Robert O. Collins: NYT profiles his fight with Saudi billionaire

Historians in the News

When it first appeared in 2006, “Alms for Jihad,” an academic book on Islamic charitable networks by two American scholars [historian Robert O. Collins and former State Department officer J. Millard Burr], drew scant attention. It sold a modest 1,500 copies and received few reviews. But in recent weeks the book has become an international cause célèbre, after Cambridge University Press agreed to pulp all unsold copies in a defamation settlement.

Last spring, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, a powerful Saudi businessman and banker to the Saudi royal family who is based in Jeddah, sued the publisher over the book’s depiction of his family as financiers of terrorism. In English libel law, the burden of proof falls on the defendant, and bin Mahfouz had won judgments in several other cases. Rather than challenging the accusations, the press agreed in August to destroy the remaining 2,300 warehoused copies of the book. It also paid bin Mahfouz an undisclosed sum for damages and legal fees, issued a written apology and, to the anger of librarians, asked libraries that refused to insert an errata slip to remove the book from their shelves.

The case is fanning widespread concern that English libel law is stifling writers far beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Today, any book bought online in England, even one published exclusively in another country, can ostensibly be subject to English libel law. As a result, publishers and booksellers are increasingly concerned about “libel tourism”: foreigners suing other foreigners in England or elsewhere, and using those judgments to intimidate authors in other countries, including the United States. Last year, the Association of American Publishers, Amazon.com, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and others filed an amicus brief in New York, arguing that such litigation “constitutes a clear threat to the ability of the U.S. press to vigorously investigate and publish news and information about the most crucial issues before the U.S. public.” In early September, Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, invited one of the co-authors of “Alms for Jihad” to discuss the book in a private meeting with intelligence workers and staffers from the Department of Homeland Security. Cambridge’s settlement is “basically a book-burning,” Wolf said in a telephone interview. “I think it will have a chilling effect.”...

Burr and Collins recently reobtained the copyright to “Alms for Jihad” from Cambridge. They’re now awaiting word from several American publishers who have expressed interest. If the book is published here, Collins said he would correct two errors: that the bin Mahfouz family intermarried with the bin Laden family, and that bin Mahfouz was chief executive of B.C.C.I., [Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was implicated in massive bank fraud] when in fact he was a director. Beyond that, he said, any changes would be up to the publisher. “There are three options,” Collins said. To leave the book “as it is”; to “sanitize it”; or to “just delete Mahfouz the 11 times he appears.”

Related Links

  • Robert O. Collins: The Saudi Billionaire vs. Cambridge University Press
  • Read entire article at Rachel Donadio in the NYT Book Review

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