No Land's Man

Part of it is what he says. Since he was a teenager, Sami Al-Arian has spoken publicly about his religious beliefs, his political views and his feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. What he says can be tough to swallow. He talks about the oppression his people endure under the Israeli occupation and he calls for it to end — passionately, intelligently and sometimes harshly. He has inspired some, educated some and made some angry beyond reason.

Part of it is who he is. He's a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the United States since 1975 and who has been denied citizenship in this country. He's a devout Muslim and imam, or pastor, of his mosque.

He's a man who is respected and admired. He's a man who inspires fear, suspicion and even outright hatred.

That fear, suspicion and hatred caused his dismissal from his tenured position as a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida. An October appearance on the sensational news show The O'Reilly Factor resulted in hundreds of e-mails and phone calls to the university, some of them threatening his life. University president Judy Genshaft claimed that she placed Al-Arian on paid leave for his own safety and for the safety of the university. At an "emergency" meeting of the university's Board of Trustees two months later, it was decided that Al-Arian should be terminated. Having been barred from campus, supposedly for his own safety, he was denied the right to speak in his own defense.

The FBI has searched his home and seized the assets of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, an organization he founded. Affidavits used to obtain the search warrants alleged the ICP had ties to terrorists. They also seized materials from World Islamic Studies Enterprise, a think-tank affiliated with USF. Although some of Al-Arian's professional relationships leave many wondering, no criminal charges resulted from the seizures and no concrete evidence has emerged that proves he's done anything illegal. In fact, in reviewing the case of Al-Arian's brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar, whom the government detained on secret evidence for more than three years, Federal Immigration Judge Kevin R. McHugh ruled nearly two years ago: "Although there were allegations that (WISE and a related group, the Islamic Committee for Palestine) were "fronts' for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the Court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the (Islamic Jihad). 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."

Like many Palestinians born after 1948, Al-Arian has never been a citizen of any country. He was born in Kuwait in 1958, but that didn't make him a Kuwaiti. It also didn't mean that his family was rich. Before Kuwait had the infrastructure and oil money that it has today, it was just a really hot developing country that invited Palestinians to come as foreign workers — but not to become citizens.

The country was segregated by ethnicity, much like the United States in the 1950s, says Al-Arian. "I don't remember a lot of interaction with Kuwaitis."

Al-Arian attended a private school in Kuwait run by Lebanese. It was very advanced, he says, and he began to learn English in kindergarten. There were a few Kuwaiti children there, he said, but most of the other students were foreigners like him. Some of them arrived under similar circumstances.

Al-Arian's father had taken part in the effort to defend his home from the Israeli military in 1948, a year after the United Nations had issued its resolution to divide Palestine between the Palestinians and Jews.

There are differing points of view on the U.N.'s plan. On one side, the partition plan was a legal declaration that sought to give Jewish people a homeland in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

On the other side, the U.N. had divided a country that wasn't theirs to divide. The Jewish homeland was created in a region where people already lived — and most of them weren't Jewish.

In order for a Jewish state to be created, Palestinian Arabs, who had inhabited the land for generations, were displaced. They did not agree to partitioning. The U.N. adopted the partition plan anyway, and the surrounding Arab countries attacked Jerusalem. Palestinians joined the fighting.

Prior to the partitioning, Al-Arian's paternal grandfather had owned soap factories with locations in Jerusalem and Jaffa. "When they had to leave in haste, he just left it there," says Al-Arian.

Al-Arian's father had fought to save his family's assets but was eventually forced to flee along with an estimated one-million of his countrymen.

Al-Arian recalls being told Palestinians were not allowed weapons under the British mandate. When the fighting began, they were not equipped for it. "While the other side was being armed on a daily basis with even tanks and heavy armaments."

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