Criminalizing Solidarity: Sami Al-Arian and the War of Terror (Part 1)

Dr. Sami Al-Arian (Arab American News)

Dr. Sami Al-Arian, Palestinian political prisoner, is being held in a prison hospital, after a debilitating 60-day hunger strike seeking to draw the attention of the nation and the world to the injustice visited upon him, jailed for his commitment to justice and dignity for his homeland. This is not a scene from an Israeli jail, however, but from a U.S. prison in North Carolina. Al-Arian’s hunger strike ended at the pleas of his family — yet without justice for Al-Arian, whose imprisonment is part and parcel of a U.S. government policy of targeting Palestinian activists, as well as the broader Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities, in an internal “war of terror” whose policies run parallel to that being waged abroad.

The case of Sami Al-Arian is a story of persecution, perseverance, and, ultimately, the determination of those in power to criminalize resistance and punish Palestinian activism, subverting not only the principles of justice but also their own criminal justice system in order to do so. Sami Al-Arian, 49, is a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the United States for over thirty years and has, for the last decade, alongside his prominent role as an activist and leader in the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities in the Tampa Bay, Florida area and nationally, his work as a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida, and his personal life as a husband and father to five children, waged a prominent battle to protect fundamental rights within the U.S. from an assault through secret evidence, racist detention policies, and an all-out assault on community organizing and solidarity work within targeted communities. Al-Arian has lived with over a dozen years of surveillance, and eight years of FBI agents shadowing his movements. Today, he is imprisoned, despite the fact that he was convicted of nothing by a jury, despite a parade of witnesses and years of harassment.

Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian’s brother-in-law and a fellow professor at USF, was arrested in 1997, presumably for a minor visa violation, which, at the time, should have been a simple problem to correct. However, as a stateless Palestinian refugee, al-Najjar was instead imprisoned for three and one-half years on the basis of secret evidence to which Al-Najjar was never given access. Al-Najjar’s case became a primary target of the then-Clinton Administration’s demand to be able to hold and deport people on the basis of secret evidence, a case that is haunting today in its relevance to the thousands of men held around the world — and the nearly 400 held at Guantanamo Bay currently — imprisoned by the U.S. government with evidence they cannot confront and with no legal process to ensure any sort of real hearing. In the late 1990s, however, secret evidence had not yet assumed its terrifying and major place in the government’s extra-legal arsenal of imprisonment and detention. Sami Al-Arian played a leading role in the campaign to defend his brother-in-law and obtain his freedom — a fight in which, it seemed, they were victorious, as, in late 2000, Immigration Judge Kevin McHugh, describing the government’s case — based on secret evidence — as “devoid of any direct or indirect evidence” to support Al-Najjar’s detention, ordered his release. By mid-2001, a bill to restrict the use of secret evidence was progressing through Congress, all but one of the non-citizens held on secret evidence had been freed, and even George W. Bush had expressed, during his campaign, disapproval for the practice. (Bush’s statement against secret evidence, in a twist that now seems bitterly ironic, helped to secure the support of many in the Muslim and Arab communities; in Florida, Al-Arian himself was key in mobilizing those communities to support Bush’s campaign.)

Both Al-Arian and Al-Najjar were prominent activists in the Muslim community, deeply involved with the Islamic Community Center of Tampa Bay and the Florida Islamic Academy, as well as dedicated advocates for the Palestinian cause. The organizations Al-Arian co-founded at the University of South Florida, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) and the Islamic Concern Project (ICP), produced volumes of educational materials and held numerous events and conferences, helping to link their Islamic work with the struggle to free Palestine from occupation and oppression, as well as providing educational perspectives often silenced or unheard within U.S. discourse around Palestine. Al-Arian was an exemplary founder and leader of community institutions that provided immense support to the strengthening of the Muslim community in Florida, as well as the national and international trend of Islamic work for justice in Palestine. Amidst the defense of his brother-in-law, he was also president of the National Committee to Protect Political Freedom.

