WHEN AHMED MANSOUR learned that a lawsuit had been filed against him by the Islamic Society of Boston, he had one urgent question: "Will they put me in jail?"
The answer was no -- in America, people don't go to prison for publicly expressing their views, or for encouraging the government to review questionable public transactions. But Mansour had good reason to worry. He had learned the hard way that Muslim reformers who speak out against Islamist fanaticism and religious dictatorship can indeed end up in prison -- or worse. It had happened to him in his native Egypt, which he fled in 2001 after receiving death threats. He was grateful that the United States had granted him asylum, enabling him to go on promoting his vision of a progressive Islam in which human rights and democratic values would be protected. But would he now have to fight in America the same kind of persecution he experienced in Egypt?
Mansour is just one of many people and organizations being sued for defamation by the Islamic Society of Boston, which accuses them all of conspiring to deny freedom of worship to Boston-area Muslims. In fact, the defendants -- who include journalists, a terrorism expert, and the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, plus the Episcopalian lay minister and the Jewish attorney who together with Mansour formed the interfaith Citizens for Peace and Tolerance in 2004 -- appear to be guilty of nothing more than voicing concerns about the ISB's construction of a large mosque in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury.
More than a few unsettling questions have been raised about the ISB and its mosque project. For example:
+ Why did city officials provide the land for the mosque for just $175,000, when the parcel was publicly valued at $400,000? And where did that $400,000 figure come from, when the land's market value had earlier been assessed at $2 million?
+ What is the Islamic Society's relationship to Yusef al-Qaradawi, a radical Islamist who praises suicide terrorism and endorses the killing of Americans in Iraq? For several years the ISB listed him as a trustee, though now it says that was an "administrative oversight." Was it also an oversight when a videotaped message of support from Qaradawi, who is banned from the United States, was played at an ISB fund-raiser in 2002?
+ After it was reported that another trustee, Walid Fitaihi, had written that Jews are "murderers of the prophets" who will be punished for "oppression, murder, and rape of the worshipers of Allah," why did the ISB drag its heels for seven months before unequivocally repudiating his words?
But if anything should raise eyebrows, it is the decision of the Islamic Society to pursue Mansour for his comments about the ISB at a press conference in 2004. He had gone to pray at the ISB's current mosque in Cambridge, and described at the press conference what he had observed: "I am here to testify that this radical culture is here, inside this society," he said. He had seen "Arabic-language newsletters filled with hatred against the United States." Books and videos in the mosque's library promoted "fanatical beliefs that insult other people's religions." A religious man who prays five times daily, he stressed that he was "not against the mosque. . . . I'm against extremists."
If Mansour doesn't have the credentials to form such opinions, it would be hard to say who does.
He holds three degrees from Cairo's Al-Azhar, the foremost religious university in the Islamic world, where he was appointed a professor of Muslim history in 1980. He would probably be there still if his scholarship hadn't gotten in the way. The deeper Mansour delved into the history of Islam, the clearer it became to him that the faith had been perverted into a "false doctrine of hate" -- a doctrine that has been spread across much of the Muslim world and that has fueled great cruelty and bloodshed.
His mounting opposition to Wahhabist radicalism drew the wrath of the powerful Al-Azhar sheiks, who removed him from his classroom and put him on trial in a religious court. For two years, he says, he was pressured to recant. In 1987 he was fired. Then the Egyptian government imprisoned him for two months.
Undeterred, Mansour continued to write and speak out against radical Islam. He has authored 24 books and more than 500 articles, many of them denouncing as heretical any Muslim creeds that "persecute and kill peaceful humans and violate their human rights." The real infidels, he has argued, are those who share "the traits of Osama bin Laden and his followers." Before fleeing for his life, he worked with Egypt's leading human-rights activists, promoting democratic values, funneling assistance to persecuted Christians, and advocating for the reform of religious education.
And this is the Islamic Society of Boston's idea of an anti-Muslim conspirator? Then what, one wonders, is its idea of Islam?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)