Richard Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
The story of Sami Al-Arian and his best friend and brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, is a saga of tragedy and cruel fate. There is no moral. There is no villain. There is no hero. What is needed, however, is relief from a nightmare that otherwise might never end.
Sami is a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait and whose family later moved to Cairo, where Sami's father owned a small clothing store. He put all of his limited means into his eldest son's U.S. education. When Sami finished college he went on to earn a Ph.D. degree and soon found a position with the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, with an enrollment of 31,000.
Meanwhile Sami's friend Mazen Al-Najjar went with his Palestinian family to Saudi Arabia. Later Mazen arrived in the United States on a visitor's visa. The two friends now had become brothers-in-law, with Sami's marriage to Mazen's sister, Nahla.
By this time Mazen, too, had a Ph.D. degree and began teaching at the same university as Sami. Mazen eventually had three daughters, and Sami had five children.
Together the two friends set up a mosque in Tampa, along with two charitable and educational organizations. These were Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), which raised money for orphans, and World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), which sponsored scholarships. They published an Arabic journal and held conferences, some of the speakers at which had radical connections.
Then fate took an unexpected turn for the worse. The Immigration and Nationalization Service arrested Mazen because he had not been able to regularize his immigration status, due to the fact that he was Palestinian and therefore had no nationality of record.
By this time, with three American citizen daughters and a wife, and no other violations of any kind, it should have been simple enough to change Mazen's status. Typically in such cases, immigration authorities only require character references, which can easily be found. If all else fails, a friendly congressman can usually help. Mazen is a Palestinian, however--which always presents complications.
With the best intentions in the world, Sami went public to defend Mazen. In retrospect, it probably was not a wise decision. That is because Sami already had become involved with a related problem having to do with another USF professor, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. Two years after he joined the university faculty, Shallah abruptly moved to Syria to work for the Syria-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
Sami and Mazen's problems became intertwined with that of the Jihad member. Like a bulldog, the media had a story and wouldn't let go.
"Self-styled" investigative journalist Steven Emerson also had taken up the case, charging that Sami Al-Arian and Mazen Al-Najjar were part of a conspiracy to raise funds for terrorist groups. The Tampa Tribune received sensationalist allegations that provided great copy. Other Florida papers took sides but were unable to resolve the conflicting claims for many months.
All along, Sami and his wife, Nahla, worked tirelessly on behalf of Mazen and his wife, Fedaa. It was at this point that I, along with a number of other Americans, came one by one to Florida to attest to Mazen's good character and called for amelioration of the circumstances in which Mazen was now entangled. There were many witnesses who helped in any way they could. Collections were taken up, some from members of his mosque and others from supporters who were concerned with Mazen and his family's well being.
I wrote about the family's plight and also asked a friend, former Mossad case officer and author Victor Ostrovsky, to help publicize the fact that there was no trace of anti-Semitism involved in the Florida case. Finally, three years after Mazen's arrest, former Attorney General Janet Reno resolved the case in Mazen's favor and released him, and Mazen at last was able to rejoin his family. …