Wednesday, September 26, 2007

USA vs. Al-Arian on DVD

The thoughtful and important documentary USA vs. Al-Arian is just out on DVD. (It's a Norwegian import, but region-free, in English, and under $30, with lots of extras including commentary by the filmmakers and Al-Arian's family, and a full interview with Al-Arian from prison last year.) The movie follows the case of Sami Al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor currently in prison for fundraising on behalf of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, despite being acquitted for most of the charges. The film is in some ways reminiscent of Strange Culture, another documentary about an academic in America put on trial for dubious charges; in that case, Steve Kurtz is a clear victim of absurd accusations. Al-Arian's case is not so clear-cut. He did raise money for questionable groups, seemed to cheer on terrorist attacks, and deceived his friends about his involvement. The documentary is very supportive of Al-Arian, and elides over some of this. The best part, I think, is the photo of Al-Arian with George W. Bush, for whom he raised money. If 9-11 had never happened, Al-Arian today might still be a tenured professor and perhaps an influential Muslim advisor and fundraiser to the Republican Party. Instead, Al-Arian is still being imprisoned on absurd charges of civil contempt. He won't be released until 2008.

I wish the documentary had discussed Al-Arian's firing by the University of South Florida, because it explains why the FBI suddenly became so interested in Al-Arian after spying on him for a decade without taking action. When Al-Arian appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show, it sparked an effort to get him fired. Lacking any evidence of wrongdoing, USF decided to suspend Al-Arian for receiving death threats, despite the quite correct objections of FIRE and the AAUP. Political interests put pressure on the FBI to go after Al-Arian and provide an excuse for his firing. It's a story that still goes untold.

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