When former college professor—and alleged terrorist—Sami al-Arian was unexpectedly acquitted Tuesday on eight counts and received a hung jury on the other nine, many leading Muslims could barely contain their glee. “People are just jubilant,” Ahmed Bedier, the Tampa chapter director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told the New York Times. The not guilty verdicts were a “wonderful and a tremendous victory,” according to a statement released by Muslim-American Society (MAS) President Mahdi Bray.
While in many cases it might be reasonable to forgive a defendant acquitted by a jury of his peers, it is not with al-Arian. Regardless of whether or not the jury believed his actions constituted a specific legal violation by acting “in furtherance of” terrorist attacks, there is no mistaking what is in al-Arian’s heart.
As a result of the trial, al-Arian has been forced to admit that he did, in fact, have an intimate working relationship with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Why? Because he was caught on tape coordinating with them, again and again and again.
Al-Arian also admitted that he wrote a letter—which he allegedly attempted to send, but could not do so successfully—to a Kuwaiti legislator urging him to support the families of suicide bombers in order to provide “support of the jihad effort in Palestine so that [suicide] operations such as these can continue.” He wrote the letter just weeks after President Clinton had signed an executive order banning financial and material support of PIJ. Again, this is only known because the government introduced it as evidence during trial.
Support for al-Arian, though, has long pre-dated the six-month trial. Then again, so has the evidence against him.
Dating back to September 1995, the Tampa Tribune wrote dozens of articles investigating al-Arian’s affiliations with terrorist organizations and leading terrorists themselves. While the university severed its relationships with the think tanks founded by al-Arian, it did not attempt to fire him. That only happened after 9/11—in a much different political environment.
Throughout the 90’s, the body of evidence against al-Arian grew. An organization he founded, the Islamic Conference of Palestine (ICP) hosted an annual conference that played host to what the Tampa Tribune dubbed a “militant all-star team”: Islamic Jihad founder Abdel Aziz-Odeh, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers), leading Hamas official Mohammed Sakr, and high-ranking Sudanese terrorist Hassan Turabi. The paper also reported that ICP publications had “articles [that] solicited contributions for the Islamic Jihad and Hamas.”
At the 1990 ICP conference, Al-Arian addressed the crowd of 200 people in St. Louis called for “true armed jihad against the enemy in Israel.” At an ICP conference the next year in Chicago, the supposedly mild-mannered professor riled the crowd with a fiery rallying cry: “Advance, advance until Jerusalem! Victory is to Islam!”
But al-Arian didn’t want to stop at Jerusalem. At a Cleveland ICP conference in 1991, he exhorted the audience to accept nothing less than a “Palestine” that spans from “from the river to the sea”—meaning from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, or all of the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. And his bloodthirst was not confined to Jews in the Middle East. His sights were also set on his adopted home country. In that same speech, he said, “Let us damn America. Let us damn Israel. Let us damn their allies until death.”
None of this has been denied. It can’t be. Al-Arian was on candid camera at each of these conferences, courtesy of counterorrism expert and former journalist Steven Emerson, who first exposed Islamic militancy in the U.S. in his PBS documentary “Jihad in America.” Al-Arian was one of the “stars,” yet he continued to enjoy substantial support in the Muslim community.
Al-Arian didn’t have to do too much to mollify his boosters. When confronted on CBS’ 48 Hours about his saying “Death to Israel” on camera, he lamely responded, “‘Death to Israel’ means death to the system. It’s like saying ‘death to apartheid.’”
Without sitting in the jury box or in the deliberation room, there is no way to determine exactly why the 12 men and women decided that al-Arian’s actions did not constitute a violation of the law. But it wasn’t because most of the allegations weren’t true; they were. Al-Arian’s lawyers did not deny that he was an exuberant cheerleader of murdering innocent Jews, nor did they deny that his inner circle included many known terrorists.
So while this jury felt there wasn’t enough to convict al-Arian of providing material support for terrorism, there is more than enough evidence for leading Muslims to know better than to embrace him. While some organizations have stayed silent or have not been as exuberant in their support—Muslim Public Affairs Council Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati said simply in a statement, “We congratulate Mr. Al-Arian and his family for enduring this painful ordeal”—others have been less restrained.
American Muslim Alliance Chairman Dr. Agha Saeed hailed the verdicts as “'a Great Day for Justice in America,” and claimed that the entire trial was nothing more than a “witch hunt against [a] legitimate Muslim leader.” Saeed’s giddiness is particularly significant, as he is also the chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce for Civil Rights and Elections, which is comprised of 11 national organizations, including CAIR, MPAC, MAS, and the Islamic Society of North America.
More important is the long-term reaction of the politically active Muslim community and leaders of the prominent organizations. The obvious response would be to shun al-Arian, but the early reaction to the verdicts is not encouraging. Almost none of the leaders of Muslim organizations stated the self-evident truth that no matter what the jury found, al-Arian represents the very vitriol and thirst for violence that must be condemned.
Should al-Arian become a hit on the Muslim speaking circuit—and he may well—then what should be made of those who attend and the public figures who either support or at least condone his appearances? The answer, much like the true nature of al-Arian’s character, is obvious.