The man who arguably decided the 2004 US Senate race here in Florida has made a spectacular return to Washington politics last month according to the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Sami Al-Arian who has been found guilty of aiding the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was a longtime professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, including the period when Betty Castor was President of the institution.
Al-Arian whose tenure as a professor at the University of South Florida was used in demagogic fashion against Castor by both Peter Deutsch in the Democratic Primary for Senate and then Mel Martinez in the General Election probably cost the Democrats that Senate seat. The irony of course was that Al-Arian had been a strong supporter of George W. Bush during the 2000 Presidential Election, meeting with the then Texas Governor and publicly attacking the Clinton/Gore administration for its military attacks and alleged discrimination against muslims (even as Clinton against Republican opposition sent American forces to the Balkans to free Muslims in Kosovo oppressed by the ruthless ethnic cleansing of the Slobodan Milošević regime in Serbia).
In June 2001, Al-Arian was invited to the White House and met with Karl Rove. But soon thereafter 9/11 occurred and Muslims became convenient fodder for Republicans as they campaigned against terrorism and sought to link Democrats to terrorism just as they had sought to link the party in the Truman years to the Soviet Union and Communism.
Some forget that for many years Arab-Americans were among the loyalist Republican voters (Michigan in particular was a state where the Democrats could not break through with Arab-Americans until after 9/11). The theory about this from some quarters was that they simply voted against the party that had more Jewish-Americans but the reality is most Arab-Americans were prior to 9/11 cultural and economic conservatives. Islam as it is practiced by many is a deeply conservative religion and many of the same issues progressives have with Evangelical Christians pop up in discussions about Islam, the Middle East and South Asia.
Only after 9/11 did Al-Arian (who condemned the attacks) arouse widespread suspicion despite evidence that he had been linked to terrorist groups in the 1990s. A badly botched interview on the O’Reilly Factor led to his being placed on administrative leave at USF and the rest is history. To this day Al-Arian’s ties to terrorism while apparent are no different or more extensive than the ties later-day leading anti-terrorist crusader Rep. Peter King (R-New York) had to the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) leadership. As a youngster who often traveled to the United Kingdom and had family in London, it was the IRA that struck fear into my heart about an early demise. Yet King’s extensive ties to the IRA have continued to be ignored by large segments of the American mainstream press (However King is well-known in the UK and his role in the anti-terror efforts in the US have undermined the credibility of those efforts with many in Britain).
Whatever one’s opinion of this man and his ties to terrorist are, no question can be left that he was made into a convenient punching bag to deliver a US Senate seat to a Republican. In the case of Al-Arian, Democrats backing Deutsch and Republicans backing Martinez used fear as a motivating factor to turn donors and voters against Castor. Much like George Smathers disgraceful smears of Claude Pepper during the height of McCarthyism in 1950, many Florida voters were conned by politicos racing to the bottom and playing at the lowest common denominator in 2004.
His return to the political scene last month evokes memories of a dark, disgraceful chapter in Florida politics. Let us hope we have matured beyond this sort of gutter politics.