Friday, August 31, 2007

Book burning, in these enlightened times, might seem like something found only in science-fiction novels. But two American authors have found the practice quite literally still exists.

Their tome wasn’t destroyed because of populist outrage. Rather, a single man succeeded in pressuring their publisher to pulp the book — without having to set foot in the country in which its authors live.

“Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World,” by J. Millard Burr, a former U.S. Agency for International Development relief coordinator, and scholar Robert O. Collins, was published last year by respected academic publisher Cambridge University Press. The book details how money is funneled to Islamic terrorists through charitable foundations.

It’s probably required reading for those fighting a war on terror at its foundations — if they can get a copy. A few weeks ago, the British publisher agreed to burn all unsold copies of the book after it received a letter threatening legal action from Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. In their book, Mr. Burr and Mr. Collins allege that the former head of the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia funded Hamas and al Qaeda.

Cambridge didn’t wait long to agree to Mr. Mahfouz’s stringent demands and distance itself from the book’s authors. A letter of apology on the publisher’s Web site states, “Cambridge University Press accepts that there is no truth whatsoever in these serious allegations… To emphasize their regret, Cambridge University Press has agreed to pay Sheikh Khalid substantial damages and to make a contribution to his legal costs.” It says the sheik will donate the undisclosed amount to charity.

Mr. Collins, professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is a prolific author, with 40 books to his name. This is the first time one has been suppressed.

When Cambridge told the authors about the letter in May, Mr. Collins says, “we sent to them what we thought a very fine defense. We didn’t do some of the things they accused us of, and we can defend the accusations we did make.”

In fact, much of the information they used is in the public record. Mr. Mahfouz, who in 1993 paid $225 million in lieu of fines after his New York indictment (charges were dropped after the payment) in the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, helped found the Muwafaq Foundation. In 2001, when Mr. Mahfouz says he was not involved in running the charity, the U.S. Treasury Department named the charity an al Qaeda front organization.

“If you look at the book, there are about 1,000 footnotes. That book is meticulously researched,” Mr. Collins says. “That is one damn good book.”

Cambridge must have thought it was thorough, too. “In March 2005, the Cambridge lawyers spent a whole month going through the book and gave it a clean bill of health,” he reports.

The irony is, Mr. Collins says, Mr. Mahfouz plays a very small role in the book, mentioned just 10 times, nine of which are in passing: “If we went through it with my computer, it would take me half an hour to take out his name and it wouldn’t change a thing.”

However, Mr. Mahfouz is becoming a powerful player in the world of publishing, with the help of the British courts. He managed to win a London lawsuit against an author whose book wasn’t even released in the country.

In January 2004, he sued Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It,” shortly after Los Angeles-based Bonus Books published it. Miss Ehrenfeld’s book cannot be published in England, and the judge awarded the businessman damages, which Miss Ehrenfeld has refused to pay.

“He’s a serial libel tourist,” she says, using a phrase that was coined mostly with regard to the Arab businessmen who have used Britain‘s more plaintiff-friendly libel laws to sue. In the United Kingdom, the onus is on the writer to refute allegations, meaning writers rarely prevail; in the U.S., plaintiffs who are public figures must prove malice or reckless disregard to win, and they prevail far less often.

Brits could order “Funding Evil” online, which is how Mr. Mahfouz managed to claim British courts had jurisdiction — an easy feat in the Internet age. Mr. Mahfouz has won or successfully settled more than 30 cases in England.

The climate of discussion itself is different in Britain. The Evening Standard reported this week that the BBC changed the group behind a terrorist attack in an episode of the TV hospital drama “Casualty” from Islamic terrorists to animal rights activists “to avoid offending Muslims.”

Miss Ehrenfeld, who is director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy, an anti-terrorism think tank, is disappointed — but not surprised — by Cambridge’s capitulation. Declaring “Cambridge has defamed” authors Burr and Collins, she says, “Maybe American authors shouldn’t publish with Cambridge University Press.”

The ramifications go beyond the issue of freedom of speech and the press. “I know other authors whose book proposals have been rejected by publishers because they dealt with Saudi Arabia and Saudis,” she says. “This is part of the jihad against us, silencing us so we don’t know what’s going on.”

Miss Ehrenfeld is taking an aggressive approach: She’s sued Mr. Mahfouz in a New York federal court, seeking a declaration that the British judgment is not enforceable here. She lost the first round, but an appeals court unanimously ruled in June that the case is ripe for hearing, and arguments should be heard this fall.

The author also has a more supportive publisher in Bonus Books. President Jeffrey Stern thinks Cambridge should have stood behind its writers. “To throw authors under the bus as quickly as they did based on a form letter from his lawyers is reprehensible and contributing to the larger problem, which is the ability of someone with deep pockets to, in effect, censor the media,” he says.

Journalists and authors do a public service with their investigative reporting. If the U.S. had libel laws like Britain’s, he says, scandals like that of Enron would never have been revealed. The frightening implications of this case are so obvious, he says, “I’m appalled by the mainstream media’s absolute refusal to talk about this.”

Perhaps there’s a reason big papers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post haven’t mentioned the “Alms for Jihad” case: All three have settled with Mr. Mahfouz in the past.

Mr. Mahfouz may have won the first round, but the battle is not over. Cambridge sent a letter to about 300 libraries worldwide, asking them to remove “Alms for Jihad” from their shelves.

“They’re pretty mad,” says Mr. Collins of the librarians from whom he’s heard. “One in Alaska said she’s putting up a big exhibition of banned books.”

Mr. Collins is still working with Cambridge, putting the final touches on a history of sub-Saharan Africa. He and Mr. Burr are also collaborating on another book, with the provisional title “Terrorism Internationale: The Popular Arab and Islamic Congress, 1991 and 1995.” He probably won’t publish that one with Cambridge. “I think this time it would be best if we got an American publisher,” he says ruefully.

Before that, he might look for a new publisher for “Alms for Jihad.” He says he feels confident he and Mr. Burr can get back the copyright from Cambridge. “I don’t want to see what was a very good book and thousands of hours in blood, toil, tears and sweat that went into it suddenly go up in smoke,” he says.

There’s certainly a market for the title: A copy of the now-rare book sold on EBay last week for $538.

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