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Talking Out of School
Was an Islamic Professor Exercising His Freedom or Promoting Terror?

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 28, 2002; Page F01

TAMPA

The supposed terrorist pauses over cheesecake in a French restaurant, politely denying the latest allegations about his alliance with Osama bin Laden.

"It's so absurd," Sami Al-Arian says, shaking his head. "It's just beyond imagination."

He speaks in rapid, colloquial English with a Middle Eastern accent. His beard is neatly trimmed. He wears stylish glasses. He looks harmless: a bald, middle-aged academic.

Born in Kuwait, a Palestinian by heritage, Al-Arian has lived in America for 27 years. A computer scientist, married with five children, he earns $66,000 a year as a tenured professor at the University of South Florida.

He is not a U.S. citizen, but wishes he were. He says he loves democracy, especially the Constitution, because in no other country -- surely not in an Arab land -- would he still be walking the streets, given the government's keen interest in his activities.

"If I were in Iraq, I would have been shot a long time ago," he notes with a wry smile.

Seven years ago, the FBI raided the professor's home and office here, seeking evidence that he raised money as a frontman for terrorist groups -- specifically, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas -- that unleashed suicide bombers against Israelis. A federal grand jury brought no charges, but the FBI never closed its investigation.

After Sept. 11, a furor erupted when the accusations were re-aired on a Fox network talk show. Al-Arian was barred from campus and suspended.

Gov. Jeb Bush (R) says the state school should fire him. It's become the most prominent academic-freedom case since the late 1960s, when California Gov. Ronald Reagan sacked philosophy professor Angela Davis from UCLA, calling her a communist.

Al-Arian, 44, places a stack of photocopied pages on the table, squinting to read the looping Arabic script. This, he says, is what the FBI deemed "terrorist writings." It's a heartsick poem he poured into his diary as a teenager in 1973, a paean to Palestine:

We are the youth. We are the ones who will liberate you. We are the ones who will resist. Although the world calls us terrorists, we are your sands, we are your mosques, we are your olive trees, we are your orange groves, we are part of you. We are your hope.

Touching and lyrical stuff, to be sure. But that's not the writing his detractors -- among them university officials, federal agents and Jewish groups -- focus on. They point to Al-Arian pronouncements such as this one:

"We assemble today to stand up and pay our respects to the march of the martyrs . . . and to the river of blood that gushes forth and does not extinguish. From butchery to butchery and from martyrdom to martyrdom, from jihad to jihad . . . this is the sweetness of Islam, and the taste of faith."

Here's a video of the professor clad in the flowing robes of an imam, stabbing a finger angrily toward his audience, shouting in Arabic:

"Let us damn America, let us damn Israel. Let us damn their allies until death."

"The Koran is our constitution," he declares in another videotaped speech. "Victory to Islam, death to Israel. Revolution! Revolution! Until victory!"

Those are excerpts, compiled after the FBI raids, from Al-Arian's addresses to Islamic conferences in American cities during the early 1990s. The professor doesn't dispute the substance of the quotes -- which reflect his support for the first Palestinian intifada -- but he distances himself from the man on the tapes. Today he calls himself a proponent of peace in the Holy Land, a moderate Muslim who abhors attacks on civilians.

Many believe him and many don't. It's the uncertainty about Sami Al-Arian that seems to bother people most. Doubts are difficult to tolerate in an era of insecurity.

Factoring In O'Reilly

On Sept. 26, the professor was in his office in the engineering building, preparing the next week's lecture, when a producer for Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" called to invite him onto that evening's show. Al-Arian doesn't get Fox News Channel on his cable system -- he watches Al-Jazeera, the Arab news network -- so he didn't know much about host Bill O'Reilly's confrontational approach.

Believing the segment would focus on his mosque's condemnation of the terrorist attacks and its community outreach, he agreed to go to a local studio to sit for an interview.

"It was stupid," Al-Arian now realizes. "I should have known better."

O'Reilly immediately started grilling his guest about allegations raised during the FBI raids of 1995 -- mentioning his association with "suspected terrorists" and the "circumstantial evidence" linking him to the Islamic Jihad.

O'Reilly asked about Al-Arian's decade-old statement, "Death to Israel."

"Let me just put it in context," the professor said. That meant "death to occupation" and "death to oppression," he said, but not death to individual Jews.

