How does one become an expert on terrorism? For Steven Emerson, like so much in life, it was an accident. On an assignment in Oklahoma City for CNN in December 1992, he was bored with what seemed like a dead-end story and wandered into the municipal convention center. There he found a conference being held by the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA), an umbrella organization that included many smaller groups. In the hallway was a collection of stalls hawking a variety of radical materials including coloring books for children, one titled "How To Kill the Infidel." Within the meeting hall he heard a number of inflammatory speeches including one by the then-leader of Hamas, Khalid Mishn'al.
Disturbed by the hate-filled rhetoric he had heard, Mr. Emerson began to research the organizations he had encountered. In 1993, when he was still not quite sure what substance lay beneath all the rhetoric, he founded the Investigative Project, and entered into an agreement with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do a documentary on the general subject of how terrorism was being nurtured in the United States. His book, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," is a culmination of his research and a guide to which charities and fraternal organizations exploit our tolerant attitudes for violent ends.
In one chapter, the author discusses jihad in the academy, focusing on the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 1995, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, former adjunct professor of Middle Eastern studies, was named secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization designated as terrorist by both the FBI and the State Department. His colleague, Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-born professor of engineering with tenure, remained on campus and continued his work with the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP) and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), both "cultural" organizations which the author has linked to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Six months later, Michael Fechter of the Tampa Tribune wrote a series of articles expanding on the author's charges. The university suspended its connection with WISE, though it allowed Mr. al-Arian to maintain his faculty position while he continued working with both the WISE and ICP. After the events of September 11 and a bruising interview with Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, Mr. al-Arian received some unidentified death threats. Only then did the university bestir itself. It suspended the professor's teaching assignments, but continued to pay his salary.
The reason for suspension, the university explained, was not anything he had done, but that because of these death threats his presence on campus was a danger to both his colleagues and his students. In other words, the university found him innocent of any wrongdoing but was too craven to protect either him or itself. This astonishing statement of cowardice wrapped in political correctness may have been sincere or simply a legal circumlocution to avoid lawsuits. In any case, Mr. Al-Arian continues to draw a stipend and has even more time to engage in "cultural" pursuits.
The author makes clear in the beginning that he is by no means anti-Muslim.
He feels that of the 3-million-plus Muslims in the United States, only a minority are fundamentalists, and only a minority of that minority can be called militant. Nevertheless, that militant minority is dangerous and must be contained. He applauds the Muslims who have spoken out against militancy and terror, and quotes Khalid Duran, a prominent Muslim academic who says " . . . the fundamentalism of the last half-century is a stranger to traditional Islam. Basically, it's a revolt against the modern world. People in modern societies are very cosmopolitan and tolerant of ethnic and cultural differences. They thrive on them. But fundamentalism tries to establish an ethnic purity and withdraw from cosmopolitan society."
Unfortunately, Mr. Duran, like Steven Emerson himself, is under a death threat for what he has written elsewhere. There are some Muslim organizations which, while deploring violence by giving lengthy explanations and even rationalizations for its appearance, seem to condone it. The author feels that deploring and rationalizing in the same breath is more negative than constructive. As in any group, it is the extremists who make the most noise, and it is time for the silent majority to speak up.
Mr. Emerson ends by saying that, although he does not think radical fundamentalists represent the real Islam, the bitter reality is that militant Islam, in its various incarnations, will continue to be a fixed feature on our political landscape for many years to come. All the more reason why books as detailed and informative as this are now needed.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.