Column: Freedom of speech still important

It wasn’t quite yet 9:30 on the morning of that dreadful Tuesday when someone approached me as I was speaking to a few students at a local Islamic school. He said: “Did you hear about what happened in New York?” As we rushed to the nearest TV, our hearts sank as we saw horrifying scenes of planes crashing into buildings and people running for safety. Everyone in the room became suddenly speechless.

Soon, our shock turned to sadness, then to anger. Some were sobbing. It was an agonizing and solemn moment. Shortly the media had descended on our Islamic center, and before we realized it, we became part of the news. We expressed our deep sorrow and grief. We condemned this criminal act and supported the president in his call for justice against the perpetrators as well as against their benefactors. We joined our fellow citizens in prayer services in many churches starting on the evening of that dark Tuesday.

By the following Sunday, our call to an ecumenical service in our mosque the previous day in a full page advertisement, brought over 400 people – more than half non-Muslims. The service was beautiful. All three Abrahamic faiths were represented. We were united in our grief as well as in our determination to overcome this tragedy. I explained in this almost three-hour service how Islam not only condemns this crime but also calls for justice. We said that whoever did this evil act couldn’t invoke religion or use religious texts to justify their twisted logic.

On Wednesday – the day after the tragedy – I donated blood. I felt patriotic, but more importantly, part of a national mobilization for doing goodness. A feeling I had never felt before during my 26 years in the U.S.

By Friday, more than 75 members of our mosque had also donated blood. In addition, over $10,000 was collected to the victims’ fund of the Red Cross. On Friday, I gave a sermon in the mosque, which expressed the Islamic teachings in the Qur’an and from the prophet’s life that totally rejected the logic of indiscriminate killing and hatred. “Whoever kills one innocent life is like he killed the whole humanity, and whoever saves one life is as though he saved the whole of humanity,” the Qur’an said. The perpetrators are guilty, and the victims are innocent, I implored. I further reiterated the Islamic teachings of cooperation, unity and tolerance for all faith communities. I called for swift justice regardless of who the perpetrators might be. Everyone in the congregation agreed.

On Saturday, my wife and I addressed a meeting in Orlando of about 200 Muslim students from around Florida’s universities and colleges. We expressed the same sentiments. Needless to say that in all our interviews with the media, we expressed our heartfelt grief, sadness and condemnation. When the mayor of Tampa called for a day of remembrance, titled “An American Anthem,” our community and school participated. Over one third of our schoolchildren attended. We sang the national anthem and joined in “God Bless America.” We felt truly American, celebrating our national sense of unity, purpose and triumph over our fears and over evil. We were celebrating our freedoms and joining our fellow citizens in expressing our pride in our free, democratic and diverse society.

While we were engaging in all of that, our community was suffering from the backlash of misguided people and some media outlets. A gun was fired at a mosque in the area. Several members were harassed with ugly words and acts. Women with their traditional Muslim scarves were especially easy targets for hate-filled comments and gestures.

Arab-looking people were taken off the plane. Others fired from their jobs. The non-stop talk shows on radio and TV just kept attacking the Islamic faith and religion where even some children were questioning their parents on why they are Muslims. We had to heighten security of our mosque and school to the tune of $20,000. We felt it was unfair that not only did the Arab and Muslim communities have to suffer because of the tragedy at the hands of the terrorists, but also they have to endure the hate, the distrust and the threats from their fellow citizens.

It must be said, on the other hand, that we received as a community, as well as personally, hundreds of heartfelt expressions of love, support and embrace. They represented the best of America. We made many new friends.

But the sense of inclusion would soon disappear.

On Wednesday, Sept. 26, almost two weeks after the tragedy, I was called by one of the producers of The O’Reilly Factor of Fox News Network. She asked me if I could be a guest on the show and primarily explain the World and Islam Studies Enterprise’s (WISE) relationship with the University of South Florida, what the purpose of WISE was, and the controversy that surrounded it six years ago. After much discussion, it was agreed that because of the limited time, the show would only address WISE’s relationship with USF. I also told her that although I was on the faculty of USF, I’d like to be introduced as chairman of the coalition that was established to defend civil rights and political freedom. Unfortunately, this was never mentioned, because clearly, the intent was to put pressure on the university.

Needless to say, the interview was anything but. The host turned it into a guilt by association exercise. You knew A, B, and C. A, B, and C are bad people, then you’re bad and must be marked. This was yellow journalism and McCarthyism at its worst. Not only did the producers lie about the purpose of the interview, but also most of what the host said was old news, inaccurate, irrelevant, bigoted and most importantly, lacked time frame and context. On their printed version they called the show “Professor or Terrorist?”

