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.”