The Persecution of Professor Sami al-Arian

Revolutionary Worker #1155, June 16, 2002, posted at

"Before Sept. 11 Dr. Al-Arian was a popular professor here at the University of South Florida. After Sept. 11, he has been told he will be fired. Not because he's not a good professor, not because the students have complained about the quality of his work, but because, according to the university, he is a disruption: because controversial statements that he made a decade ago have led to other people threatening his life."

Attorney David Cole, speaking on
 "Academic Freedom and Civil Liberties
in the Wake of September 11"
at the University of South Florida

"A wind is blowing... It is ironic that acts of supreme lawlessness--the attacks on New York and Washington--led to an attack on law itself. Not just particular laws, but the whole idea of Due Process, with specific charges, formal hearings, rules and regulations, and the possibility (heaven forbid) of acquittal.... It is tempting to just get rid of someone whom you do not like, do not agree with, or regard as a nuisance. But it could be you on the dock tomorrow. We are all in this together, for we all rely on the civilizing effect of Due Process, and the unjust dismissal of one of us will endanger all of us."

Statement from the University of South Florida
Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida

Dr. Sami Al-Arian has been a computer science professor at the University of South Florida (USF) for 16 years. Al-Arian was fired from his tenured position after loudmouth right-wing TV talk-show host Bill O'Reilly and a local shock-jock known as "Bubba the Love Sponge" whipped up a campaign against him that resulted in death threats. Salon magazine reported that Al- Arian's case "raises disturbing questions about free speech, academic freedom and the future of tenured status."

The persecution of Dr. Al-Arian began even before the events of September 11. A think tank started by Dr. Al-Arian and affiliated with USF had come under government scrutiny in 1995 after Ramadan Abdullah Shallah returned to the Middle East in October 1995 and emerged as the alleged head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that has engaged in armed attacks against Israelis. Shallah was the head of World Islamic Studies Enterprises (WISE), the think tank founded by Dr. Al-Arian. The incident shocked the USF campus but no information has ever come to light that anyone in Tampa knew of Shallah's connection to the group--if there was any connection--while he was at Tampa. In fact, an immigration judge who reviewed the evidence on WISE ruled that "there is no evidence that the group is a front for the [Islamic Jihad]. On the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center." An independent investigation by USF also found no proof that WISE had any ties with organizations the government calls terrorist.

Trial by O'Reilly and "Bubba the Love Sponge"

On September 26, Al-Arian appeared for a five-minute interview on "The O'Reilly Factor," a top-rated conservative prime time talk show on the Fox News Channel. Al-Arian was initially told that his interview would talk about the attacks against Muslims that were occurring in the Tampa area after September 11. Instead, O'Reilly's "interview" of Al-Arian was a prime time mugging. Salon magazine described it as an "accusatory and hectoring interrogation of Al- Arian, filled with false statements and McCarthy-like smears."

O'Reilly started out by picturing the USF campus as a hotbed of terrorism and revived the charges related to the WISE think tank. Before Al-Arian had the chance to respond to these charges, O'Reilly was on the attack again, asking about Tariq Hamadi, who had worked as an office manger for WISE about 10 years ago and left Tampa in May 1992 to pursue a career in journalism. In 1998, while working as a journalist, Hamadi was hired as a consultant by ABC News to help secure an interview with Osama bin Laden. Although Hamadi was never charged with anything and has even assisted the U.S. government with their investigations of the World Trade Center bombing, O'Reilly alleged that he was implicated in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and that he was on the U.S. government's list of most wanted terrorists. And O'Reilly implied that Al-Arian was guilty by association.

Again before Al-Arian had a chance to respond, it was on to the next charge. This time O'Reilly dug up a statement that Al-Arian had made at a rally 14 years ago, during the first intifada, where he said, "Victory to Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution. Revolution Until Victory." When Al-Arian explained this remark saying, "We have to understand the context. When you say "Death to Israel," you mean death to occupation, death to apartheid, death to oppression, death to..." He was only able to say these 25 words before O'Reilly cut him off.

O'Reilly ended the interview by telling Al-Arian, "If I was the CIA, I'd follow you wherever you went. I'd follow you 24 hours a day."

Immediately after the interview with Al-Arian, the campus was inundated with threatening phone calls and death threats. The computer center was closed after a bomb threat.

