FOUR WEEKS AGO, the Islamic Society of Boston folded its cards. On May 29, it abandoned the sweeping defamation lawsuit it had filed in 2005 against 17 defendants -- journalists, scholars, activist groups, and others who had expressed concerns about the Islamic Society's leaders, some of whom had ties to jihadist extremism, and about the land the city of Boston had sold it at a cut-rate price in order to build a mosque.
The complaint had accused the defendants of despicable behavior -- lying about the Islamic Society, vilifying innocent people, conspiring to deprive Boston-area Muslims of their religious freedom and other civil rights. If even some of the charges were true, the defendants deserved to face harsh legal penalties and be shunned by the entire community. Instead, the Islamic Society dropped its suit without collecting a penny. Why?
Because the charges were false, that's why. And pretrial discovery -- the evidence being gathered through subpoenas and depositions -- was proving it.
For example, the Islamic Society claimed that publicity about its leaders' ties to Islamist extremism had "been devastating" to the organization's fund-raising. "Donations to the ISB have decreased," the lawsuit charged. In a press release, the organization lamented that negative media coverage had resulted in "donations trickling to a halt."
But in July 2005, well after the supposedly "devastating" news coverage had first appeared in the Boston Herald and on Fox 25 TV, a letter written by the Islamic Society's attorney and e-mailed by Chairman Yousef Abou-allaban conveyed a very different message. "Fund-raising has been robust," it reported, "and ISB has $2 million in cash."
Fund-raising had indeed been robust. Documents acquired during discovery revealed that some $4.2 million had been wired to an Islamic Society bank account in New Hampshire between April 2004 and May 2005 -- nearly all of it from Saudi Arabia. Another $1 million came from the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank in late 2005.
Those ties to Saudi Arabia were a key reason for concern about the Islamic Society. Saudi Arabia's state religion is Wahhabism, a radical and belligerent form of Islam, and as the 9/11 Commission reported, Saudi money is used "to spread Wahhabi beliefs throughout the world, including in mosques and schools. . . . Some Wahhabi-funded organizations have been exploited by extremists to further their goal of violent jihad against non-Muslims."
But in its lawsuit, the Islamic Society had denied any Saudi connection to the mosque it was building in Boston. It said it had been libeled by the "false information" that it received money "from Wahhabis and/or Muslim Brotherhood and/or other Saudi/Middle Eastern sources." As the evidence amassed during discovery made clear, however, that wasn't libel. It was the simple truth.
Repeatedly, the Islamic Society sought court orders blocking the release of such evidence. In one case, it warned that publishing certain documents would "create serious security risks" for Muslim worshipers, since it would reveal the new mosque's architectural schematics. The court denied that request after the defendants pointed out that the schematics were not exactly a secret: They are publicly posted on the Islamic Society's own website.
And so it went. One by one, the Islamic Society's claims and accusations proved groundless. By the time it dropped its lawsuit on May 29, it was clear that it had no chance of winning.
And yet the Islamic Society spins its loss as a victory, noting that the construction of the mosque is going forward. "It was never about money," said Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. "It was about religious freedom."
What the lawsuit was really about, it seems to me, was intimidation -- intimidation of anyone inclined to raise questions or express concerns about the Islamic Society's leaders and their connections to radical Islam. Libel suits have become a favorite tactic of Islamists, who deploy them to silence their critics. In yet another document produced during discovery, the head of the Islamic Center of New England advises Abou-allaban to "thwart" Fox 25 with a lawsuit. "If Fox is being sued for this story," he writes, "it stands to reason that they will be prevented from reporting on the story further while the case is in court."
Sad to say, such legal intimidation works. Once the lawsuit was filed, Fox 25 and the Herald essentially ended their investigative reporting into the Islamic Society's radical connections. Others felt the pressure, too. When an attorney for one of the defendants was interviewed about the case on the radio, the station received a threatening legal letter from the Islamic Society's lawyer -- followed by a subpoena for tapes of the interview and the program host's notes. A free-lance journalist who wrote an article about the case for The New Republic was likewise hit with a subpoena.
So while the Islamic Society's lawsuit was without merit, that doesn't mean it was without effect. Serious questions remain about the Saudi-funded mosque going up in Boston. Will journalists, public officials, and concerned citizens insist on getting answers? Or will they choose instead to look the other way, unwilling to run the risk of predatory litigation and bad-faith accusation?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)