The Magazine

The Libel Tourist Strikes Again

How to kill a book you don't like.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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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.