What are we to take away from the disappearance of Sami Al-Arian? I mean his disappearance– by deportation– from the struggle for civil rights in the USA. For more than 15 years, Al-Arian has been a symbol of resistance to intimidation from the daunting and deadly alliance of Israel and the US government to deny Palestinian aspirations, to quell support for Palestinian rights, to smother Arab American and Muslim American leadership, to strengthen anti-terror legislation and to erode the civil rights of all Americans.
Few men and women from our community have been able to sustain the kind of resistance the Al-Arians have waged for justice. Sami Al-Arian confronted a succession of obstacles that would have broken most of us. First was his support for Mazen Al-Najjar (Al-Arian’s brother-in-law) related to their Florida-based think tank, WISE (World and Islamic Studies Enterprise) when Al-Najjar was targeted by well-known pro-Israeli agents. (We’re return to Al-Najjar’s persecution later).
After charges against Al-Najjar were dropped, although continued harassment eventually ended in his deportation, the anti-Palestinian campaign turned to Al-Arian. First it targeted Al-Arian’s professorship with the University of South Florida. (He was dismissed in October 2001 but put up a vigorous fight and in the process drew wide attention to his unjust treatment.) Al-Arian pressed ahead with challenges to human rights abuses, especially government use of secret evidence, co-founding the National Association to Protect Political Freedom (NAPPF) and a Tampa Bay civil rights group. NAPPF’s main goal was to call the government’s use of secret evidence following the passage of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996.
Then came a charge of supporting terrorism against Al-Arian as a Palestinian rights advocate. His successful defense in that case and subsequent government denials of his freedom are reviewed in a recent Firstlook article.
Throughout his ordeal, Al-Arian stood firm, rallied a vigorous defense team, and emerged as a major Muslim and Arab civil rights leader in the US. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., he consistently asserted his faith in the US judicial system democracy. The price he paid was high. Years in prison included months in solitary confinement and constant government surveillance of his family. Even under house arrest after his 2006 plea deal, his freedom to write and speak was restricted.
Al-Arian and his family have shown immense energy and stamina during this period. Their dignity and clarity over the issues doubtless accounted for sustain legal and moral support over the years.
While at the outset of his dilemma, few Muslim and Arab Americans recognized Al-Arian’s leadership quality, in time many grew to recognize that this man tackled head-on the injustices and threats they themselves faced. If one of the aims of the government’s persecution of Al-Arian was to intimidate other leaders in our community, they succeeded. Where countless others gave up the challenge, “co-operated”, were jailed or were deported, Al-Arian pressed ahead, supported by national civil rights groups and a fine team of attorneys. The success in 1997 of the LA8, also persecuted for their Palestinian association, surely encouraged this them.
Like the LA8, Al-Najjar was an early target of Palestinian foes such as Steven Emerson who waged a tireless fraudulent campaign against him. In my 2000 interview with Al-Najjar from a Florida prison, this Palestinian intellectual summarizes his experience. Al-Arian and others included those represented by Lynne Stewart successfully fought the US government’s illegal use of secret evidence against Al-Najjar and several others, and Al-Najjar was among those released in December 2000.
After 9/11, everything changed. Secret evidence was again permitted, terror laws were reinforced with the Patriot Act, Al-Najjar was re-imprisoned and, although never charged with a crime, deported in 2002.
In Al-Arian’s statement on his deportation a few days ago, he no longer makes any reference to American principles of justice. But advocates here are turning their energy to a relatively new Palestinian target of the same forces that drove out the Al-Arians: Rasmea Odeh.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.