Three individuals were mentioned during this brief “interview.” The first was a 6-year-old situation that resulted in an extensive investigation by the government, as well as an investigation by USF conducted by former ABA president attorney William Reece Smith Jr. No wrongdoing was ever found. And certainly no charges were ever filed as a result of these investigations.

Mr. O’Reilly never mentioned the time frame of this situation, and that it had absolutely nothing to do with the current tragedy. He questioned whether people could have known what Mr. Shallah would do in the future.

According to Israeli intelligence and military expert Ze’ev Shciff, even Israeli officials and experts were themselves surprised when Mr. Shallah became the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad six months after leaving the U.S. in 1995.

The second individual mentioned by Mr. O’Reilly was Mr. Tarik Hamdi. Mr. Hamdi left Tampa in May 1992 to pursue his master’s degree in Hartford, Conn., on his way to become a journalist and writer. Mr. O’Reilly said that he was on a “terrorist watch list.” According to Mr. Hamdi, this is a fabricated lie. He is not on any list. In fact, he has received security clearance by the FBI, and he is helping the authorities in their investigation.

The third individual that was mentioned was Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, who is also my brother-in-law. His story is well known. He was never charged or implicated in anything. A judge ruled last October that there was absolutely no evidence that he did anything wrong, and that he was not a threat to national security. Judge R. Kevin McHugh said in his Oct. 27, 2000, ruling: “Although there were allegations that the ICP and WISE were ‘fronts’ for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the Court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the PIJ. 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.”So what was WISE’s mission? During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University published his thesis about the “Clash of Civilizations,” primarily between the World of Islam and the Western World. We did not believe in this thesis. We believe in civilizational dialogue. WISE was our humble response to the clash of civilizations thesis. We considered ourselves as a bridge between both worlds. We published 20 volumes (over 4,000 pages) in Arabic addressed to Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East. This journal was well respected and received. Over 100 prominent academics published in that journal. We also sponsored roundtable discussions and symposiums addressed to western academics by bringing Muslim thinkers to the U.S., such as Dr. Hasan Turabi of Sudan and professor Khurshid Ahmad from Pakistan. All proceedings of these roundtable discussions were subsequently published. All Western experts and scholars on Islam and the Middle East who interacted with WISE have praised its work and publications.

It was simply irresponsible journalism for some media outlets to exploit the current tragedy and deflect the blame and look for scapegoats so that they would increase their ratings or serve their hidden agenda.

Since the program aired on Fox News channel, I received many death threats as well as numerous hate-filled e-mails. This is terrorism perpetrated by journalists against innocent civilians and public institutions. Because of these threats against me and the university, USF administrators have put me on paid leave because of their concern about my and USF’s safety. I regret the decision. I mostly regret the fact that over 90 of my students will be affected by this decision. For the record, I’d like to state that although I understood the decision, I was not consulted. I was also disappointed that the administration did not forcefully defend academic freedom.

Since the Fox Network interview, I have been asked repeatedly to explain myself as well as some of the statements I made many years ago. Although I explained them so many times before, I’ll clarify one more time. The reference to the “death to Israel,” slogan in a speech given 13 years ago was in the context of a speech, given in Arabic, about the brutal occupation of the Palestinians by Israel. It simply meant death to occupation, to oppression, to the Israeli apartheid system against the Palestinians.

It certainly did not mean death to any human being or Jew. It reminded me of the early American revolutionary patriots such as Patrick Henry, Joseph Warren and poet John Trumbull among many others. They called for the burial of the British Empire and wished for the empire’s everlasting grave. I’m sure that these early American patriots did not mean to bury the citizens of the British Empire but to end the brutal British occupation of America. Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech during the American revolution is probably one of the most admired speeches of all times. His words describing the American sentiments against the British then prophetically tell of the Palestinians’ plight and their predicament today.As someone who has lived in the U.S. for over a quarter century, I value our freedom and openness. I believe that Islam is not only compatible with democracy, but it cannot be fully practiced without it. I believe in the American political system and in the Constitution. If I have a problem with a policy, I believe in working within the system to affect it. And this is what I have practiced and taught my children.

For over four years, my wife and I have visited over 150 congressional offices in order to ban the use of secret evidence. I believe that we were very effective in bringing to many congressmen and women as well as to many senators the due process concerns associated with the use of secret evidence. I believe that our hard work paid off when the president and many political leaders spoke against it.

Many people have pleaded with me to simply remain silent. This is exactly what my critics want. Some think that there are powerful groups who are out to get me. My answer is simple. I believe in freedom of speech now more than ever. I believe that people have the right to hear what some may consider “unpopular” views as much as I have the obligation to express them because I love the truth, and I love this country.

Certainly neither Jesus nor Paul was popular during their time. As for my security, I will be cautious, but only the One who gives life takes life.

  • Sami Al-Arian is a USF engineering professor.