October 03, 2007

Defamation and Religion: the Story of Jamal Miftah

by PG

By way of explaining why an American Muslim cannot reveal her identity if she criticizes Islamic extremism, Muslims Against Sharia commented,

One of the OKC Muslims wrote an op-ed criticizing Islamic terrorism in general and al-Qaeda in particular. Since then he has been kicked out of the local mosque and threatened with violence. This story was not widely publicized because it doesn’t fit into MSM agenda, but it made CBN and some blogs. Considering the shitstorm we created by admitting that the Koran is not perfect, what do you think would happen to us if our identities ever made public?
Because the incident in question took place in Tulsa, not Oklahoma City, it took me a little while to figure out what MAS meant, but I eventually found an excellent archive of posts on the topic of Jamal Miftah at Batesline.

Miftah published a piece in the Readers Forum of the Tulsa World, in which he describes a friend who volunteered to fight American forces in Afghanistan as "innocent." He makes generalizations such as, "Cowards like al-Zawahri and bin Laden are inciting the ignorant and innocent youths to commit suicide bombings to kill innocent civilians including children, women and the elderly, while they hide in spider holes and caves. They never send their own sons and daughters, born out of half a dozen of their wives, to get killed in the name of Islam." al-Zawahiri's wife, Azza, and their three children were reportedly killed in the December 3, 2001 airstrikes on caves near Jalalabad.

The beginning of the article admonishes, "'Islam' means submission and is derived from a word meaning 'peace.' Islam, Christianity and Judaism have the same origin, the Prophet Abraham. The prophet of Islam has said that God has no mercy on someone who does not have mercy for others." However, the article concludes, "I appeal to the Muslim clerics around the world that, rather than issuing empty fatwas condemning suicide bombing, they should issue a fatwa for the death of such scoundrels and barbarians who have taken more than 4,267 lives of innocent people in the name of Islam." He also states, "Even mosques and Islamic institutions in the U.S. and around the world have become tools in their hands and are used for collecting funds for their criminal acts. Half of the funds collected go into the pockets of their local agents and the rest are sent to these thugs."

Perhaps resenting the implication that it was a tool in bin Laden's hand, the Islamic Center of Tulsa forbade Miftah from worshiping there until he took back what he wrote. Ali Eteraz, a critic of Islamic extremism who writes under his own name (as do members of the Free Muslim Coalition), interviewed Miftah and reported that Miftah's article led "certain members within the Islamic Society of Tulsa to call him an 'agent,' a 'traitor,' and an 'anti-Muslim' and to ban him from the mosque. The reason behind the IST's apprehensivenss? As one of its leaders said to Miftah: 'you can't write bad things about Muslims in front of non-Muslims.'"

Yet in the interview, "when [Etaraz] asked him whether he was concerned about any reprisals from 'the Muslim community' he was quick to say 'no, not the Muslim community, because I too am a Muslim, but from Al-Qaeda sympathizers.'" Etaraz adds, "He certainly feels betrayed and angered by the fact that he was called numerous names by the IST and pushed out. However, instead of taking any aggressive actions, he has simply reiterated to the mosque leadership that he is not going to rescind his article; he is not going to apologize for what he said; and in fact, he is going to wait for them to apologize to him for mistreating him."[1]

Perhaps becoming embittered by the IST's claims that he was expelled for being audibly disruptive, Miftah wrote to the Tulsa World saying, "I am also surprised why office bearers of IST are so defensive about channeling funds to illegitimate organizations by them. My article does not say anything to that effect by IST mosque in Tulsa, rather it was reference to the mosque in Brooklyn (Al-Farooq Mosque), New York, California, Albany, New York, Bridgeview, Illinois, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and one in Texas, and the result of investigation on the London bombing plot, leading its trails to funneling of earthquake donations collected in Britain to the terrorists involved. I have not yet made any allegation about IST on this count, yet some of their activities that I am aware of and have evidence certainly create doubts about legality of some of their activities."

