Why did so many American professors blindly lend their support over the years to Sami Al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor indicted last week by a federal grand jury for heading up the terrorist operations of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in America? More pointedly, why did they fail to condemn the deplorable actions attributed to him?
While the charges piled up in recent years, Georgetown's John Esposito stressed Al-Arian's "professional competence and stellar teaching record."Anthony Sullivan of the University of Michigan declared that Al-Arian "is a quintessential political moderate." Louis Cantori, professor of political science at the University of Baltimore, insisted that Al-Arian is not "a political radical…Period."
Last week's novel-length grand jury indictment, meanwhile, charges that Al-Arian utilized "the structure, facilities and academic environment of USF to conceal the activities of the PIJ." These activities included recruitment, fundraising, extortion, racketeering, obstruction, and immigration fraud, among others.
Nearly a decade of wiretapping and other surveillance inextricably links Al-Arian to the upper crust of PIJ in Damascus. It also points to his manipulation of "all moneys and property of the PIJ throughout the world." The indictment even states that Al-Arian sent a fax to "Saudi Arabia, and inquired about obtaining pelletized urea fertilizer [a chemical compound used in explosives] in fifty kilogram bags suitable for ocean transportation."
To be fair, the professors could not have known such details at the time. But Al-Arian's dealings have been questionable for nearly a decade. In 1994, a documentary entitled "Jihad in America" by journalist Steven Emerson reported Al-Arian's ties to terror through the founding of a PIJ front group, the Islamic Committee for Palestine. Subsequently, reports surfaced that Al-Arian worked with Hassan al-Turabi (a Sudanese radical ideologue), Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (the
"blind sheikh" behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), Ramadan Abdullah Shallah (who went directly from USF to become secretary of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad), and others. Why did the professors not unite against this?
When USF finally moved to suspend Al-Arian (after he made controversial terror-related statements without noting they were not the views of USF), a number of prominent professors rallied blindly behind him, submitting letters of protest to the USF president. It should be noted that these professors were defending Al-Arian's tenure and his right to unpopular speech. This was their right. None, however, denounced the actual terror ties attributed to their colleague.
Most of them only focused on clearing his name. Indeed, they seemed to believe that their personal affinity for the man would exonerate him. Sullivan stated that he had "enormous respect" for the USF professor, "both as a scholar and as a human being." Esposito proclaimed that Al-Arian was "a consummate professional."
Still others harped on their belief that Al-Arian's suspension was the result of a Muslim-bashing smear campaign. John Voll at Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding condemned USF for "caving in to public pressure at the expense of academic integrity," citing "McCarthyite popular pressures for his dismissal."Peter Erlinder of William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota chimed in by saying that the entire affair "smacks of anti-communist witch hunts of the past."
Similarly, Professor Ali Mazrui of the State University of New York at Binghamton claimed that al-Arian was just a "victim of prejudice and of popular ill will." Esposito expressed concern that Al-Arian not be a "victim of… anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry." Charles Butterworth, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland, characterized Al-Arian as a victim of "tyranny of the majority."
Professorial associations also entered the fray. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) became "vocal in its support of Al-Arian as a matter of union rights and academic freedom."The group sent a committee to USF to interview administrators and faculty, to uncover any wrongdoing when the school suspended al-Arian, leaving open the possibility of censuring USF when AAUP convenes in early June 2003. A censure, according to one journalist, is "a drastic step that would make it harder for the university to hire and retain quality faculty."
Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in North America, notes that the "most embarrassing endorsement" of Al-Arian likely came from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). The association's board wrote a letter to USF last year:
dismissing accusations of Al-Arian's terrorist involvement as "old and never-proven." MESA announced that "the Al-Arian case is about academic freedom. It is also about the basic first amendment right to freedom of speech."
Today, however, it is clear that this case is about more than free speech. It is about terrorism and a number of other criminal charges.
What do these professors say now? We have yet to hear. In the meantime, it is clear that they have discredited themselves with this monumental lack of judgment. Whether Al-Arian is found guilty or not, it's time these professors come out and condemn the actions cited in the indictment. Supporting free speech is one thing. Turning a blind eye to terrorism is quite another.