O'Reilly also worked in a tenuous link to bin Laden. He cited Al-Arian's acquaintance, from a decade ago, with a graduate student who later became a freelance journalist -- and then, as an ABC News consultant, helped the network set up an interview with the terrorist mastermind.

"If I were the CIA, I'd follow you wherever you went," the host declared as the five-minute segment wound down. "I'd follow you 24 hours . . ."

"Well, you don't know me," Al-Arian said, stunned. "You don't know me. You do not . . ."

"That doesn't matter," O'Reilly said.

Less Ivy Than Kudzu

The University of South Florida, enrollment 31,000, is a collection of squat buildings, many of 1960s vintage, set back from a busy highway lined with billboards, fast-food eateries and shopping plazas. Once dubbed "Useless F" by high school seniors who didn't consider it their top in-state choice, USF has long fought for academic respect.

Now another nickname has come blazing back: "Jihad U." It was coined in the mid-'90s, when Al-Arian was first placed on leave in an uproar over his connections to Palestinian militants.

In last September's fear-forged atmosphere, the O'Reilly segment was like a match to a fuse. A tenured terrorist on the payroll? Fire him, demanded callers and e-mailers. A half-dozen death threats against Al-Arian flamed onto the campus.

One floor of the engineering building was evacuated after a caller said he was coming to kill Al-Arian. He phoned back 20 minutes later, apologized, and said he didn't really mean it (though university officials didn't make the retraction public until weeks later).

Al-Arian was ordered off campus for his safety and to protect others, the university said.

He volunteered to continue teaching by e-mail, video-conference and the Internet, but was turned down. The administration hired lawyers to research how to fire him.

On Dec. 19, in a hastily called "emergency session" when most of the faculty and students were already on Christmas break, the university's board of trustees voted 12-1 to get rid of Al-Arian. University officials said it had nothing to do with freedom of speech or thought.

"Your off-campus conduct has caused disruption to the university," said the notice of intent to terminate. Gov. Bush agreed, issuing a statement the next day: "The taxpayers have no obligation to continue paying a teacher whose own actions have made it impossible for him to teach."

Hold on, said Al-Arian and his defenders. Wasn't it O'Reilly's irate viewers who caused the "disruption" and death threats?

"You don't sack a tenured professor for saying stuff you don't like," declared one of Al-Arian's newfound supporters in the national media. His name? Bill O'Reilly.

On a follow-up show, he called on USF President Judy Genshaft to resign. "She's a coward," he declared.

The 60-member faculty senate overwhelmingly opposed the action against Al-Arian; some said he was railroaded. But Genshaft told the group, "I, as president, will not wait for someone to be harmed or killed to take action."

E-mails and calls began pouring in again. This time civil libertarians and professors nationwide blasted the university for succumbing to post-9/11 hysteria. The American Association of University Professors commenced an investigation ("a highly unusual step" prior to a professor's actual dismissal, it said) and dispatched a team of three fact-finders to the campus.

The investigating committee deemed the charges against Al-Arian "insubstantial" and cited "grave issues of academic freedom and due process" -- raising the prospect that the university would face a censure vote by the 45,000 members of the association, which has investigated tenure and academic freedom cases since 1915.

Though professors elsewhere stirred controversy with comments about Sept. 11, only Al-Arian faced the ax, says Jordan Kurland, a longtime association official. "I'd have to go back to the Angela Davis case for one that has received this much attention."

The university says it has every right to remove a troublemaker. "The Constitution guarantees Dr. Al-Arian the right to speak," its attorney, Thomas Gonzalez, wrote in a legal opinion. "It does not insulate him from the consequences of his speech."

Predictably, the dispute has taken on the emotional shrillness of the Mideast conflict itself, with both sides setting their volume at full spew.

Nearly 15,000 people have signed petitions against him. Meanwhile, Al-Arian's supporters are boycotting the Tampa Tribune for its coverage of the case; 80 of them marched outside the newspaper's offices this month, their placards alleging bias against Muslims: "We want journalists, not propagandists."

"Defendant is the highest-ranking terrorist leader within the United States of America not yet imprisoned," declares a civil racketeering lawsuit filed against Al-Arian this month by John Loftus, a former Justice Department Nazi hunter who lives in nearby St. Petersburg. Loftus describes Al-Arian as a "de facto" member of al Qaeda's "world advisory council."

