By Grace Agostin
September 09, 2002
Oracle/SEBASTIAN MEYER Ousted USF professor Sami Al-Arian tells the Islamic community about his experience with Sept. 11.
Before Sami Al-Arian learned that two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, Sept. 11 was supposed to be a day for representatives from the Muslim community to meet with President George W. Bush. It would have been a day that Muslim leaders could have made a difference for non-U.S. citizens, Al-Arian said.
At the Islamic Community of Tampa Bay Civics Center, Al-Arian told the Muslim community Sunday evening where he was when he learned about the terrorist attacks, and how it affected his life.
"Sept. 11 I was actually on this campus (the civics center). It was 8 o'clock in the morning, and I was extremely upbeat," Al-Arian said. "I was supposed to have an 11 o'clock conference call from a group in Washington D.C. that they were supposed to meet with President Bush."
The topic of discussion, Al-Arian said, was to ensure the benefits of the Immigration and Nationalization Act stood firm. Al-Arian said eight Muslim leaders were meeting with Bush to discuss a bill passed in 2001 that states no alien be denied a benefit under the act based on evidence that is kept secret from the alien.
"For the past four years I was fighting very hard for the outlaw of secret evidence," Al-Arian said. "At 3:30 the president would have announced the end of secret evidence."
Instead, the president had another issue to address that day. As people at the Islamic Center asked Al-Arian if he heard what happened he said he turned on the television to face the reality.
"I turned to one channel and we saw the horror," Al-Arian said. "Planes were slamming into buildings."
Al-Arian said his wife, Nahla, and brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar watched with him in fear. Al-Najjar, a former USF professor, was deported to Lebanon last month after awaiting a country that would accept him. Throughout the past five years, Al-Najjar was held in jail based on secret evidence that links him to Palestinian terrorists and visa infractions.
"I remember Mazen was next to me and my wife and she couldn't control herself," Al-Arian said. "And before we knew it, every single news media outlet was descending upon us."
Sept. 11 has affected all Americans, Al-Arian said, but it has "deep scars" for Muslim Americans.
"It has duel meanings," Al-Arian said. "Muslims have been defined as 'the other'."
Al-Arian, who is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation, said people need to come together during the anniversary of Sept. 11 in order to understand each other.
With the anniversary of Al-Arian's Sept. 26 appearance on The O'Reilly Factor just a couple weeks away, Al-Arian said that day will not have an affect on his life.
"I'll certainly remember it, but it's just another day," Al-Arian said. "I'm not going to celebrate it."
Two days after Al-Arian's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, which questioned his alleged ties to terrorism, USF President Judy Genshaft put him on administrative leave.
Sunday's event at the Islamic Center was held for the Muslim community to reflect on how Sept. 11 has changed them. It was the second event at the center in the past two weeks that has attracted the local media's attention.
Al-Arian said the events are not meant to gather the media.
"That's not why we are holding it," Al-Arian said. "This is more of an outreach to the Muslim community."
Genshaft has remained silent on Al-Arian's case since she passed on the decision of whether to fire him to a state judge.
A group of panelists hosted the event, telling the audience how they learned about the attacks and how they felt that day. USF student Layelle Saad said she was on campus that day and feared how students would treat her as a Muslim.
"I was shocked and fearful; of course I knew they we're going to blame it on Muslims," said Saad, who is a member of the Students for International Peace and Justice. "But the people at USF were very supportive, and I appreciate that."
Academic Freedom has become one of 5 campaign issues asked to the Democratic candidates for Governor. State Sen. Daryl Jones gave unequivocal support to the issue. He deserves our support.
The following are the answers of the 3 candidates as given to the Oracle.
Sen. Jones said he has not read in great detail about Sami Al-Arian, the USF computer science professor and his alleged links to terrorist organizations, but questions whether there is substantial evidence that would really connect him to terrorism.
"You don't impinge upon his academic freedom under any circumstances, unless he is in clear and present danger of some type," he said. "But unless those types of things are viable, then you've got to let him speak his mind. I believe in academic freedom."
Serving almost eight years as the United States attorney general, Reno has overseen many federal cases. One of those is Al-Arian's case. In Dec. 2000, Reno approved the release of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who had been jailed for three years on secret evidence.
"As an attorney general, I had access to the files, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment," she said.
McBride said he is familiar with the national story but has watched it from afar. He said he thinks President Judy Genshaft made the right decision to take the issue to court.
"It probably was smart to get somebody to look at (the situation) real hard because academic freedom is very important," McBride said.