In a March 2007 interview with Frontpage, Miftah reiterates his belief in the innocence of Pakistanis who crossed into Afghanistan in order to fight U.S. forces, "During the course of time, ordinary people including myself realized that all the leaders made it back to their homes safe and sound, whereas a number of the ordinary men never returned. They either got killed or were held for ransom by Afghans and possibly the Taliban." Or they're in, um, Guantanamo Bay. Miftah also stated, "It now makes me believe, from the kind of response and the treatment that I received, that there are elements within the mosque leadership who have sympathies for terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. To root out and expose such elements we need moral support from organizations like yours and also legal help to prosecute such rogue elements."

Miftah concluded that he wanted help in pursuing a court case against the IST, and had contacted the ACLU but they said they didn't have the funds for his case. (Given that a private religious organization cannot violate the First Amendment and therefore is free to kick anyone out for his speech, I suspect this was the ACLU's polite way of saying that they didn't believe Miftah had a constitutional case.) Unsurprisingly, the history Ph.D and non-lawyer interviewing Miftah replied, "Trust me, the ACLU doesn't have scarcity of funds for all kinds of things. They just don't have any funds to support a moderate Muslim against radical Islam."

Notwithstanding his own highly public remarks accusing the IST's leadership of legally dubious activities and sympathy with Al-Qaeda, in June 2007 Miftah filed suit against the IST for assault, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The two paragraphs copied on the Batesline blog sound like a questionable legal theory:

24. The acts of Defendants, individually and jointly, are outrageous in that Defendants knew that if they labeled Jamal Miftah a "traitor… anti Muslim and anti Islamic" his life would be forfeit should he be found in a Muslim Country and labeled apostate and that he would live in constant fear and dread of vigilante “justice” from certain Muslims in the United States.
25. The acts of Defendants are the proximate cause of severe emotional distress in that Jamal Miftah is now labeled as apostate, forced along with his wife and four children to attend to prayers in their home, apart from the fellowship of other Muslims, prevented from traveling to any Muslim Country, including his homeland of Pakistan and robbed of his peace of mind and right to speak freely against those he believes have brought his faith into disrepute via attacks on his adopted homeland and other acts of terrorism.
So now no Muslim can accuse another of being "anti Muslim and anti Islamic" without legal liability? I don't think an American court sensibly can import theocratic norms into its decisions on freedom of speech within the U.S. Perhaps it is insensitive and even morally reckless to make such statements if one knows the weight they may carry within a particular religious community, but our courts cannot force people to be silent in Tulsa (whether by injunction or through fear of further money damages) because of the reactions of people in Tripoli.

Moreover, in the U.S. calling someone a traitor to a religion is not an opinion that should be subject to legal penalty through a defamation claim. A traitor to the nation, yes, because such is a crime and accusing someone of a crime is inherently defamatory. But there is no crime in being a traitor to Islam. If this is the lawsuit Miftah wanted the ACLU to pursue, no wonder they said no -- it counters their stance on the First Amendment.

[1] I'm not going to assume that Etaraz's interpretation of words would track with mine, given his remark, "The last editorial in the New York Times which gave space to a Muslim to write on terrorism, on the other hand, was by a short story writer named Anar Ali who essentially said she could not be bothered with issues involving other Muslims (even as she played the Islam card to sell her anthology)." I didn't really get that from Ali's begging off from any expected expertise on terrorism:

Whether you want it or not, as a Muslim (secular and otherwise) you are automatically pulled into the debate on terrorism. Not that I don't want to discuss it, I do. But I want to discuss it as a citizen, not just a Muslim.
As a Muslim, people expect you to be an expert, to have special inside knowledge on the topic. They want your opinion on the issue, your help in explaining and analyzing complex political issues, the history of Islam, the psychology of suicide bombers.
I have no sense of what motivates a terrorist (except maybe as a fiction writer, since it's my job to enter the hearts and minds of characters). Terrorists and radical Islamists live in a different place from me, psychologically and culturally, even if they were raised in Canada just as I was. To better understand these young men and why they turn to violence as a means to an end, it might make more sense to ask someone who was a skinhead, a member of the Irish Republican Army, a Tamil Tiger, or a Weatherman.
If you asked me, I would have to speculate, as most people do, from the sidelines.

