TAMPA, Fla. – In an ornately decorated office across the street from a mosque, Sami al-Arian, an engineering professor at the University of South Florida, reflects on a decade of Islamic activism. Mr. al-Arian has given speeches in Chicago that call for "jihad," or holy war, and "death to Israel." He has invited radical Muslim clerics from the Middle East to speak at U.S. conferences. He employed and sponsored for a visa a Palestinian scholar who later left to become the current head of the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad.
"No other country would allow me to do what we did," says Mr. al-Arian. "In Israel I would be in jail. In Syria I would be dead. But this is America."
And in America, Mr. al-Arian -- who says all his efforts are designed to encourage dialogue between Muslim intellectuals and American scholars -- has successfully fought government attempts to brand him the head of a terrorist-front group. In 1995, the FBI raided his home and office, seizing records and confiscating almost $20,000 from a bank account he used to support an Islamic think tank. Mr. al-Arian was suspended for two years from his teaching post.
The country is again pondering the proper wartime balance between civil liberties and civil protection. How does it safeguard dissent, yet at the same time ensure that people don't use America's freedoms to undermine it or support its enemies?
The case of the 43-year-old Mr. al-Arian indicates just how complex the answers to those questions can be.
The government has never brought criminal charges against Mr. al-Arian. Law-enforcement agencies say he is neither under current investigation nor on any watch list of people requiring special attention. Mr. al-Arian returned to teaching. Then, last week, his career took another unexpected turn when he appeared on the "The O'Reilly Factor" TV talk show and was quizzed about, and denied, his alleged links to terrorism.
"All my Middle Eastern friends say I should be quiet, but maybe I have lived in America too long," Mr. al-Arian says. "I feel we have the right of freedom of speech. If you have anything to say, you should speak your mind."
A Palestinian educated in Egypt, Mr. al-Arian moved to North Carolina in 1975 to study engineering. After earning his doctorate, he got the job at the University of South Florida. Mr. al-Arian says he considers himself an American even though his application for citizenship in 1994 -- the same year his wife became a citizen -- has never been approved. They have five children, aged eight to 21.
Mr. al-Arian says he was always interested in politics and by 1991 had raised $100,000 from Saudi Arabian donors and others to start a think tank. His goal: to publish a scholarly journal and recruit Muslim scholars to balance what he saw as pro-Israel bias in American foreign policy and academic debate. Called the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, or WISE, its offices were in a converted apartment on a strip mall a mile from the university.
At one of the conferences in 1991, Mr. al-Arian gave a videotaped speech in which he declared, "Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel." Mr. al-Arian says the phrase "Death to Israel" was a "slogan" which really meant "End the occupation" of the Palestinian territories. He says he wouldn't give such a speech today after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, he adds, "even at its worst, that's freedom of speech."
From the start, Mr. al-Arian and his think tank demonstrated remarkable access to the top ranks of Middle East and Islamic militants. The group's first director, recruited by Mr. al-Arian, was Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian professor of political science whose brother was the head of Islamic Jihad -- although Mr. Shikaki said he was estranged from his brother. One of the first speakers Mr. al-Arian brought to Tampa was Sudanese fundamentalist leader Hassan Turabi.
"We were thrilled to get these international speakers," recalls Jamil Jreisat, a professor of political science. "Academically, to speak to top people, to have lunch with them -- this was what a university is all about." The university forged a formal affiliation with Mr. al-Arian's think tank and offered part-time teaching positions to scholars he brought to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Mr. al-Arian and his colleagues organized conferences for Muslims in Chicago and other cities. Speakers included Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, subsequently convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Sheik Abdel Aziz-Odeh, who was expelled by Israel from the occupied territories as the alleged ideological leader of the Islamic Jihad movement in the Gaza Strip. Mr. al-Arian says both men were invited because they were influential in Middle East affairs and that he never heard either give speeches advocating violence.
Ethnic groups in the U.S. have long supported and raised money for militant causes abroad, including Jews who supported the Irgun and Stern Gang during Israel's fight for independence and American Irish Catholics who backed the Irish Republican Army.
Nonetheless, by 1995, Mr. al-Arian's activities were drawing the scrutiny of a PBS documentary and local papers, prompting his university to suspend its relationship with his think tank. Then in October 1995, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a Palestinian scholar specializing in economics, whom Mr. al-Arian had brought to his think tank, left Tampa abruptly, saying he wanted to be in Jordan to be with his father who was dying of cancer. A few months later, following the assassination of the head of Islamic Jihad, Mr. Shallah reappeared in Damascus as the new leader of the terrorist group.
"It was a complete shock," says Mr. al-Arian, who says he saw no evidence that Mr. Shallah was working for Islamic Jihad while he was teaching in Tampa.
Soon after, the FBI and other federal agents raided Mr. al-Arian's offices. Mazen al-Najjar, Mr. al-Arian's deputy and brother-in-law, was arrested for overstaying his student visa. Applying provisions included in the federal antiterrorism act passed after the World Trade Center bombing, the Immigration and Naturalization Service asked a judge to deny Mr. al-Najjar bail based on secret evidence -- never shown to Mr. al-Najjar -- that he was a risk to national security. Mr. al-Arian's think tank and other activities, the INS charged, were "fronts for the purpose of fund-raising activities for the Islamic Jihad and the Hamas terrorist organizations." The university put Mr. al-Arian on administrative leave with pay.
In 1998 the university reinstated him. "He has never been charged with a crime," says a university spokesman. "We don't have any reason, unless someone gives us a reason, to believe that he has committed any crimes. It's speculation."
Mr. al-Najjar was in prison for three-and-a-half years until he was released last December, after a federal judge and then attorney general Janet Reno concluded that the secret evidence wasn't sufficient to keep him imprisoned. Mr. al-Arian says he began speaking at mosques, telling other Muslims, "We can fight [the government] and win." (The INS is still pursuing Mr. al-Najjar for overstaying his student visa.)
In June, the Secret Service ordered Mr. al-Arian's son, Abdullah, a summer congressional intern, out of the White House when he accompanied a group of Muslim leaders to meet President Bush -- presumably because of his father's activities. The Muslim leaders walked out and President Bush subsequently apologized through his press secretary, saying the Secret Service had made an error.
Mr. al-Arian says he was "horrified, saddened and angered" by the Sept. 11 attacks. "I hope those who are behind them are caught and brought to justice," he says. But last Friday, he was suspended with pay -- again, and for an undisclosed time. The university says it didn't move against Mr. al-Arian because of his views but because after his appearance on the "The O'Reilly Factor," critics "bombarded" the campus with angry phone calls and e-mails. A death threat prompted the closing Thursday afternoon of the computer-science department where Mr. al-Arian teaches.Mr. al-Arian says he plans to keep speaking out and organizing. "We believe in the system," he says. "We work within the system. We are not going to be deterred."