It was the summer of 1976 when I took my first civics course, along with four other courses. I was 18 and determined to graduate in three years with an engineering degree. Class discussion on the first day centered on the Watergate scandal and the separation of powers. Having come from a region where authoritarian regimes and political repression thrive, I was fascinated with the American system of government. By the end of the week, the professor asked us to research what he called the “2 D’s”: dissent and due process, cornerstones of American democracy.
Looking in the Arabic-English dictionary, I could not find the word “due process.” So I looked up the two words separately. Put together, they did not make much sense to me. It was many discussions later that I grasped this novel idea of the American justice system. Little did I know that two decades later, I would be in the national spotlight in a heated debate concerning the two D’s.
By now, much of America has heard of my case. Pick up any newspaper, turn to any news channel or surf the Internet and you’re sure to learn of the tenured University of South Florida professor under the threat of being fired for controversy stemming from activism for the Palestinian cause. Not only have many of these media reports frequently misrepresented the facts, but they are to a large extent responsible for my current predicament.
Moreover, in a number of ways my case is indicative of the status of civil liberties in post-9/11 America. In the wake of the attacks against our country, it is conceivable that public reaction to the misinformation about me would be frantic. It is distressing, however, that many in this country seized the moment of widespread fear to rehash accusations that a federal judge already had thrown out of court. Recent charges by USF are clearly politically motivated attacks on freedom of speech. All of these allegations have been rejected outright in a court of law.
In the case of my brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who was detained on the basis of secret evidence for nearly four years, immigration judge R. Kevin McHugh ultimately said the following concerning the organizations in question: “Although there were allegations that the ICP (Islamic Committee for Palestine) and WISE (World Islamic Studies Enterprise) were fronts for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded.”
This same ruling was upheld by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., and then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who all had access to the secret evidence. This did not stop irresponsible journalists from reaching their own conclusions. Throughout this ordeal, among other things, my views have been completely misrepresented.
I have never once in my life advocated the killing of innocent civilians. I abhor terrorism at all levels, against all people. I condemn all violence against civilians — regardless of the faith of the perpetrators — whether they are in pizza parlors, bus stations or refugee camps. It’s wrong not only politically, but, more important, on religious, moral and ethical grounds.
Following the Sept. 11 tragedy, I was one of the first Muslim leaders to condemn the attacks and call for justice for the victims. Within a few days, our mosque and the Islamic Community of Tampa Bay collected more than $10,000 for the victims’ fund in New York, and I led a blood drive during which 75 local Muslims participated. In addition, I presided over a three-hour ecumenical service where all Abrahamic faiths were represented. The Islamic teachings of cooperation, unity and tolerance for all faith communities became visible during this painful time.
Throughout much of my last 25 years, I’ve given hundreds of sermons and speeches, as well as participated in many debates and panel discussions. America’s promise for me was to give equal opportunity to all points of view, whether popular or unpopular. This is the meaning of the first “D,” the right to dissent. As a stateless Palestinian refugee, I appreciated the freedom and opportunity afforded to me to talk about the importance of ending the injustices done to the Palestinians.
As recent events have played out, however, I am very certain that I am being punished because of my speeches and political opinions of at least 10 years ago, none of which was ever brought into the classroom. If I had said “Death to God,” even on campus, I would not be fired. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, as recently as March of this year, has directly advocated violence and torture against the Palestinians without causing a stir. His job and his life were not threatened as a result of these words. Unpopular opinions, even offensive ones, are part of American intellectual life.
Certainly, in the heat of the moment, one may not use the best expressions, especially during impromptu presentations. I had such regrettable moments. However, on many occasions, some of my speeches were misquoted, mistranslated, or taken completely out of context. Here, I’m reminded of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote to his translator, Ibn Tibbon, in 1199. Ibn Tibbon was translating the work of his teacher from Arabic to Hebrew and was seeking the author’s advice. This is part of what he said: “Let me premise one rule. Whoever wishes to translate and aims at rendering each word literally and at the same time adheres slavishly to the order of words and sentences in the original will meet with much difficulty and his rendering will be faulty and untrustworthy.”
Throughout this saga, I have made my positions on various issues clear to those who wish to know the truth. With regard to the Middle East conflict, I have repeatedly stated that Israel must choose two out of the following three points: maintaining its exclusively Jewish character, being a democratic state, and controlling all the territories. If it chooses the first two, then there would be a two-state solution, which the Oslo process attempted but failed to achieve with the persistence of the brutal occupation and constant expansion of illegal settlements. This option is called the 78-22 solution, a Jewish state on 78 percent of historical Palestine, and a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land, including the West Bank, Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem. However, if Israel insists on maintaining control of the territories and adhering to democratic ideals, this would mean the one-state solution, which I’ve always preferred — a bi-national, non-sectarian state. Palestinians would become full citizens and enjoy the same rights as Jews: one person, one vote as happened in South Africa. In addition, this would solve the right of return problem, as the one state would easily accommodate the return of refugees as well as Jews, the world over.
The third alternative, with which we are now faced, is an exclusively Jewish state that wishes to maintain illegal control of the territories against the will of its native population. As I’m sure all would agree, this situation has been untenable for some time, and will only grow worse unless one of the other two options is pursued.
Here at home, I have prided myself on being a champion for civil liberties and human rights. Over the years, I have constantly maintained the view that changes in government policy must be achieved from within the system. When Mazen was denied his right to a trial and illegally detained, our community formed coalitions, lobbied Congress, and met with editorial boards and administration officials to express our outrage at the use of secret evidence. By the end, we had made it a national issue, garnering more than 130 supporters on a bill in Congress to ban the use of secret evidence.
During the presidential race, the use of secret evidence became a national issue when then Gov. George Bush came out against this policy during the second debate, giving him the support of Arab and Muslim voters.
Sept. 11 should not be used in order to sacrifice this great tradition. In addition, the backlash against the Arab-American and Muslim communities in the United States in the aftermath of the horrible tragedy was wrong and must be condemned. Similarly, to exploit the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in order to silence me is also contrary to our values.
Since 9/11 — and indeed, long before — I have not said or done anything to justify the continuous onslaught against me. This fight for academic freedom, free speech and preservation of tenure is indeed a worthy struggle. I will continue the struggle and I appreciate the support I received from my family, friends and community, and the many professors, students, unions and countless others. We have no choice but to continue defending these rights. As Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.”
Sami Al-Arian is a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida who has been on forced paid leave for the past 11 months.