Sami Al-Arian was targeted for spying, harassment and intimidation — none of which silenced nor stopped his dedicated activism

For this work, Sami Al-Arian was targeted for spying, harassment and intimidation — none of which silenced nor stopped his dedicated activism. Following the events of September 11, the repressive mechanisms of the state swung into action; Mazen Al-Najjar was re-arrested, on the same immigration charges, and later deported. Al-Arian, prominent as a spokesperson and leader in the Muslim community, was invited to appear on notorious right-wing TV talk show host Bill O’Reilly’s program. While Al-Arian was informed that he was to speak about the response of the Arab and Muslim communities in South Florida to September 11, instead, he was confronted with an ambush by O’Reilly based on his commitment to the Palestinian cause, a commitment that O’Reilly, working from a campaign based on the work of die-hard Islamophobes like Joe Kaufman and Steven Emerson — who sought to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims — aimed to criminalize, attacking Al-Arian on the air, and declaring that if he were the FBI, he would be watching Al-Arian. The response to the O’Reilly show on the part of the University of South Florida administration was swift, and in line with the repressive post-September 11 environment that saw thousands of Arab, Muslim and South Asian men rounded up, detained for little or no reason, and deported, as well as the passage of repressive legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act: Al-Arian was placed on leave from USF, which claimed that it could not ensure his security.

While al-Arian had campaigned for his brother-in-law’s civil liberties for years, his were now under attack. Faculty unions supported him in his campaign to preserve his ability to teach and work. Nevertheless, the worst was still to come. On 20 February 2003, Al-Arian was an arrested on the basis of an indictment that charged him, as well as three co-defendants, fellow community activists Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, with various charges centered around the allegation that they provided “material support” to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian resistance organization designated by the U.S. State Department as a so-called “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

Like the persecution of Mazen Al-Najjar, this prosecution had its roots not solely in the post-September 11 repression of the Bush Administration, nor in the infamous PATRIOT Act, but rather in legislation passed during the Clinton Administration that has played a major role in the criminalization of resistance internationally, and the criminalization of solidarity within the United States — the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, targeting international movements of resistance to U.S. imperialism, formalized two previous Executive Orders by President Clinton, creating a list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” to be designated by the U.S. State Department, to which “material support” was forbidden and could be criminally prosecuted. This list of so-called “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” was not restricted to Palestinian (or even Arab or Islamic) organizations and political movements — indeed, it has come to include such diverse examples of resistance to imperialism as the Communist Party of the Philippines and its associated New People’s Army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. However, its genesis was as part of the U.S. effort to enforce the Oslo process upon the Palestinian people.

The U.S. was deeply involved in the early to mid-1990s effort to destabilize the Palestinian movement and create a willing Palestinian security force for the benefit of their Israeli occupiers, a process deceptively titled a “peace process” that, nevertheless, brought little to no peace for Palestinians, no real autonomy, a deeper and wider network of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, and no justice whatsoever for the millions of Palestinian refugees and exiles, who, after sixty years, continue to be denied their right to return home to their original homes, lands and properties, from which they were forced in the Zionist military campaign to conquer Palestine and ethnically cleanse it of indigenous Palestinians in 1948. Despite decades of valiant struggle by the Palestinian people within and without Palestine, as well as the vast weight of international support — outside that of U.S. imperialism, which heavily funded and armed Israel, as a Western settler colony within the heart of the Arab world — the post-Gulf War and post-Soviet international political environment, combined with an illusory promise of some relief for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and accentuated by the political weakness of important sectors of the Palestinian leadership within the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time in their belief that making concessions to the occupying power would in some way help to obtain meaningful independence, or at very least, some form of Palestinian state, led to the ratification of the “Oslo Accords.” The following decade brought nothing but more misery to Palestinians, as the assassinations of Palestinian political leaders, the military occupation, the tripling of exclusive Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the introduction of closure and economic isolation of the West Bank and Gaza, and a vast network of checkpoints and roadblocks failed to materialize anything like independence or a state, while Palestinian citizens of Israel continued to live under an apartheid regime as second-class citizens at best and Palestinian refugees continued to be denied their rights. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Palestinians and Palestinian political organizations rejected the Oslo accords as improper and destructive to the process of national liberation, instead creating a “Palestinian Authority” with no real power except for its authority to serve as a security force for the occupier and oppressor, in its assigned role to root out and suppress Palestinian resistance to occupation. The Islamic organizations in Palestine, Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad, rejected Oslo, as did the Palestinian left, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). In time, the brutal realities of Oslo led to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, often termed the “Second Intifada;” however, this Intifada was far from only the second Palestinian uprising for national rights, but rather the latest in a long history of uninterrupted struggle for national liberation that had been proceeding since before the Zionist occupation of Palestine, from the time of British colonialism in Palestine in the early twentieth century.

