AMHERST - When professor M.J. Alhabeeb received a call from police in his office at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst last month, his first thought was that someone in his family had been in an accident.
A few minutes later, an FBI agent and a campus police officer were at his door, acting on a tip that the Iraqi-born professor held anti-American views. The joint interview by FBI and UMass officers lasted only a few minutes, and was by all accounts polite. But it has outraged many professors, who say the university's participation in the investigation violated academic freedom and could have a ''chilling effect'' on the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Their outrage - which evoked the specter of campus witch hunts - began to draw wider attention as word of UMass's participation in the FBI investigation spread after a meeting last week.
M.J. Alhabeeb, a UMass economics professor, was queried by an FBI agent about
his views on US policy. (Globe Photo/Nancy Palmieri)
About 75 people, mostly faculty, attended the meeting last Monday to plan their response, to include a public forum and a request for a meeting with UMass Chancellor John Lombardi. The UMass police detective, Barry Flanders, has been working on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force for about a month, since receiving security clearance, university Police Chief Barbara O'Connor said.
After learning what had happened, sociology professor Dan Clawson dashed off an e-mail to O'Connor demanding that he also be investigated, since he disagrees with the Bush administration's policies in Iraq.
''Certainly if the FBI receives a credible report about somebody's actions, I would want them to investigate,'' said Clawson, who organized the meeting. ''But if they receive a report about someone's views, it is inappropriate to investigate, and if the university cooperates in that investigation, that's totally inappropriate.''
Alhabeeb, 48, a US citizen who teaches economics and rarely discusses politics even with friends, described the questioning as uncomfortable. He said he felt compelled to prove his loyalty to the United States by explaining that his brother-in-law, a lawyer in Iraq, was executed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. When he asked about the origin of the tip, he said he was told it came from someone associated with Amherst Community Television, a nonprofit public access cable TV station where Alhabeeb and his high school-age son Osama are active, and where there has been recent internal turmoil.
''I came to this country to get away from that kind of thing,'' said Alhabeeb, who left Iraq with his wife in 1982, during the height of the country's war with Iran, to escape the oppressive regime.
An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau's Boston office has had a Joint Terrorism Task Force with local law enforcement agencies since 1995. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, the government was criticized for failing to share sensitive information; in response, local law enforcement agencies were invited to place representatives on the task force. About 15 agencies are represented on the task force, she said. They are paid by their home forces, and divide their time between regular duties and antiterrorism work.
The spokeswoman, Gail Marcinkiewicz, said the UMass detective ''was interested, so his department volunteered his services.'' O'Connor, the UMass police chief who commands 54 officers, said campus safety comes first, and Flanders reports to the FBI in Springfield only when he is not needed in Amherst. She declined to detail the nature of his work for the FBI.
Professors' concerns about the government overstepping its bounds were heightened last week when another man came forward to describe an experience similar to Alhabeeb's. Yaju Dharmarajah, a Sri Lankan union organizer who lives in Hadley, said his American wife was visited at home this summer by law enforcement officials after the couple contacted the state Emergency Management Agency to find out about disaster relief training. It was unclear to Dharmarajah if UMass police were involved in his wife's questioning.
The couple wanted the training because they plan to travel overseas to work with refugees.
''I have no problem with the tracking of terror suspects - the role of the government is to protect its citizens - but you never see skinny white men with beards being stopped for questioning,'' Dharmarajah said.
Michael O'Reilly, the head of the Springfield FBI office, said his agency is obligated to follow up on any tips that might be credible, and said an ethnic-sounding name could be a factor in evaluating credibility. He said someone with his own name might attract more attention if an allegation referred to the Irish Republican Army.
UMass faculty ''are blowing this way out of proportion,'' said O'Reilly. ''We're doing the best we can in this climate.''
But professors who gathered last week said a strong reaction is essential. Retired English professor Jules Chametzky spoke of being investigated in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, and urged those in attendance not to speak to the FBI without a third party present. Faculty pledged to find out the extent of the questioning on campus, and said they are particularly concerned about Middle Eastern students, vulnerable because of their reliance on student visas.
For Alhabeeb, an artist whose traditional Islamic calligraphy was recently displayed in a university gallery, the memory of the interview remains unsettling.
''Every Iraqi has this fear,'' he said. ''For Americans, it's hard to comprehend.''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company