October 3, 2007 05:41 PM | TrackBack

You are right, it was Tulsa. But the point was that revealing our identities to start constantly looking over our shoulders isn't worth the aggravation.

Posted by: Muslims Against Sharia at October 4, 2007 07:22 AM

Certainly, and that's your decision to make. I'm simply pointing out that your anonymity means you're likely to be taken less seriously than the folks like Eteraz and the Free Muslim Coalition, who do speak under their own names. In particular, anonymity gives rise to the suspicion that Muslims Against Sharia may not actually be made up of Muslims, which is not a concern with the individuals and organizations who say who they are.

Posted by: PG at October 4, 2007 02:33 PM

Could Miftah have a cause of action similar to that of the doctors in the Nuremberg Files case? He'd have to prove that the statements by the mosque were intended to incite violence against him, which might be difficult at trial, but conceivably he could get past a motion to dismiss.

AS far as MAS goes, their stance fits somewhat with the cases from the '60s where the NAACP refused to release its membership lists for fear of reprisals. I know you're not saying that MAS should be forced to reveal their members, but I just thought I'd point out that their position is part of our constitutional tradition.

Posted by: Tom T. at October 4, 2007 11:42 PM

The Nuremberg Files were intended to bring attention to private citizens, and gave the photographs and addresses to a group of people who had been previously unaware of these specific citizens. In contrast, Miftah made himself into a quasi-public figure, and any incitement to violence against him at the mosque was done solely among people who already knew him and probably what he had written. His publicity was very much self-driven: he wrote the op-ed, and then publicized his mistreatment by the mosque. The Batesline blog highlights a couple of anonymous internet threats against Miftah from Pakistani IP addresses, but these all came after Miftah himself did his best to attract attention to his cause. Unless an attack on Miftah came from someone at the mosque in question, I'd consider him a more proximate cause of any violence than someone at the mosque. Remember, the IST has done its best to downplay and possibly even lie about the role that Miftah's op-ed played in their decision to exclude him. They're telling the media that it was just a dispute about his noisiness, nothing to do with anything he's said about Islam. He's the one publicizing that he was called an apostate.
If *he* had attacked someone for calling him a traitor and anti-Muslim, he'd have a defense that these were fighting words, but I don't think that's useful when he's a defamation plaintiff.

The state of Alabama was requesting the NAACP's lists in order to engage in harassment and intimidation of members in that state. The leadership was all named, and members in other states freely declared themselves as such. These people were mostly African-American, and the NAACP's stances did seem to be in African-Americans' favor. In contrast, MAS's total anonymity raises suspicions because it is highly critical of the religion of the group it claims to represent. It would be like having an NAACP that only talked about how black people needed to stop whining so much and recognize what was wrong with themselves (a Booker T. Washington branch, I suppose ;-). This is a valid stance for an African-American organization to take (at least nowadays, less so in the 1960s), and its leadership and members might be fearful of reprisals from their own community, but I think people would be rightfully doubtful that such an anonymous NAACP actually was composed primarily of blacks instead of other races.

Posted by: PG at October 5, 2007 11:52 AM

“I'm simply pointing out that your anonymity means you're likely to be taken less seriously than the folks like Eteraz and the Free Muslim Coalition, who do speak under their own names.” You have a valid point, however neither Eteraz no FMC advocate reforms as deep as we do. I think that, in terms of the depth of reforms, Muslims Against Sharia is more comparable to Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji, but since we are not as brave as they are, we will keep anonymous, for now.

Posted by: Muslims Against Sharia at October 6, 2007 02:20 PM

People talk about the need to reform Islam. Now you can stop talking and start helping.

With the help of our readers we went through the Koran and removed every verse that we believe did not come from Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate. We would like to publish Reform Koran in as many languages as possible. If you could help with translation, editing, or distribution of the Reform Koran, please email us at koran-AT-reformislam.org. If you could provide financial support, please visit our support page.

In Memoriam of Aqsa Parvez.


Posted by: Muslims Against Sharia at December 23, 2007 11:14 PM
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