As a nation largely in exile, the Palestinian and Arab community in the United States — and around the world — was deeply involved in political and charitable activity to support its brothers and sisters inside the occupied land and living in refugee camps in the Arab world

In 1995, however, President Clinton sought to shore up an unjust process built on an attempt to make the national movement of the oppressed collaborate with its oppressor by issuing an Executive Order that declared a “national emergency” to deal with the “threat posed to the Middle East peace process” by Palestinian resistance — as well as Hezbollah, for continuing Lebanese resistance to the occupation of Southern Lebanon, and froze all transactions with twelve named groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, the DFLP, and Hezbollah. This Executive Order was soon followed by the push for the 1996 law, which went beyond freezing transactions to creating a criminal offense of “material support” to these organizations. This served an important objective in attempting to isolate Palestinian resistance and ensure Palestinian submission to Israeli rule. As a nation largely in exile, the Palestinian and Arab community in the United States — and around the world — was deeply involved in political and charitable activity to support its brothers and sisters inside the occupied land and living in refugee camps in the Arab world. In addition, the larger Muslim community was also actively involved in supporting Islamic peoples and movements against occupation in Palestine and elsewhere. The resistance organizations criminalized through this repressive legislation were not merely organizations engaged in armed struggle. On the contrary, they were — and are — engaged with all facets of Palestinian life. They are the political organizations of Palestine, and their activists are involved in social programs, community programs, unions, women’s organizations, student organizing and all aspects of social and community life — and the U.S. government has been quick to deem large numbers of such organizations to be “front groups” for resistance organizations, which, if honest, completely ignores the way in which a national liberation movement functions. Such movements are grounded in the people — in grassroots organizing, social programs and community involvement. The resistance belongs to the people, and cannot be uprooted merely by a law prohibiting financial support. However, if observed through the lens of the U.S. government’s political interest in aiding Zionist colonialism and repressing the Palestinian movement for liberation, it is clear that these laws targeted not “terrorism,” but instead, the entire national liberation movement of the Palestinian people, criminalizing its institutions and its movements. (After all, if the U.S. was interested in securing peace and ending “terror,” clearly the swiftest mechanism it would have for doing so would be to immediately end its billions of dollars in annual support — including its provision of the latest U.S. military machinery, from Apache helicopters to M-16 rifles — to the Israeli regime and to impose sanctions upon that regime for its conduct of terror against the Palestinian and Lebanese people.)

The criminalization of resistance should be seen within the context of the history of international solidarity inside the United States for national liberation movements, most of which are readily branded as “terrorists” by the imperialist forces opposing them. Take, for example, the movements in support of the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, or the movement against South African apartheid. Both the Sandinista movement and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were denounced as “terrorists,” as was the African National Congress — an organization with offices in major U.S. cities whose presence was able to lend vast coordination and strength to the anti-apartheid solidarity movement. In light of this repressive legislation and the U.S. government campaigns against these organizations in decades past, it is difficult to imagine that they would not be on the “Foreign Terrorist Organization” list of their day — leading to devastating and dramatic consequences for the solidarity movements that proudly supported those popular national liberation movements and their resistance. The El Salvador and Nicaragua fundraisers of the 1980s branded illegal, would legislation to ban funding to the contras or the Salvadoran dictatorship ever have been passed? The ANC branded an “FTO,” would, within the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement today be such a singular example of a successful solidarity movement? In the early part of the twenty-first century, when it is popular to declare that one opposed apartheid in South Africa all along, it is often forgotten that the U.S. government and its mainstream spokespeople for decades supported South African apartheid in all of its brutal settler-colonial horror, as today it supports Israeli apartheid in its own settler-colonial horror, and designated the African national liberation movement as “terrorists.”

