The Magazine

The Islamists Are Coming!

And they've got their lawyers with them.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Bill Sapers doesn't much look like the kind of guy who would find himself staring down radical Islamists or their friends. A 79-year-old accountant, approximately five-foot-six, bespectacled and soft-spoken, Sapers personifies the "distinguished gentleman." But the Islamic Society of Boston, after vainly tussling with him in court for roughly 18 months, would probably dispute that characterization.

Until the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) sued Sapers in late 2005 and gave him a small and unwanted measure of fame, he was far from a public figure. Until then, Sapers had been an anonymous businessman who busied himself with civic activities in his spare time; he has worked with the Anti-Defamation League and is a member of the foundation for Boston's Roxbury Community College.

It was in the course of his duties for the college that Sapers's path crossed that of the ISB. At a meeting of the board in 2002, a fellow board member reported a coup: "Saudi Arabia was going to build the college a garage," Sapers recalls. Sapers asked exactly what this meant, and was told that the college had been the beneficiary of a deal between the city of Boston and the ISB.

It turned out the board member had mangled some details (a garage was never part of the equation), but the deal was still an intriguing one. When Sapers first heard of it, the city had sold the Islamic Society of Boston a piece of land adjacent to Roxbury Community College at a cut-rate price. Depending on who you ask, the land had been conveyed for somewhere between 10 percent and 40 percent of its appraised value. On the plot, the ISB was going to build a $22 million mosque with a 125-foot minaret and a 75-foot dome. In exchange for the city's largesse, the ISB would provide nebulously defined services to Roxbury Community College, including an educational lecture series, and nebulously defined services to the city, including maintenance of a nearby public park.

This arrangement aroused Sapers's curiosity, and he started looking into the ISB. A cursory inspection of the organization's IRS records showed that one of the ISB's seven trustees in the late 1990s was a cleric whose name Sapers knew from his work with the Anti-Defamation League: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a notorious radical.

Although academic apologists for Islamists strangely praise al-Qaradawi as a moderate, he is a well-known figure in the global jihad who has famously vowed that Islam will conquer both Europe and the United States. According to Lebanese-born terror expert Walid Phares, "al-Qaradawi produced most of the doctrinal foundations for Jihadi radicalism since the mid-1990s, including the incitement for Jihadists to defeat the Africans in southern Sudan, the Middle East minorities, and women's movements. Al-Qaradawi [calls for the] further Talibanization of the Muslim world."

Sapers kept digging. He contacted famed terror expert Steve Emerson, who, as it turned out, had long been documenting the ISB's ties with supporters and enablers of extremism. Shortly thereafter, Charles Jacobs, another Boston resident, warmed to the scent as well. Jacobs is perhaps America's foremost activist in the fight against the human slave trade and the head of the David Project, an organization dedicated to honest reporting on the Middle East.

In 2003, this crew reached out to local media outlets. That October, the Boston Herald began publishing a withering series of articles documenting the ISB's unsavory ties. Challenged about al-Qaradawi, the ISB denied he'd been a trustee and explained his listing on the IRS forms as a clerical oversight. But then it emerged that the ISB had used a taped appearance by al-Qaradawi (by this time barred from entering the United States) as a fundraising tool in 2002.

There was more. The Herald and Fox 25, Boston's local Fox affiliate, reported on the writings of ISB trustee Walid Fitaihi, who had been one of the signatories to the city's generous land transfer. Fitaihi had decried Jews as the "murderers of prophets" and claimed that Jews "would be punished for their oppression, murder and rape of the worshippers of Allah." Fitaihi also declared his scorn for the "Zionist lobby in America . . . which has recruited many of the influential media."

Unfortunately for Sapers and Jacobs, their efforts to arouse the interest of influential media outlets met with mixed results. While the Herald and Fox 25 reported the story aggressively, the Boston Globe--with the conspicuous exception of conservative op-ed columnist Jeff Jacoby--largely ignored it, as did the other local network affiliates.

Equally unconcerned were the city of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). The BRA was the city authority that had made the land deal with the ISB, yet refused to answer direct questions about it. The David Project has sued the BRA to get a gander at the public documents related to that conveyance.

In late 2005, the ISB sued Sapers, Jacobs, the Herald, Emerson, Fox 25, and all the reporters who had covered the story for tortious defamation. The inclusion of Jacobs, Emerson, and Sapers was especially curious, since all these men had done was talk to reporters. The free speech issues at stake were sufficiently grave that renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams agreed to represent Emerson. Attorney Jeff Robbins of the prominent Boston law firm Mintz Levin represented Jacobs and the David Project on a pro-bono basis.

Jacobs points out that the purpose of lawsuits like this (and the one brought on behalf of the Minneapolis airport's "flying imams") is to chill criticism of Islamic groups, even the airing of accurate information. Certainly, any media outlet that reports on the Islamic Society of Boston has to know that a lawsuit may well be its reward for reporting that displeases the ISB. Perhaps that explains why the Boston Globe showed little interest in the story, and, when it did cover it, seemed to bend over backwards to avoid offending the ISB or its attorneys.

As for the defendants in the case, they refused to be intimidated. The suit's transparently frivolous nature emboldened them.

The linchpin of the ISB's complaint was that all of the defendants had been negligent in relying on Steve Emerson as a terror expert. To support this notion, the suit quoted a 1991 New York Times article that disparaged Emerson. Lest this 16-year-old newspaper piece not be deemed dispositive, the complaint also cited a 1998 article from something called the Weekly Planet that said, "Emerson has no credibility left. He can't get on TV and most publications won't pick him up." In the 12 months preceding the ISB's lawsuit, Emerson had appeared on MSNBC 65 times, Fox News 78 times, and NBC 16 times including multiple appearances on the Today Show and the Nightly News.

But even if you're bound to win, being sued is taxing. Boston city councilor Jerry McDermott, who aggressively pursued the unusual land conveyance to the ISB, was threatened with a lawsuit and received menacing phone calls at home, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters.

As for near-octogenarian Bill Sapers, he declared himself "too dumb to be scared." Apparently recognizing the hopelessness of intimidating Sapers, Emerson, Jacobs, and the media outlets who were fighting its lawsuit, the ISB finally backed down, though not before securing a face-saving concession: A second lawsuit was also dropped last week, the appeal of a previously dismissed case in which a citizen had disputed the BRA's conveyance to the ISB. This allowed the ISB, however implausibly, to declare victory, even as it swallowed its supposed outrage over being defamed.

But Sapers is declaring victory, too, saying, "This case was about our attempt to bring the truth to the table and their attempt to silence us." The latter attempt failed. Still, thanks to the media's and government's indifference, the defendants' vindication rings a bit hollow. The Boston Globe's coverage of last week's developments failed to mention the ISB's ties to extremists like Qaradawi. And the City of Boston, through the BRA, continues to stonewall efforts to determine exactly how the land transfer to the ISB came about. The David Project's lawsuit against the BRA seeking access to records that should be public labors on; the BRA remains less than forthcoming. Meanwhile, construction on the new mosque is far advanced.

You have to wonder: If people like Sapers, Jacobs, and Emerson are our modern Paul Reveres sounding an alarm that needs to be heard, can they be successful if our most prominent media outlets and even our government ignore them?

Dean Barnett writes at