In late July, Cambridge University Press announced it was destroying all its remaining copies of Alms for Jihad, a 2006 book exploring the nexus of Islamic charities and Islamic radicalism. At the same time, Cambridge asked libraries around the world to stop carrying the book on their shelves. The reason? Fear of being sued in a British court by Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire who ranks as one of the world's richest men--and whose suspected links to terrorist financing earned him a mention in Alms for Jihad.
Cambridge issued a formal apology to bin Mahfouz, and posted a separate public apology on its website. The latter read in part:
In 2006 Cambridge University Press published Alms for Jihad written by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins which made certain defamatory allegations about Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz and his family in connection with the funding of terrorism. Whilst the allegations were originally published in good faith, Cambridge University Press now recognizes that the information upon which they were based was wrong. Cambridge University Press accepts that there is no truth whatsoever in these serious allegations.
Therefore, "To emphasize their regret, Cambridge University Press has agreed to pay Sheikh Khalid substantial damages and to make a contribution to his legal costs, both of which Sheikh Khalid is donating to the charity UNICEF."
Neither Burr nor Collins joined the apology. Both American writers and U.S. citizens, they stand by their scholarship. "We refused to be a party to the settlement," says Collins, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "I'm not going to recant on something just from the threat of a billionaire Saudi sheikh." What's more, he adds, "I think I'm a damn good historian."
According to Collins, Cambridge's in-house lawyers reviewed the manuscript of Alms for Jihad in 2005, prior to publication. They gave it a green light. But when faced with the specter of a costly legal battle, the publisher caved. "Cambridge, frankly, came to us and said, 'There's no way we can win this case.' And I had to agree with them," Collins says. "I'm disappointed in the Press, but I understand their position. I'm not angry with them." After all, "It's probably the cheapest way out," since U.S. and British libel laws "are as different as night and day."
Therein lies the deeper significance of this case. Bin Mahfouz has a habit of using the English tort regime to squelch any unwanted discussion of his record. In America, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the plaintiff. In Britain, it lies with the defendant, which can make it terribly difficult and expensive to ward off a defamation charge, even if the balance of evidence supports the defendant. Just ask Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt, who found herself hauled into court in Britain when she tagged David Irving as a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt won the decision, but not before she incurred staggering legal bills.
In a case more relevant to the Alms for Jihad spat, bin Mahfouz sued Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy, over her 2003 book Funding Evil, which painted a detailed picture of how money travels into the coffers of terrorist groups. Funding Evil, for which ex-CIA director James Woolsey penned the foreword, was billed on its cover as "The book the Saudis don't want you to read." Ehrenfeld fingered bin Mahfouz as a financier--whether deliberate or not--of al Qaeda, Hamas, and others.
He quickly sued her for libel in England, and Ehrenfeld chose not to contest it. A British judge then ordered Ehrenfeld to repudiate her statements, apologize to the Saudi magnate, pay him over $225,000 in damages--and destroy copies of her book. Instead, she chose to fight this ruling in the U.S. court system.
Ehrenfeld argues that the verdict cannot be enforced here because she is a U.S. citizen who published her book in America, where bin Mahfouz would not have won his libel case. (Bin Mahfouz's lawyers originally secured British jurisdiction by showing that Funding Evil could be purchased--and read--in Britain via the Internet.) In June, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Ehrenfeld could challenge the British libel decision in a U.S. court, thus setting an important precedent.
According to Ehrenfeld, there are "at least 36 cases" since March 2002 where bin Mahfouz has either sued or threatened to sue (mostly the latter) in England over the documentation of his alleged terror connections. He is the most prominent Saudi "libel tourist," the moniker given to those who exploit British law to silence critics. "It's had a tremendous chilling effect," Ehrenfeld argues, on those seeking to investigate bin Mahfouz and other Saudi bigwigs. She will not apologize for her book, having "not even a shadow of a doubt" that her accusations against bin Mahfouz are true.
There is not room here to fully examine them. But they include charges that through his former bank, the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, and through an Islamic charity he sponsored, the Muwafaq ("Blessed Relief") Foundation, bin Mahfouz either knowingly or unknowingly lent financial aid to terrorists. In October 2001, the U.S. Treasury Department described Muwafaq as "an al Qaeda front that receives funding from wealthy Saudi businessmen." Bin Mahfouz denies all such allegations on his website, www.binmahfouz.info, insisting his family "abhors violence as a way of achieving political or other objectives."
His allies point to a string of successful libel challenges as vindication. In May 2005, the London Times reported that "Sheikh bin Mahfouz has sued four times in London for statements concerning his alleged role in terrorism financing. He has never lost." But whether Burr and Collins--not to mention Ehrenfeld and others--are right or wrong about bin Mahfouz, does that justify pulping an entire book?
Burr told the New York Sun that "their book mentioned Sheikh Mahfouz 13 times, and in no place had they labeled him a terrorist." A May 2006 review in Toronto's Globe and Mail said that Alms for Jihad
provides the most comprehensive look at the web of Islamic charities that have financed conflicts all around the world: Afghanistan, Israel, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia and the Philippines. Burr and Collins, who together have written many books on Islam and Middle East politics, also offer a very good discussion of the philosophy behind and role of the various manifestations of charitable giving in Islam.
Many "charities," it seems, have fueled Islamic radicalization across the globe and given tangible assistance to terrorists. As Collins points out, the book is extensively referenced with hundreds of footnotes.
More than two years ago, the London Times warned that "U.S. publishers might have to stop contentious books being sold on the Internet in case they reach the 'claimant-friendly' English courts." So why hasn't this become a cause célèbre for American publishing firms and journalists?
"There's been very little mainstream media coverage" of the Alms for Jihad story, observes Jeffrey Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Bonus Books (which published Funding Evil). This lack of outrage is "absolutely appalling," Ehrenfeld says. "They are burning books now in England, and we are sitting here doing nothing." As for her own legal struggle, she says, "It's been a very lonely fight. It still is."
Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.