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Trial and terror
The Islamic Society of Boston claims a media conspiracy unfairly linked them to terrorists in an effort to halt plans for a new mosque in Roxbury
BY MARK JURKOWITZ

They started out as two fairly typical libel suits against two Boston news outlets. But the sweeping litigation just filed by the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) against the Boston Herald, Channel 25, and some activists is shaping up to be a nasty confrontation that could spill beyond the media universe to pit portions of the local Jewish and Muslim communities against each other, open deep social and ideological wounds, and generate international headlines.

Moreover, both sides claim to be fighting for core First Amendment freedoms.

The plaintiffs ó the ISB, its board-of-directors chair Yousef Abou-Allaban and board-of-trustees chair Osama Kandil ó contend that the defendants conspired to deny them the right to practice their religion by falsely linking them to terror and undermining their efforts to construct a $22 million mosque and cultural center in Roxbury.

The defendants ó including the two media outlets, terrorism analyst Steven Emerson, and officials of The David Project and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance ó argue that the plaintiffs have engaged in an effort to quash free speech by using intimidation to prevent people from questioning whether the ISB is linked to Islamic terrorism.

"The claims are based upon an alleged unlawful joining together of all the named defendants in an effort to undermine the ISB and its leadership and ultimately to stop the building of a mosque and cultural center in Roxbury," says Howard Cooper, the attorney for the plaintiffs and the lawyer who won a February $2.1 million libel verdict against the Herald for Judge Ernest Murphy. The effect, he adds, "is to deprive people of a particular faith of their right to free associate and worship through a campaign of defamation."

A statement issued by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, of which Emerson is executive director, counters that "the lawsuit is a transparent attempt to discredit and silence those who raise concerns about the activities and danger of militant Islamic groups." Adds attorney Jeffrey Robbins, who is representing The David Project and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance: "Itís a fundamental question. Can people talk to people to raise questions about matters of extraordinary significance and public concern?"

The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court on October 31, is a significantly expanded version of two earlier libel suits. In February, Abou-Allaban sued WFXT-TV (Channel 25) after one of its reports identified him as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist group. In May, Kandil sued the Herald and Channel 25 for linking him to Islamic terrorism and by suggesting, as the suit claimed, that "both he and the ISB presented a danger to the community."

The plaintiffs say the discovery documents they received from Channel 25 provided the "impetus" for filing the far-reaching suit alleging an anti-ISB conspiracy between journalists and their sources. And what started as two interwoven libel cases alleging bad journalism has grown into something considerably more dramatic, divisive, and dangerous.

"This is an agonizing topic to talk about because there are legitimate grievances on both sides, but yet thereís also stereotyping and historic bigotry on both sides," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Somerville-based nonprofit research organization.

Nancy Kaufman is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which last week released a statement expressing "deep disappointment" in the ISB suit. Asked how it would look to have a Boston courtroom battle over the mosque with Jewish-Muslim tensions as a subtext, she responds simply: "Thatís not a great headline."

CHARGES AND COUNTERCHARGES

The ISBís effort to build the largest mosque and cultural center in the Northeast had already generated its share of controversy. Last year, Boston resident James Policastro challenged the project in a suit in Suffolk Superior Court against the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the ISB, and Roxbury Community College. "Itís a sweetheart deal with a religious organization [and] you canít do that," says his attorney, Evan Slavitt. "You canít sell a below-market parcel to a religious institution." Last week, the judge denied a motion to dismiss the case.

In their new lawsuit characterizing the attack on the mosque as a conspiracy, the ISB and its officers allege that beginning in 2002, "a combination of media outlets, reporters, individuals and self-proclaimed Ďexpertsí on radical Islam" joined forces to spread "false and defamatory statements, misleading innuendo and/or outright fabrication ... in an effort to undermine" the mosque project.

In a lengthy chronology of events, the suit alleges that William Sapers, a local resident opposed to the mosque, contacted Emerson in an effort to defeat the project, and that the two of them reached out to the Boston Herald and particularly to staffer Jonathan Wells to generate publicity. (Sapers, also a defendant, did not return phone calls.) A Herald series on the subject began with an October 28, 2003, front-page story headlined RADICAL ISLAM: OUTSPOKEN CLERIC, JAILED ACTIVIST TIED TO NEW HUB MOSQUE. A follow-up the next day charged that Kandil was "allegedly linked to a network of Muslim companies and charitable groups ... suspected by federal investigators of providing material support to Islamic terrorists."

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Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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