BY SOOJUNG CHANG
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 12, 2003
Trying to inform the public about her imprisoned father and threats to American civil liberties, Laila Al-Arian spoke yesterday in the Michigan Union Ballroom at the First Annual Banquet for a Free Palestine.
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Al-Arian's father, former University of South Florida engineering Prof. Sami Al-Arian, was charged and detained in February by the U.S. Justice Department on allegations of terrorist ties. Laila Al-Arian is a junior at Georgetown University, majoring in English.
The Michigan Daily sat down with Al-Arian last night for an exclusive interview.
The Michigan Daily: What has been the effect of your father's arrest on you and your family?
Laila Al-Arian: We're devastated. We all feel like we're living a nightmare. He's such a strong figure in my family and in the local Muslim community. He wore so many different hats, from religious leader to marriage counselor, from father to civil rights activist. It's been very painful. He's on a hunger strike now. I'm on spring break so I went home to Florida to visit and I saw him about four or five times. He's visibly thinner. He lost like 20 pounds so it's just heartbreaking to see that.
TMD: Did it come as a complete shock to you?
Al-Arian: He's been under investigation for eight or nine years so, it's always been a possibility in the back of our minds but we're confident that he's never done anything wrong. I'm extremely proud of all of the work my father's done. I honestly don't think that he committed anything or that he did anything illegal. In that sense, because I don't think he's done anything illegal I had more faith in the government that they wouldn't target him, but I think after September 11 everything changed.
TMD: What was your initial response to the charges against your father on the day of his arrest?
Al-Arian: I was at school at Georgetown University and an administrator who I work with called me up at around 9 a.m. and said, "I heard the news." At that point I hadn't heard but I could tell that something serious had happened ... there were FBI agents all over my house. They also searched our house for twelve hours. I was completely devastated. It came as a shock to me because I didn't think that (U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft) and the Justice Department would go this far and basically make a case out of my father for the Muslim community nationally. Basically, it sort of told people, this is what happens if you speak out. This is what happens if you dare become an advocate of any sort as a Muslim leader.
TMD: What do you think of the current political climate? Do you think that there is a lot of anti-Arab sentiment?
Al-Arian: Within the administration there is definitely a lot of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment. Not necessarily within the populace but I think that judging from President Bush and his administration, particularly Ashcroft, the laws that they have been passing have targeted Muslims. You have everything now from expanding federal powers to completely unconstitutional provisions and laws like the PATRIOT Act. It's really a scary environment now. I know so many of my friends have family members who are leaving the country for Canada or for other places because there's this feeling among Muslims that we aren't safe here or that we're being targeted.
TMD: How has this affected your personal life?
Al-Arian: It's definitely made me a lot more skeptical. I'm a lot less idealistic about living here and being treated as an equal. I think we live in a time when fear and hysteria are sort of overtaking, at a time when we've lost all sense of what this country stands for. It's really sad because the ideals that this nation was founded on are slowly being shelved in the name of national security but really the wrong people are being targeted.
TMD: Did you ever think that something like this could happen to your family and community?
Al-Arian: No, I was born and raised in this country. I always felt like I belonged here, but now, I love the U.S. I love America, it's the only place I've ever known, but I just feel like it's a dangerous place for Muslims to live in now. A lot of us don't feel safe. They feel like they can be targeted at any given moment. Mosques are monitored, people's library books are being looked at, and campus police are working with the FBI. It's looking a lot more like a police state than a democracy. I'm worried about what else is going to happen.
TMD: How is your family dealing with what happened?
Al-Arian: We're trying to cope with it. It's definitely very difficult. Especially whenever we visit my father. We're just trying to do as much as possible to help him and to help the community. Right now, I've just been trying to reach as many people as possible and inform them about my father and what they can do to help.
TMD: What is your response to people who call your father a terrorist?