The First Draft of the Wrong Side of History

After hearing that Sami Al-Arian confessed to a dirty laundry list of terrorism related activities, I was eager to see how the liberal St. Petersburg Times would handle the story. Today they posted an editorial about "The Real Al-Arian," writing about all the horrible things he has done and lies he told. But is that an accurate account of the role the Times played in defending him? Maybe when you consider it is a newspaper that employs a former ACLU director as a columnist and has a Huffinton Post contributor for a reporter and an F.B.I. wiretap exposing a Times reporter acting as Al-Arian's media coach.

With the benefit of this hindsight, hindsight that the rest of us had little problem seeing in foresight, let's take a look at some past quotes. One has to wonder why a huge newspaper with vast resources couldn't see what the rest of us saw so easily.

Robyn Blumner: "...[USF President] Genshaft's stated intention to fire tenured computer science professor Sami Al-Arian due to the swirl of controversy over his activist Islamist views. Here Genshaft cannot deflect blame for besmirching the university's reputation. She made the call, and it's once again the wrong one for academic freedom and free speech... [Al-Arian] appeared on the television show The O'Reilly Factor, where a furor was whipped up after an old video was aired in which Al-Arian spouted the invective: 'death to Israel.' The appearance suggested that Al-Arian had ties to terrorists through an Islamic studies think tank he had run. (Al-Arian, while a controversial figure, has never been charged with any crime linking him to a terrorist organization, despite an intensive and years-long investigation by the FBI.) Immediately after the program aired, USF and Al-Arian were barraged by an outpouring of angry letters and e-mails, including death threats. Al-Arian's safety was potentially at risk. But rather than close ranks around him and promise him protection against the threatened violence, Genshaft banished him from campus - treating him as if he were the wrongdoer when her ire should have been directed at the thugs making the threats. Today, of course, the bogeyman of academe isn't socialists; it's Islamists like Al-Arian. But the ailment is the same - a hair-trigger intolerance for anyone who speaks up in sympathy with the point of view of America's perceived enemy. How sadly predictable it is that we learn nothing from history.

Barry Klein: Al-Arian said Friday that the [O'Reilly] interview was a "guilt-by- association exercise. Not only did the producers lie about the purpose of the interview, but most of what the host said was old news, inaccurate, irrelevant, bigoted and most importantly, lacked time frame and context," Al-Arian said.

Editorial: Al-Arian is correct when he argues that Arab and Palestinian points of view deserve equal standing in every university's Middle Eastern studies department. No ideas - even those of people preaching political violence - should be censored in an academic setting. Barring further revelations, Al-Arian, a respected teacher and scholar in his area of expertise, should be allowed to return to work once authorities determine that his presence on campus will not put him or other members of the USF community in danger. Meanwhile, talk show hosts and politicians should resist the urge to cause new problems for USF based on a mistake that was corrected six years ago.

Mary Jo Melone: O'Reilly cashed in on the fears that have gripped Americans since Sept. 11. He used our national anxiety to justify going after Sami Al- Arian like a dog chasing meat. Al-Arian has since been the target of death threats. He does not go out alone. He has been suspended from his teaching job at USF. This is what has been done to him. And this is why: He once helped a man, who turned out later to be a terrorist, to enter the U.S. Knowing somebody is not a crime, and there has been no suggestion that Shallah's organization was part of Osama bin Laden's murderous network. What has happened to Sami Al-Arian is an example of what has all too often occurred when Americans are gripped by panic about our security. We forget the best that we are. But in every case, the fears were exaggerated. Those targeted by the government were usually innocent.

[Shots at those who disagree]
Graham Brink
: University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft says her decision on whether to fire controversial professor Sami Al-Arian is one of the most important in the school's 46-year history. But the stakes may be just as high for her. Some academics think a decision to fire Al-Arian could cripple any ambitions she may harbor to run a more prestigious university. "At good universities, the faculty have power and those faculties would never agree to someone being hired who is widely believed to have caved in to political pressure," said Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union.

Kathryn Wexler: Friday's meeting was requested by the American Association of University Professors, an organization devoted to academic freedom. Depending on what they hear, the AAUP could decide to censure USF, a drastic step that would make it harder for the university to hire and retain quality faculty. Top faculty are often loath to join a school on the AAUP's censure list. The USF faculty union supports Al-Arian.