Abdullah Al-Arian, a Duke University political science major from Tampa, returned to campus this week for his senior year. But he got his real education over the summer, working on Capitol Hill. The biggest lesson came the day he was invited to meet with White House officials--and then unceremoniously kicked out of the building.
A Durham-born U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, Al-Arian was just 20 when he began his summer internship in the office of Michigan Democratic Rep. David Bonior, but he had already been schooled in the hard realities of Arab-American politics.
His father is Sami Al-Arian, a prominent activist for Palestinian causes who is a professor at the University of South Florida and a veteran of government investigations for alleged ties to Palestinian militants--investigations that fizzled out. His uncle, Mazan Al-Najjar, who taught at the same university, was released in December 2000 from an INS detention center in Florida. He had been locked up for three-and-a-half years on the basis of secret evidence that purportedly showed he had ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even though he was never charged with a crime. The case has become a high-profile example of how biases against selected ethnic groups become institutionalized in Washington's counterterrorism campaigns.
And it's one of the reasons why Al-Arian, like many Arab Americans, was encouraged during last year's presidential campaign when George W. Bush spoke out against the use of such secret evidence.
But hopes Arab Americans had for the new administration were dashed in the first months of Bush's presidency. Washington maintained steadfast support for Israel, and Arab-American leaders were sensing a chill after the warm words of the campaign.
The Bush administration hoped to resolve some of the tensions on June 28, when the newly formed Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives hosted a roundtable with American Muslim leaders.
Al-Arian signed up to attend because he was deeply involved in efforts to smooth relations between the government and Arab Americans. He had spent much of his time in Washington lining up support for a bill introduced by Rep. Bonior that would shut down detentions based on secret evidence, a key demand of Arab-American political leaders.
Fifteen minutes into the meeting, as Al-Arian was listening to a Bush administration briefing, a Secret Service security guard entered the room and motioned him into the hall. There he was told that, for reasons unknown to the guard, he was not authorized to be there.
Confused but courteous, Al-Arian was about to make his way out when the other participants in the meeting learned of his expulsion, and elected to walk out with him. The meeting was over. Suddenly, the Bush administration's relationship with Arab Americans had reached its lowest point.
The White House, realizing the gravity of its gaff, began firing out apologies within the hour. The next day, Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, tried to mend fences. "The president is very concerned that an action was taken that was wrong, inappropriate, and the president apologizes for it on behalf of the White House," he said. "In this one instance, the Secret Service made a mistake. The president is concerned about it to the point where he does apologize."
Al-Arian welcomed the apologies, but he never got a satisfactory answer to the question of why he was ejected. The deputy director of the Secret Service visited him to elaborate on the administration's regret, but the only explanation he received, he says, was that an "overzealous guard made an error processing names."
He may never know for certain why he was booted out of the meeting, but he has a hunch. "My incident isn't just an isolated one, it's part of a trend," he says. "Profiling is nothing new to our community."