Baloney, says Al-Arian: "They just want to create and fabricate and reinvent these accusations, a little cut here, a little cut there . . . and they kill you that way."

Who's "they"? Israeli intelligence and media operatives, he says. The Jews.

"This is all because of the statement 'Death to Israel.' They will not let it go. You have to be punished."

There's another speech in Arabic that the professor's foes are fond of translating and circulating.

"Dear brothers and sisters," he told a 1991 rally in Chicago, "did we forget the Jews and the sons of Jews? God warns us in the Koran from the sons of Israel, and cursed them in the holy Koran.

"He cursed those who are the sons of Israel through David and Jesus, the son of Mary, because they disobeyed and assailed, and they were not held back by any prohibition they committed. Those people God made monkeys and pigs. They kicked you out of your homes."

Under oath at an immigration hearing two years ago, Al-Arian was asked if he once called Jews the sons of monkeys and pigs.

"No, I didn't," he said, angrily.

He was quoting what the Koran said, in Chapter 5, Verse 60.

No Place Like Home

Perhaps 1948 is an apt starting point for a narrative so riven with conflict. It's the year Israel gained its independence, when Amin Al-Arian -- Sami's father -- fought the Zionists and lost. Growing up, Sami heard how his grandfather, father and uncle abandoned the family soap factory in Jaffa.

Amin Al-Arian landed in the teeming camps of Gaza, working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to help other Palestinian refugees. He relocated first to Kuwait -- where Sami was born in 1957 -- and then to Cairo.

He managed to improve his lot along the way, eventually owning a small clothing store. Sami recalls that the family had a new car (a '66 Plymouth) and a television (a Zenith). But stateless Palestinians could not become citizens.

"When I woke up in this world I felt that I was always homeless," wrote Al-Arian as a teenage poet. "I have no security. I have no peace. . . . Was I created to always be a scapegoat for the Arabs, so that they can defend themselves by sacrificing me?"

Sami's parents wanted him to pursue a scientific profession -- engineering or medicine -- to secure his future. But the boy had a persistent idealistic and literary streak. One day in Cairo, Al-Arian and his best friend, another bookish Palestinian named Mazen Al-Najjar, boarded a tram with a new purchase: an elegant set of Sigmund Freud's works, translated into Arabic. The conductor tossed them off -- they had no money left for tickets.

Though drawn to Koranic studies, Al-Arian also enjoyed American TV shows, which were popular in Egypt during the liberalization period of the early 1970s. They helped him learn English. He recalls classic cop series -- "Kojak," "Starsky and Hutch," "Baretta" -- but those weren't his favorite.

"I remember one that I particularly loved," he says, 30 years later. "It was the one I would never miss."

It was about a man hounded and pursued endlessly for a crime he swore he did not commit. Al-Arian's entire face seems to arc into a grin: "The Fugitive."

Coming to America

Amin Al-Arian staked his life's savings -- $22,000 -- to send his eldest son to school in America, to become a successful engineer. It paid off. Sami Al-Arian earned a Ph.D. and by 1986 secured his teaching position in Tampa, whose palmy waterfronts reminded him of Alexandria, Egypt.

He married Nahla Al-Najjar, the lovely, dimple-chinned younger sister of his best friend, Mazen. Nahla would eventually become a U.S. citizen, as would their five children. At least 30 of the couple's Palestinian relatives immigrated to America and became citizens. Sami Al-Arian got his green card, allowing permanent residency, and passed his citizenship test, but his application has been stalled since 1997.

A decade ago, on a dead-end street on the flatlands north of Tampa, Al-Arian established a religious academy and a mosque. He hosted a local cable-access show called "Peace Be Upon You."

With Mazen Al-Najjar, his brother-in-law, Al-Arian set up two organizations that they described as charitable and educational: The Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP) raised money for orphans, and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) sponsored scholarship.

They published an Arabic journal on Middle Eastern affairs, conveying Western views in articles titled "Muslims and the Democratic Choice" and "Do Muslims Have a Problem With Modernism?" They held conferences featuring Islamic speakers -- including some with radical connections and terrorist agendas.

