Al-Arian Issue: A Cheap Shot At Castor

As the race to succeed Sen. Bob Graham coalesces in the new year, look for Betty Castor to pick up the fund-raising pace and solidify her position as the early Democratic front-runner. Also look for her main Democratic primary competition, Miami Dade-County Mayor Alex Penelas and Pembroke Pines Congressman Peter Deutsch, to up the ante on the in-fighting — especially Deutsch.

Most political observers expect the name of Sami Al-Arian, currently jailed on charges of aiding and abetting Palestinian terrorists, to surface as a campaign issue. They’re probably right. Especially in South Florida, where the Jewish voting base is concentrated. But it’s wrong.

Let’s go back to when Castor, the former state education commissioner, came to USF as president in 1994. She was praised for her political skills and Tallahassee contacts — as well as criticized for educational credentials that were conspicuously minus a doctorate. She would soon win over the critics with her staunch support for all things academic. Including freedom.

She inherited Al-Arian, an increasingly controversial but quite competent — in fact, award-winning — computer science professor. She also inherited Al-Arian’s think tank, WISE — or the World and Islam Studies Enterprise — and a university culture enamored of such an ostensibly prestigious, internationally-connected organization.

Although a comparatively young and relatively undistinguished university, USF apparently had itself a coup with WISE. If nothing else, it meant that USF was a geo-political, higher-ed “player.” That can be heady, important stuff in academic circles — helping to advance understanding and “dialogue” between the West and Middle East.

The following year, former WISE director Ramadan Abdullah Shallah surfaced in Damascus as the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the infamous, prototypical terrorist organization. Prior to that, a PBS documentary had fingered Al-Arian as part of a PIJ cell and published reports in the Tampa Tribune linked WISE and Al-Arian’s Islamic Committee for Palestine charity to the PIJ.

By now — late 1995 — the feds were on the case with search warrant affidavits. By the middle of the following year, USF had placed Al-Arian on paid leave. In 1998, absent any law enforcement action, he was allowed back on campus. The following year — 1999 — Castor left USF.

Two years later the world changed — as well as the USF campus. After the Sept. 11 attacks, there followed the ill-advised, uproarious Al-Arian appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor,” an agonizing dilemma for new president Judy Genshaft, and a lot of revisionist thinking on terrorists, their sources of support and the obvious Islamic nexus.

It’s so much Monday morning quarterbacking to second-guess what Betty Castor could have done — better and sooner — regarding Al-Arian. She was expected, according to some, to have summarily booted Al-Arian even as the feds were dragging their heels.

What matters is the context.

There’s not a lot of precedent — nor on-campus, popular sentiment — for sacking a tenured professor who hasn’t been charged, much less convicted, of anything. Guilt by association and outrageous rhetoric is normally not a credible enough rationale.

The pre-Sept.11 era, while hardly an age of naivete, is not to be confused with the Homeland Security crucible — and expedience — we’re experiencing today. The Al-Arian of the Castor years was not the mega-count-indictment version of 2003. The one who was finally fired in early 2003 by President Genshaft.

When terrorism is targeted as an issue in this senatorial campaign, the focus should be on Iraqi reconstruction, foreign and domestic intelligence, immigration, the Patriot Act, Islamic money trails and policies of pre-emption and unilateralism. The role of the United Nations and America’s relationship with the rest of the world, including putative allies, despotic sheikdoms and Israel, are much more relevant than Al-Arian’s treatment during Castor’s watch.

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