Sami Al-Arian and the Dungeon: A Fable for Our Time?

From the archive (legacy material)

Sarah Shields | | 16 November 2003

When I was in preschool, I heard fairy tales about all-powerful kings who arbitrarily threw people into dungeons. When I was in Hebrew school, I learned how Jews were rounded up by rulers during times of instability. When I was in High School, I studied the American political system that guaranteed the rule of law.
I saw that rule of law working in the spring of 2002, when we offered a symposium on National Security and Civil Liberties. Our featured speaker, Professor Sami Al-Arian, made an impassioned plea for free speech. An immigrant, a professor, a leader of his Muslim community, Al-Arian had campaigned against the use of secret evidence in court, embracing the democratic guarantees of a constitution designed to protect the innocent. Professor Al-Arian had seen first hand the triumph of our most valued principles. At a time when Americans needed information about the growing number of Muslims in this country, he helped found a think-tank devoted to the study of Islam in America. When his co-founder disappeared and later reappeared in Syria as a leader in Islamic Jihad, Al-Arian underwent months of investigation before being cleared of all involvement with terrorist organizations.
When he came to North Carolina, Professor Al-Arian was in the middle of a renewed battle. Horrified by the attacks of September 11, he had agreed to be interviewed on national television to share his anger. Instead, Al-Arian became the victim that night, accused of terrorism because he supported the struggle of Palestinians for their own state. The America of September 2001 provided the stage for a new drama: accusation, rounding up Arabs and Muslims, and imprisonment without trial. In that setting, a few notable terrorism experts demanded an end to the career and freedom of Professor Al-Arian. The President of his university, a political appointee of Jeb Bush, relieved him of his duties and prohibited his stepping foot on his campus.
Still, the struggle that followed would convince anyone of the triumph of the American system of justice. At least weekly, stories about Professor Al-Arian appeared in US papers, from the popular press to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The faculty union at the University of South Florida condemned the threatened firing of a tenured professor. The courts in Florida refused to condone it. Over and over, Al-Arian’s extensive investigation and exoneration were pitted against the USF President’s calls for his firing.
In the final presentation of that symposium at Duke on National Security and Civil Liberties, a constitutional scholar warned all the students and faculty present that only their vigilance protected American freedoms. If we stop demanding them, the constitution would provide no remedy.
After months of public discussion, after countless articles in the regional and national press, when it looked as if the USF administration would have to back down, Sami Al-Arian was arrested. Accused of “aiding and abetting terrorism,” Al-Arian was placed in solitary confinement in the federal prison in Coleman, Florida.
Immediately, the news stories ceased. The groups that had been debating and supporting Professor Al-Arian fell silent in the face of an indictment. In this environment, it seems, accusation alone is enough to establish guilt. Only private emails now inform us that he is in solitary confinement, allowed out of his cell for only one hour each day. That is the only way we hear about the strip searches which are enforced whenever he leaves or enters his cell. There is no other source for the news that his attorneys are not allowed to talk with him privately, that he is not allowed any phone calls, that none of his visits with his wife and children permit even a hug, that he was not allowed to appear in court this week to challenge the conditions under which he is being held.
Sami Al-Arian has spent the past decade arguing passionately for the freedom of speech, for the freedom of conscience, for the protections against arbitrary imprisonment that form the very foundations for our civilization. Now he is locked up, unable to appear in court in his own defense, awaiting trial under conditions uncommon for even the worst convicted criminals.
At the symposium I learned that it is up to us to defend America’s rights. In Hebrew school I learned that rights taken from the least powerful can no longer be guaranteed to anyone. And today I wonder: was there a warning in those fairy tales, those stories about bad kings, evil advisors, and their dungeons?
Sarah Shields teaches Middle East history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her email address is