One was Omar Abdul Rahman, the so-called "blind sheik," later convicted in a 1993 plot to bomb New York City tunnels and the United Nations. Another was Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, who held a teaching position at the University of South Florida from 1992 to 1994. Invited to Tampa by Al-Arian, Shallah became a key figure in WISE. He left in 1995 to become head of the Syria-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Around this time, the media began to take notice. In his PBS documentary "Jihad in America," investigative journalist Steven Emerson described Tampa as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. He identified Al-Arian as the primary U.S.-based backer of the Islamic Jihad. (In a later speech, Emerson called USF "Jihad University.")

Following Emerson's lead, the Tampa Tribune launched a 1995 series headlined "Ties to Terrorists." The FBI moved in, seizing hundreds of documents and videos connected to ICP and WISE. The feds followed money trails and tapped phones.

They turned up a letter dated Feb. 1, 1995, written in Arabic by Al-Arian to a Kuwaiti friend soon after a pair of Islamic Jihad suicide bombers killed 19 Israeli soldiers. It sought financial help for a holy war against Israeli occupation:

"The latest operation, carried out by the two mujahidin, who were martyred for the sake of God, is the best evidence of what the believing few can do in the face of Arab and Islamic collapse before the Zionist enemy," Al-Arian wrote, according to an FBI translation. ". . . I call upon you to try to extend true support to the jihad effort so that operations such as these can continue."

Al-Arian says he does not recall mailing the letter, but defends the message. In a war of national liberation, he says, attacks on military targets are justifiable. But at that time, Islamic Jihad took responsibility for killing not just soldiers, but also unarmed settlers. Its goal was to undermine the Oslo peace process.

The letter also can be read as supporting "the brothers in Hamas," a group that took responsibility for killing 22 civilians in a Tel Aviv bus bombing in 1994.

"You should never target civilians," Al-Arian maintains today. "Morally it's wrong. Religiously and ethically it's wrong. There is absolutely no excuse and no justification."

Al-Arian shut down his organizations. He says neither funded terrorists: "We never sent a penny to any of these groups, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas or whatever."

He was placed on leave, with pay, for two years. The feds kept investigating. (As recently as March, U.S. Customs agents put Al-Arian's name -- along with bin Laden's -- on a search warrant used to seize records at the Northern Virginia offices of several Islamic companies and charities.)

The university reinstated him in 1998. There was "no compelling reason to keep him out of the classroom," a USF spokesman said at the time.

It decided he was innocent until proven guilty.

Into the System

The case of Mazen Al-Najjar, the professor's brother-in-law, went in the other direction. He also was implicated in the "Jihad U." scandals. He was deemed guilty . . . of something.

In 1997, INS agents detained Al-Najjar without charges, describing him as a threat to national security. He was locked up without bond.

Al-Najjar overstayed his student visa for several years. In hearings, the INS showed an immigration judge classified evidence that was never disclosed to Al-Najjar or his lawyers.

It's likely that some of the secret material was connected to his work with WISE and ICP. The feds, after all, had scoured those groups's records, looking for links to Palestinian terrorists.

Sami Al-Arian threw himself into a one-man lobbying campaign to free his brother-in-law. He flew to Washington, knocked on doors on Capitol Hill and forged ties with leaders in both political parties. His goal: a legislative ban on the use of secret evidence.

Al-Arian said it wasn't about one man's rights, but everyone's; the Constitution itself. But it was personal too.

Remember, Sami and Mazen had been tight since high school. They shared a Palestinian heritage. They shared political views. Both were engineers. Both served as clerics in the Tampa mosque. Both wore trimmed black beards. One big difference: Mazen still had a thick mat of dark hair. Sami started going bald many years earlier.

When he was detained, Al-Najjar was among perhaps 20 Arab immigrants being held on classified evidence nationwide. During the 2000 presidential race, Al-Arian contacted both campaigns, pushing the issue as a major concern for Arab American voters.

In the debates, George W. Bush signaled his opposition to secret evidence. He noted that "racial profiling" didn't just happen when African Americans were pulled over or otherwise harassed.

"Arab Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence," Bush said. He called it a form of disrespect that had to stop.

By December 2000, rulings in the case of Mazen Al-Najjar -- still locked up, three years later -- started going against the government. A federal judge found his detention unconstitutional and an immigration judge saw no "bona fide reasons" to consider him a threat to national security.

