In recent years, Sami Al-Arian has been a celebrity among Arab-Americans and American apologists for Islamism. Yes, Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida (USF), was suspected of close ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group specializing in suicide attacks against civilians in Israel. But the smooth-talking, professiorial family man countered that he was merely exercising his first amendment rights, and he covered himself in the banner of academic freedom. When USF sought his dismissal, the American Association of University Professors rallied to his cause. So did the United Faculty of Florida. All of them cast Arian as a pitiable victim of a smear campaign, and rained sympathy on him.
Well, the FBI arrested Al-Arian yesterday, charging him (and seven co-conspirators) with material support for a terrorist organization. Racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, perjury, obstruction, immigration fraud—it’s all there. The 50-count indictment makes riveting reading. That’s because it’s based on wiretaps of Al-Arian’s telephone and fax communications—the sort of material which, before 9/11, didn’t get into indictments. And those wiretaps show Al-Arian to have been involved up to his neck in Islamic Jihad’s finances, recruiting, and internal intrigues. The wiretaps, as summarized in the indictment one by one, offer a compelling portrait of a highly secretive conspirator, casually exploiting America’s protection to evade the law and fund terror. The actual transcripts will be even more damaging. Arian’s various defenders should be cringing in embarrassment, if they have even a shred of conscience.
Some of these boosters deserve particular scrutiny, because of their claim to clairvoyance in separating Islamist “moderates” from “extremists.” I refer to the Middle East “experts,” who purport to guide us through the labyrinth of Islamic movements, telling us who to fear and who to trust.
John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, has been Al-Arian’s most distinguished academic champion. Early last year, he wrote a letter to the president of USF, professing to be “stunned, astonished, and saddened” by moves to dismiss Al-Arian, whom he described as a “consummate professional.” The university had to resist the “pressures” of “biased, inflammatory” media. (Esposito specifically mentioned the journalist Steven Emerson, who was the first to establish Al-Arian’s links to Islamic Jihad.) USF’s actions would not only “reflect on the University’s reputation but also send a clear message to your students about what American democracy and academic freedom mean.” Last September, after another move to dismiss Al-Arian, Esposito cancelled a lecture appearance at USF, which he denounced as “a university that so clearly violates the academic freedom of one of its professors.” (Esposito has also employed Al-Arian’s daughter, a Georgetown undergraduate, as a research assistant.) It’s all confirmation of the obvious: Esposito never met a Muslim extremist he didn’t like.
Esposito has another, more remote connection to the case. He still sits on the board of a London institute run by his Hamas friend, Azzam Tamimi. Another board member, Basheer Nafi, was indicted yesterday along with Al-Arian. I urged Esposito to resign from this board back in September. How many more indictments will it take for Esposito to realize that he’s been running with funders and apologists for the worst suicide terrorism?
Other Middle East profs supported Al-Arian. The University of Maryland political scientist Louis Cantori complained to USF’s president that Al-Arian was being “pursued as a political radical. This he is not. Period.” Antony Sullivan, of the University of Michigan, wrote that Al-Arian “is a quintessential political moderate” and “a good man.” The list of these duped or duplicitous academics is long.
But the most embarrassing endorsement came from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Last year, its board wrote to the president of USF, 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.” Odd: Al-Arian, a computer engineer, has never been a member of MESA, nor has he ever taught a course in Middle Eastern studies. So the statement was just another instance of gratuitous politicization by MESA’s radical busybodies, who would rather dabble in politics than attend to the degraded state of their field.
Al-Arian’s case is no longer about free speech, it’s about overt acts. It’s no longer between professors and administrators, it’s between prosecutors and attorneys. Al-Arian will have his day in court. But whatever the outcome, there’s no doubt that he isn’t the “consummate professional” and the “quintessential political moderate” of the “expert” testimonials. Bottom line: the Middle East scholars have failed—again.