinian causes) at least every month," he said. "Now, not that many students want to be in the spotlight.

"And I don't mean just the media spotlight. I mean . . . the FBI spotlight, too. Many students here have been questioned."

Students' parents have urged their kids to quiet down. "My parents were seeing me in the media a lot," Kamal said. "They finally told me to lower my profile."

"I'm about to apply to law school," said a female student who asked not to be named. "I just can't afford any kind of trouble now."

"We don't talk about it (Al-Arian's indictment) much," said Kamal. "It's sad that so few people are sticking up for a guy who is innocent until proven guilty."

With a student enrollment just under 43,000, USF is the second largest university in the Southeast and one of the 20 largest in the nation. But it has always been third chair to two higher profile Florida schools: Florida State University and the University of Florida. Long considered a commuter school, USF was not known for student activism.

"We've never been a hotbed of anything," said faculty union president Weatherford.

But throughout the 1990s, USF somehow became a place of bare-knuckled Middle East politics, with allegations of terrorist connections and stifled free speech.

It began with good intentions on the university's part.

"I was proud of what we were doing'

In 1991, then-provost Gerhard Meisels created the Committee on Middle Eastern Studies. Most of its members came from the department of government and international affairs, but other departments were also represented. The committee brought in speakers and conducted seminars and roundtables with the idea of broadening understanding of the Middle East. Among them were Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Sterner, former Jerusalem Post editor Irwin Frenkel and Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But others attracted criticism, especially from the local Jewish community. One such speaker was Hassan Turabi, a radical Sudanese Islamist and intellectual.

"He was invited in May of 1992 to testify before Congress," said committee member Arthur Lowrie, a former Foreign Service officer and USF adjunct instructor, "and afterward he met the editorial board of the Washington Post. Then we were attacked for bringing him down here.

"It was an active committee, and we were doing great work," said Lowrie, who once served as Mideast adviser to the commander at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. "It was the work that people are still trying to do now - having dialogue, trying to understand what these Islamic movements are all about. We brought interesting people here. . . . I was proud of what we were doing."

Had the committee just sponsored a few controversial speakers, it might still be doing its work. But it forged a connection to Sami Al-Arian, and to an organization called WISE, and that proved its undoing.

The World and Islam Studies Enterprise was an off-campus think tank founded by Al-Arian and others. The first director was Khalil Ibrahim Shikaki, a scholar whose brother, Fathi Shikaki, was a founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Another member was a then-little-known USF professor, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah.

"The committee only did a few things in joint sessions with WISE," Lowrie said in a recent interview. "We were under attack by Jewish groups, Zionist groups, for giving Islamic scholars a platform. They felt by giving them a platform, we were being supportive. But aren't academics supposed to delve into the issues?"

In 1994 and 1995, however, two developments made that discussion seem beside the point, and sent the university reeling.

"He ended up hurting his own cause'

In November 1994, PBS aired a documentary called Jihad in America, a report by investigative journalist Steven Emerson on militant Islamic support networks operating in the United States. Emerson infiltrated conferences and rallies with hidden cameras to identify people and organizations he said were responsible for supporting terrorist activities. Among his targets were Al-Arian, WISE and, by extension, USF.

Emerson charged that Al-Arian raised money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups and, with his brother-in-law, former USF instructor Mazen Al-Najjar, sponsored conferences that "celebrated abhorrent violence against the United States and Jews."

The university was embarrassed further the following year when Shallah surfaced in Damascus as the new head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The revelation stunned some supporters, and WISE was quickly shut down.

Lowrie, who had called Shallah a friend, said he knew Shallah was in the Middle East but thought he had gone to tend to his ill father. "I've known him for over four years, and I know nothing that he has done or said that would associate him with Islamic Jihad or terrorists," Lowrie said at the time. "If this were to turn out to be true . . . it would be devastating to all who were connected with him."

It did, and it was.

"That was the thing that killed us, of course," said Lowrie. "He ended up hurting his own cause and that of Palestinians."

"The committee (on Middle Eastern Studies) didn't do much after that," he said. "It's now defunct."

Lowrie remained a strong supporter of Al-Arian - until he read the 2003 indictment.

"Sami's lies damaged the university and destroyed the good work being done by the committee," he said in a recent interview.

USF paid dearly. It was mocked nationally as "Jihad U." Its reputation was damaged, and faculty morale suffered.

"Relations between the board of trustees, the faculty and the administration hit bottom with the Star Chamber trial in which they fired Al-Arian without even hearing from him," said Weatherford. But, Weatherford acknowledged some things have improved in the last two years, especially in the last few months following the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement.

"We have a stronger faculty union and a better set of rules on academic freedom," he said. "Things are somewhat better."

Administrators agree. "We have moved past learning to work with each other and moved toward working on improving conditions for faculty," said a spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, it's not hard to understand why many at the school can't wait for the day when Al-Arian's face is finally in the rear-view mirror to stay.

"He's out of our life, and I hope he stays out," said Dick Beard, chairman of the USF board of trustees.

USF "has moved on," said president Judy Genshaft in a written statement. "We are focusing our efforts on positioning the university to be among the top 50 of public research universities."

A subdued political climate

Enrollment of international students at USF has been decreasing since 9/11, but the trend is nationwide. There has been a decline in the numbers of Arab men coming to the United States for any purpose, said university spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon, "but this is primarily related to the very strict U.S. government regulations regarding this demographic group." Middle Eastern course offerings at USF have always been limited, she said, and their number has not changed.

The more subdued political climate on campus also reflects a national trend, said Michael Gibbons, a professor in government and international affairs. "It's getting harder to get a serious debate going on the Iraq war, or Iran, or any Middle East topic," he said.

"Instructors feel it, too. If you say something about the (Bush) administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you worry you might be seen as soft on terrorism. Or you might be portrayed as another Ward Churchill."

(Churchill, chairman of the University of Colorado's ethnic studies department, caused a stir recently by writing that the people who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack were "little Eichmanns." He argued that the attack was carried out in retaliation for the Iraqi children who were killed in a 1991 bombing raid and for economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after the Persian Gulf War.)

"Freedom of speech means you can say dumb things, or be wrong, too," said Gibbons.

"There is a national environment of apprehension" among Muslims, "and it is present on campus here, too," said Jamil Jreisat, who teaches public administration in the department of government and international affairs. "People are more reserved expressing their views, especially if it is an Islamic point of view.

"I am not a Muslim, but if you were a Muslim and you had good sense, you would want to be careful of being misinterpreted. And that does mean there is a loss in the quality of discussion on the campus.

"As I was leaving the campus the other day, I saw a pickup truck with a bumper sticker saying, "Kill them all and let Allah sort it out'; that is hate mail of the worst kind. What is the message there?

"If I am a Muslim, do I feel welcome to express my views?"

David Ballingrud can be reached at 727-893-8245, or by e-mail at ballingrud@sptimes.com

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