Finally, as the year ended, Attorney General Janet Reno herself reviewed the classified evidence against Al-Najjar. She set him free. He was 43. He'd spent 1,307 days in federal detention. When he came out, Al-Najjar's once-dark hair was almost completely white. He embraced his weeping sister, Nahla, and his old friend, Sami, who called it one of the happiest days of his life. A waiting crowd of supporters called out: "Allahu akbar!" God is great!

"I hope this is the end of the nightmare," Al-Najjar said.

A White House Welcome

On June 20, 2001, dressed in one of his best blue suits, Sami Al-Arian strolled through security checkpoints at the White House. This was his fourth visit; his first to a Republican administration. He'd never encountered trouble before and didn't expect any. He was part of a delegation of Muslims invited for a briefing by Karl Rove, a senior White House adviser.

A year before, Al-Arian and his family met George W. Bush on the campaign trail in Florida. They liked him. They posed for pictures with the candidate. Bush, ever genial, came up with a nickname for Abdullah Al-Arian, Sami's lanky, low-key son. "Big Dude," he called him.

In Florida mosques and elsewhere, Sami and his wife, Nahla, campaigned for Bush as the candidate most likely to end discrimination against Arab Americans. Sami Al-Arian says he delivered "considerably more votes" than the 537 that ultimately won Bush Florida and the White House. So, at the White House briefing, the professor had earned a spot in the front row. He recalls hearing the staff express its support for Muslims. He recalls smiling and thinking that, soon, Arab immigrants would no longer face the stain of accusations made in secret.

Eight days later, another Muslim delegation arrived on the White House grounds to discuss the president's "faith-based initiative." This time, the Big Dude was among them -- Abdullah Al-Arian, a political science major at Duke University, interning in the office of Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), the House minority whip. Abdullah's assignments included the legislation to ban secret evidence in terrorism cases.

Previously cleared and issued a security tag, Abdullah filed past the guards. But 20 minutes into the meeting, a uniformed Secret Service agent told Abdullah he had to leave.

"I'm under orders to have you escorted out," he said.

"Why? What's going on?" the intern asked.

"I can't tell you why," Abdullah recalls the agent saying.

After word spread, the two-dozen other Muslims in the delegation walked out in protest.

Bush quickly apologized. But Abdullah and his father were convinced that somebody on the White House staff flagged the Al-Arian name -- linking it to terrorism. A Secret Service official blamed "an error in processing visitors," but offered no details.

In August 2001, Abdullah's mother, Nahla, received a letter from the president. He reiterated his regrets. He also said he sincerely appreciated the charity work being done by the Muslim community.

He thanked Nahla Al-Arian for her support.

Change of Name

With no classes to teach on Tuesday, Sept. 11, Al-Arian drove instead to the Islamic Academy of Florida, where he serves as the non-paid principal.

The 14-acre campus includes several portable classrooms and a small mosque. The academy enrolls 271 students. The boys dress in dark slacks and white shirts, the girls in traditional coverings known as hijabs.

Soon after the terror attacks, the media started phoning the school for a statement. "Whoever did this is not a Muslim," Al-Arian said.

The academy closed for three days. Yielding to parents' concerns for their children's safety, the staff peeled seven vinyl black letters off each school bus: "I-S-L-A-M-I-C."

Terrorist Ties

Though he holds a Ph.D. in engineering, once worked as an professor at USF, has lived in America for 20 years and has never been charged with a crime, Mazen Al-Najjar couldn't find a job -- not given his clouded immigration status and those lingering allegations of terrorist affiliations.

To help his brother-in-law, Al-Arian gave him a position teaching Arabic at the academy. He also put him in charge of the maintenance committee and gave him an office, lined impressively with texts in Arabic and English. Mazen always loved to be surrounded by books.

Last fall he seemed to be readjusting to freedom, though his sister and other family members considered him psychologically fragile -- jittery, fearful of what might happen next.

On a Saturday morning, Nov. 24, Al-Najjar left his apartment to get quarters to do the laundry. His wife, a pharmacist named Fedaa, was at work. Their three daughters were asleep.

A dozen federal agents were waiting. They had a court order for his deportation. He ran and the agents wrestled him to the ground. He wanted to tell his girls -- 6, 11 and 13 -- goodbye.