A Palestinian looks at the damage at Al-Aqsa Islamic Clinic after it was destroyed and closed by Israeli army forces in Al-Askar refugee camp near the West Bank town of Nablus, 3 July 2006. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)

A vast array of charitable institutions and social organizations within Palestine has been branded fronts for the resistance organizations, and it has never been clear which organization will be so described next. In the post-September 11 atmosphere of repression, charities within the U.S., such as the Holy Land Foundation, were shut down and their assets frozen. Yet, even before September 11, the mechanism for the suppression of Palestinian community organizing in the U.S. was activated by the 1996 law and its executive order predecessor. The Oslo process itself was devastating to many Palestinian community institutions, as many fell victim to post-Oslo hopes for the end of the struggle and others sought to reestablish themselves despite the transformation of much of the PLO’s national liberation structure to the new realm of the PA, limited in focus to the West Bank and Gaza, and with a newly circumscribed mandate that fell far short of national liberation. However, these laws were also laying the groundwork for repression of the community and creating fear of action and fear of supporting even purely charitable initiatives for their brothers and sisters in Palestine. Cases like those of Mazen Al-Najjar, combined with the existing immigration-based prosecution of Palestinian activists in Los Angeles, known as the Los Angeles 8, for their entirely legal activities in promoting the Palestinian cause, were part of creating fear in the community. Islamic institutions, which, outside the PLO, faced different post-Oslo challenges than their leftist and secular nationalist fellow organizations in the national liberation movement, yet had maintained a basic continuity of organization in the pre and post-Oslo era.

With the rise of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in Palestine, within the United States, Palestinian community as well as solidarity organizing rebounded in parallel to the upsurge in the movement in Palestine. New organizations were founded and existing organizations were inundated with support and volunteers. Despite repressive legislation, the obvious need of the Palestinian people suffering from the daily brutality of occupation combined with the inspirational example of their resistance inspired activism in the community around the world. Repression, however, fell harshly on these organizations and institutions. Charities that had received funds from thousands, if not millions, were shut down and attacked as “fronts for terror,” while prominent community leaders faced insinuations and, at times, direct prosecution. While initially hailed as “terrorism” cases, in reality, these often revolved around minor immigration matters or financial matters with no relation to alleged “terrorism.” The enactment and enforcement of this repressive legislation led to the defunding of Palestinian institutions, both religious and secular, as funding of the social and community institutions of Palestinian life, as well as for the financial welfare of Palestinian families, were directly impacted by both the freezing of funds and the repressive political climate that created a well-founded fear of persecution for any fundraising that would end up benefiting people outside the borders of the United States.

That so many organizations and institutions have continued to survive and in fact grow is a testament more to the creativity and commitment of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities — as well as that of solidarity activists — than it is to the limitations of repressive legislation. Many organizations have focused on educating the public in the U.S. about the Palestinian cause, to win their support, while others have found non-governmental organizations and individual families to which funds can be safely distributed without fear of persecution. (It is also to be noted that the U.S., the European Union and others were instrumental in the Oslo era of promoting the rise of an NGO class in Palestine in an attempt to supplant the resistance organizations and the national liberation movement within the Palestinian social fabric, and that this repressive legislation can also be seen as a means of directing funding to approved institutions and attempting to undermine or separate the resistance from the people through this mechanism. However, such NGOs have not supplanted the resistance movements, and those NGOs, while independent of political affiliations with any organization, are often loyal to the Palestinian cause, rather than to the initiatives of the U.S. administration, and it is those NGOs that Palestinian and solidarity organizations in the U.S. have been able to safely support.) Just as the Oslo accords themselves had sought to segment out the Palestinian community — separating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from those within the borders of the Israeli regime and the largest Palestinian community, those in exile in the Arab world and internationally, the repressive legislation as well as the post-September 11 assault on the community sought to reinforce that division and ensure separation between Palestinians here and Palestinians there.

[…PART 2]