On September 27, the day after the interview on O'Reilly, University President Judy Genshaft placed Al-Arian on paid administrative leave, citing safety concerns. This was an outrageous action for a university--letting a reactionary mob whipped up by a rightwing host determine who is allowed to teach at a university--which is supposed to be a site of "academic freedom."

Bill O'Reilly continued his attack on the University of South Florida and Dr. Al-Arian. When President Genshaft didn't immediately fire Al-Arian and also declined to appear on his show, O'Reilly suggested that Gov. Jeb Bush fire Genshaft.

In Tampa, Todd Clem, a radio shock jock on WXTB, who goes by the name "Bubba the Love Sponge," fanned the campaign against Al-Arian. WXTB is owned by Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio stations in the U.S. with 1,200 stations nationwide and eight in Tampa alone. Even before Al-Arian appeared on O'Reilly, Bubba was fanning hatred against Muslims. Bubba falsely charged that Muslims at the University had been seen celebrating after September 11. Even after the University called the radio station and told them that this was untrue, Bubba continued to make the charge, alleging that he had a tape -- which he never produced.

In October Bubba spent an entire morning insulting Al-Arian on the air. The professor and the university were hit by a wave of hate mail following the show.

One might not think that a wave of threats fomented by Bill O'Reilly and "Bubba the Love Sponge" would determine who should teach at a major state university. However on December 19, while the campus was on holiday break, the USF Trustees called an emergency meeting to discuss Dr. Al- Arian's continued employment by the University. Dr. Al-Arian was not invited to the meeting (or even informed that it was taking place).

After the meeting President Genshaft announced the Board's decision, "After much thought, I have come to the sad conclusion that if Dr. Al-Arian remains an employee of the University, the certainty of prolonged disruption of the University and the continuing threat to our students, faculty and staff is profoundly real. Therefore, I have instructed our Office of Academic Affairs to notify Dr. Al-Arian of the University's intent to terminate his employment."

Faculty Support for Dr. Al-Arian

At special meetings January 10-11, the USF Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida passed motions opposing the dismissal of Dr. Al-Arian. "The USF Chapter of UFF finds it repugnant to academic freedom and principles of freedom of speech that faculty are held accountable for responses of third parties over whose behavior they have no control, particularly alleged threats to disrupt the university by violence or threats to withhold donations," read the statement from the UFF.

The statement from UFF drew out some of the implications of the Al-Arian case:

"Consider all the places where we say things that others may not want to hear, or be heard: Teaching. We all have our differences with colleagues and students..... Research. When we study the world and report our conclusions, we may make some people unhappy.... Service. We are asked to reach out from our ivory towers into the community. But such reaching out is not always welcomed....

"When we do these things, we rely on our academic freedom to protect us from summary discipline or dismissal by bureaucrats who believe that the simplest solution is to get rid of troublesome faculty. We rely on academic freedom as we rely on air. We might imagine, in a science fiction sort of way, that some faculty member might be so bizarre that his academic freedom could be safely abrogated; but the resulting hole, once made, extends cracks until the entire structure of academic freedom is imperiled. A scholar silenced diminishes all of us."

On January 3, Dr. Elizabeth Bird, faculty advisor to the University Provost,quit in protest of the firing of Al-Arian. In a letter, Dr. Bird wrote that the "Al-Arian firing will threaten us all." On January 9, the faculty senate at USF voted not to support the termination of Professor Al-Arian.

In mid-March the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sent a team to investigate the Al-Arian incident at USF. AAUP plays a major role in developing the principles and standards that govern the relationship between faculty and administration in higher education. The case "has raised issues of academic freedom, tenure and due process that are of basic concern to the academic community and are incumbent on us to address," AAUP associate general secretary Jordan Kurland wrote in a letter to USF President Judy Genshaft.

The attacks on Sami Al-Arian are part of the chilling atmosphere being whipped up. Right wing media hatchet men conduct inquisitions in sound bites on cable TV and command mobs that can decide what is being taught or censored in the universities.

The response of Dr. Arian's colleagues--standing in solidarity with him and drawing out the broad implications and dangers for the people--are part of the resistance to this whole atmosphere of intimidation that needs to grow...and grow urgently.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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