The INS called Sami and Nahla Al-Arian, who later found the girls crying and frantic with worry. Fedaa Al-Najjar phoned and one of them broke the news to her: "Mama, Dad was taken again."

Al-Najjar was shipped to a maximum-security federal prison 70 miles from Tampa and put in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. In Washington, officials issued a statement saying, "This case underscores the Justice Department's commitment to address terrorism by using all legal authorities available."

The government cited Al-Najjar's "ties to terrorist organizations," and his "leadership positions" in front groups (WISE and ICP) that raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The statement implied he was somehow still active in the Islamic Jihad, which perpetrated "at least two deadly attacks on Israeli citizens" that month. It did not mention that ICP and WISE had been shut down since 1995.

"Government officials know that I have no 'terrorist connections' of any kind but it is hard for them to retreat from previous assertions after seven years," Al-Najjar writes in a letter to The Post from his cell. "It's a matter, probably, of pride!

" . . . I'm sure that I've never caused any pain or suffering for any human being or animal or anything in my life," he continues. "I do not know why shall I endure such pains, or why shall my family endure this painful experience for the second time."

The prisoner says he has no place to go. He has no travel documents. And as a stateless Palestinian tied to terrorism, his lawyers say, no nation will accept him.

Al-Najjar says he has reached this conclusion: "Life is not fair."

Net Support

A few weeks ago, Al-Arian's supporters set up a Web site, www.academicfreespeech.com. It features a dapper photo of the professor speaking in front of an American flag while cautionary quotes scroll above him -- remarks from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Nazi-era pastor Martin Niemoeller: "They came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew . . ."

No highlighted quotes about monkeys and pigs, of course. No link to that 1991 video of Al-Arian, in his skullcap and robes, standing before an American flag tacked on the wall of an Islamic center in Cleveland, shouting, "Damn America!"

But you will find plenty of favorable articles and letters of support, aimed at convincing USF President Genshaft to allow Al-Arian back in the classroom when school resumes in August.

"Your action is both a blow to academic freedom and, dare I say it, a cowardly act," says one typical letter to Genshaft. "There is no connection between anything Al-Arian is or was connected to that has any bearing whatsoever on the events of 9/11."

The writer signed off "Regretfully, Vincent M. Cannistraro" -- a name that carries atypical weight. Cannistraro is a former chief of CIA counterterrorism operations and analysis who last worked in the Middle East in 1990.

"You just don't fire people from their jobs on the basis of hysteria, and that's all it is: hysteria," Cannistraro says in an interview. "It's just wrong."

The former CIA man, citing his own sources, believes the professor was never involved in organizing terrorist attacks. "Sometimes emotion carries him away," he says of Al-Arian. "But I make a distinction between political activities and emotional outbursts and terrorists doing work here in United States, carrying out operations. He was not an operational guy."

The Islamic Jihad has never struck in America. And the feds never indicted Al-Arian because, Cannistraro says flatly, "They don't have anything."

Al-Arian did break the law a few years ago: He voted in a local election, thinking he would soon obtain citizenship. The state declined to bring charges.

The Price of Freedom

"What is citizenship, exactly?" Al-Arian asks, nestled on a large couch in his office at the Islamic academy. Elaborately carved and lacquered, the settee is a functional piece of Middle Eastern art. He leans forward insistently.

"I mean, how many people have done what I've done here? I'm talking about people who have been here for generations -- willing to go at their personal cost and lobby Congress for rights that will basically uphold the rights of everyone? How many people have done that?"

The professor says he also has instructed his children to serve the cause of freedom, to fully employ their civil rights. Abdullah, who just graduated from Duke, is considering a career as a public-interest lawyer. The eldest Al-Arian daughter, Laila, a senior at Georgetown, wants to become a journalist. She's interning this summer with USA Today's editorial board.

Above him is a map that shows how 1.1 billion Muslims are dispersed around the globe. Once, says Al-Arian, a fellow Palestinian asked him, "What is the best feeling in the world?"

Having a permanent home, he answered. "The feeling that you're secure."

True, he is a man without a country. But compared to so many other Arabs, "I'm living here basically in a kingdom," he says.

He sips a Diet Pepsi. "I like it here," he says, meaning America. "I cannot wish to be anywhere else."

He sinks back into the gold-brocade cushions, satisfied.

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