Soundbite: Terrified of Libel Litigation


A copy of Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, recently sold on eBay for more than $500. This is no decades-old, out-of-print title; it was published last year by Cambridge University Press. Last summer the publisher pulped the book, which details how money is funneled to Islamic terrorists through charitable foundations, after receiving a letter threatening legal action. The letter was from the Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, who helped found the Muwafaq Foundation, which the Treasury Department has named an Al Qaeda front organization.

Reason contributor Kelly Jane Torrance spoke with Collins, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in September.

Q: Were you surprised by your publisher's response?

A: When I submitted the manuscript, which they liked, I said it would be contentious. We named names, places, money; it's very specific. In March 2005, their lawyers spent a month vetting the book. I wasn't surprised when we got the letter from Mahfouz. That's why the book has 100 footnotes—in other words, we substantiated everything. But the British courts will not recognize evidence that the American courts will.

When I heard Cambridge was settling, I was upset. I was angry. But if I were in Cambridge's shoes, I would probably do the same thing. Mahfouz had already won three cases in Judge Eady's London High Court. It's called the Club Med court for libel tourists.

Q: Cambridge sent a letter to about 280 libraries asking them to withdraw the book from circulation. How have librarians responded?

A: It's been met with a great deal of resistance. The American Library Association said, "No way, we're not going to do that." I had a marvelous letter from a librarian at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was outraged, telling me, "There's no way I'm going to withdraw this. In fact, I'm putting on an exhibit of banned books and this will be featured."

Q: Will you be able to republish the book elsewhere?

A: Yes, I now have the copyright. Half a dozen publishers are interested—two very mainstream, and four modern houses. It has become a very rare and valuable book.

Q: Does this saga have implications beyond the fate of one book?

A: Besides freedom of speech, there's this threat of intimidation. It's very real in the British press. You've got international intrigue, freedom of speech, libel. It's far beyond the ability of Hollywood to put something like that together.

I spent last week in Washington. Homeland Security has taken this whole thing very seriously and followed it closely since it broke in August. They are very concerned to see that United States citizens are not intimidated and afraid to write because of threats from rich Saudis. With the threat of expensive litigation, there have been publishers refusing to accept a manuscript that would be otherwise perfectly publishable.

Q: Will you write about that world again?

A: I just started Chapter 7 of a book I hope to finish by November. The provisional title is Terrorism Internationale: The Popular Arab and Islamic Congresses. Nobody's ever heard of them. They were important congresses held in Khartoum in 1991, 1993, and 1995. Leaders of various jihadist organizations from the Philippines to Morocco were there plotting, comparing notes, figuring out ways to cooperate, ways to get money, all the things you would do at an annual convention. It was really the basis for organizing what we now look upon as international terrorism. Osama bin Laden gave $5 million to help cover the costs of the first one.

Q: Where will you publish the book?

A: I don't know. It won't be with Cambridge.