Squelching free speech
Over the past 10 years, the world has seen a growing number of malicious lawsuits in American courts and abroad, filed by adherents of radical strains of Islam designed to punish and silence those who engage in public discourse about radical Islam, terrorism, and terrorist financing.
This pursuit of strategic aims through aggressive legal maneuvers is known as "lawfare." More recently, these legal maneuvers have been accompanied by attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to redefine the very definition of free speech on a global scale in order to constrain the free flow of public information about radical Islam and terrorism. The 57-member conference's voter bloc dominates the U.N. General Assembly.
Even within the United States, despite the unparalleled protections of our First Amendment, lawfare lawsuits have resulted in many time-consuming and financially devastating cases against individuals who wrote about radical Islam and terrorism. These lawsuits have not spared Californians.
In 2002, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director and regional board chairman wrote and published a letter to California's schools superintendent urging investigation into whether state funding to the GateWay Academy charter school system was being illegally used to teach religion.
The letter called attention to the superintendent of the GateWay Academy, Khadija Ghafur, and her status as an officer of "Muslims of the Americas," an organization linked to the terrorist group Al-Fuqra. Ghafur then filed suit in San Francisco against the league and its officers, claiming that the public letter constituted libel against her.
In 2007, Yale University Press published a book by counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Entitled "Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad," the book mentioned several U.S.-based charities as allegedly having funded the terrorist organization Hamas. Among the named organizations was Kids in Need of Development, Education and Relief Inc., better known as KinderUSA. KinderUSA sent a letter to Yale University Press demanding a retraction.
When the publisher refused, KinderUSA filed a libel lawsuit against Yale University Press, the Washington Institute and Levitt himself in Los Angeles.
All too many defendants in situations such as these have been forced to surrender, facing bankruptcy from legal fees long before their cases could be heard. However, both the Anti-Defamation League and Levitt were able to make use of a legal innovation enacted by the California Legislature in 1993. Known as an anti-SLAPP statute, it is a legal mechanism aimed at preventing lawsuits designed to hinder legitimate public dialogue. When the Anti-Defamation League made this motion, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, a ruling that was upheld on appeal.
In the Yale University Press case, after the defendants filed the anti-SLAPP motion, KinderUSA dropped the lawsuit altogether, saying only that it had underestimated the costs involved.
Sadly, despite many successes when these cases have been heard on their merits, Islamist lawfare has carved a global swath through the public debate on radical Islam and terrorism. And lurking behind the scenes of world discussion (or lack thereof) on these subjects is the immensely powerful and far-reaching Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Over the past several years, the Islamic conference has gotten the U.N. Human Rights Council to issue resolutions condemning "defamation of religion," and continues to work toward suppressing or otherwise controlling any and all dialogue regarding radical Islam and terrorism under the guise of "human rights."
It should be ludicrous for a human rights group in any nation to claim that blaspheming a religious figure is a human rights violation. Yet Adel Al-Damkhi, chairman of the Kuwait Human Rights Society, has stated that "uttering profanities against Prophet Muhammad is the worst form of human rights violation in the world."
The Organization of the Islamic Conference's secretary-general himself has publicly stated that, in discussing Islamic rights, "These rights are part and parcel of the teaching of Islam that no ruler, government, assembly or authority can alter, curtail or violate in any way."
That statement does not prevent the conference from working to compel others to follow its politicized version of Islam, of course.
Defend open discourse
These issues have not met with significant news coverage, despite significant consequences for the entire world. However, that is not to say that no action has been taken. On May 19, the Legal Project of the Middle East Forum hosted a historic conference on libel lawfare in Washington, D.C., along with the Federalist Society, the Center for National Security Law and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
With a morning panel on lawfare in the United States, luncheon presentations from individuals with direct experience in lawfare, and an afternoon panel on European and international aspects of the phenomenon, the conference brought together considerable and varied expertise in the field.
There was no single conference conclusion -- that was not its purpose. The conference achieved its purpose simply by engaging in precisely the type of speech that Islamists want to suppress so desperately: open discussion on these critical issues of public concern, without fear of threats or reprisal.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is assistant director at the Legal Project of the Middle East Forum.
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