Sami al-Arian is a Muslim paradox. He is, he says, an "enlightened Islamist," a computer-engineering professor who leads interfaith community projects in Florida, puts women in leadership positions at his Tampa mosque, praises America and actively campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000. "Most hard-line Muslim fundamentalists would shy away from me," he admits. Yet to many Americans he fits the profile of a militant Muslim. The Palestinian activist who now resides permanently in the U.S. has given incendiary speeches that trumpeted "Death to Israel!" His mosque is named for Sheik Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a martyred guerrilla leader who preached holy war against the British and Zionist invasion of Palestine in the 1930s. And al-Arian has invited scholars to his Muslim think tank who (unknown to him, he insists) turned out to be terrorist leaders--including one convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
It isn't hard to guess which portrait of al-Arian garnered more media attention after Sept. 11--or which finally got him fired from the University of South Florida in Tampa, despite his position as a tenured professor. The dismissal, which al-Arian said last month he will fight, adds the free flow of ideas in academia to the catalog of freedoms that civil libertarians say is at stake in post-Sept. 11 America. "If this [firing] happens," says al-Arian, 44, "then every single tenured professor across the country could be terminated, especially Arabs."
In its defense, the university argues that its physical and financial security are at risk. Al-Arian's views, it says, have provoked death threats against him. Moreover, the school fears, donations could dry up. Why, asks U.S.F.'s lawyer, Tom Gonzalez, should the university "be made to bear the burden" of the controversy al-Arian created?
Al-Arian, who arrived in the U.S. at age 17, first sparked controversy more than a decade ago at the start of the intifadeh, the Palestinian uprising against Israel. He insists that his "Death to Israel" rants, which he has since dropped, were "political rhetoric against Israeli oppression" and not a call to violence against civilians. But terrorists did visit his conferences. Among them: Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, later convicted in the WTC bombing, and economist Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who helped direct al-Arian's U.S.F.-based World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) and turned up in Syria in 1995 as head of Islamic Jihad.
"They burned us," al-Arian insists, arguing that even U.S. and Israeli intelligence were unaware of Shallah's double life. After a documentary film on terrorism raised questions about al-Arian that year, the FBI investigated but found nothing to charge him with. WISE disbanded, and U.S.F. put him on a two-year paid leave.