By Brooke Goldstein and Aaron Eitan Meyer
Legal Project of the Middle East Forum
The phenomenon known as Islamist “lawfare,” or the use of Western legal systems to achieve the goals of radical Islam, has taken a variety of forms during its rise over the past ten years. Generally, lawfare may be roughly divided into two categories: 1) small-scale attempts to silence individuals who write critically about Islam, terrorism and terrorist funding; and 2) attempts by regional and global organizations to redefine [read: curtail] freedom of speech.
On Tuesday, May 19, the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum – which was created by Daniel Pipes as a direct response to lawfare – the Federalist Society, the Center for National Security Law and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, are holding a conference to analyze the issue. Entitled “Libel Lawfare: Silencing Criticism of Radical Islam,” the conference will address lawfare tactics in the United States and tactics and strategy employed in Canada, the European Union, and the United Nations.
In the United States, a particular player on this front has been the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an opportunistic organization that has attempted to silence its critics through threats and lawsuits time and again. When CAIR discovered that Senator Arlen Specter was scheduled to speak at the Libel Lawfare conference, it began circulating a petition demanding that he not speak – echoing its calls for the removal of Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner after he committed the ‘crime’ of allowing Dutch Parliamentarian, filmmaker and anti-Islamist advocate Geert Wilders to speak at a recent free speech conference in Florida. Ironically, Senator Specter withdrew from the conference before CAIR began to circulate its petition.
While lawfare in the United States has been relatively unsuccessful, the European Union and United Nations represent the larger battleground in the struggle being waged to protect the right to criticize radical Islam, and a losing front at that.
The EU, with its “hate speech” statutes and plaintiff-friendly libel laws, has provided Islamists with numerous victories, and terrorism analysis continues to suffer throughout the continent as a result. Meanwhile, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which dominates the UN General Assembly, has managed to pass several resolutions aimed at globally criminalizing “defamation of religion,” a nebulous thought crime that would prevent anyone from analyzing, questioning, or criticizing virtually anything having to do with Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
Yet, the next phase of Islamist lawfare may well center directly upon the internet itself. Already, a number of nations have held that content downloaded within their jurisdiction is subject to that nation’s laws – regardless of whether that content is deemed protected speech where it originated. But looming on the horizon is a more daunting possibility.
Currently, all internet web addresses are assigned and managed by the California based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), by contract with the United States government. That contract is set to expire in September, 2009, and certain parties in the EU have already begun to call for a multilateral approach to the internet.
For American researchers, journalists and analysts in particular, accustomed to the concept that freedom of speech is an inalienable right that a government can only alter in a limited number of instances, any shift to a less-protected internet presents the potential for a freezing chill on speech dealing with controversial topics.
Moreover, lurking behind a ‘multilateral’ internet is the specter of United Nations control, and that means the OIC. That organization adheres to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which circumscribes the right to freely express oneself by stating that it may only be done “in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.” Moreover, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are to be defined “according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.” Shari’ah, of course, is the same draconian Islamic jurisprudence that subjugates women and minorities under claim of religious right.
The ultimate aim of Islamists is not merely to silence individual critics, but to compel everyone to adhere, overtly or otherwise, to the Shari’ah-derived norms espoused by the OIC. The strategy is to use any and all tools to achieve this end, be they predatory defamation lawsuits, ‘hate speech’ laws, or international resolutions.
In 1996, in the case Reno v. ACLU, a specially constituted panel of federal judges declared the internet to be a free speech zone, with Judge Stewart Dalzell stating that the internet is “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed.”
Freedom of speech means the right to criticize, free from fear of reprisal. Granting any form of control over the internet to parties interested in suppressing speech critical of radical Islam or analysis of terrorism would signal a victory for radical Islam that dwarfs any number of UN resolutions. Should the internet in fact prove to be the next battleground for Islamist lawfare, we must stand ready to protect it.
Brooke Goldstein is a practicing attorney, an award-winning filmmaker and the director of the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum. The Legal Project is dedicated to providing pro-bono legal representation to authors, activists and publishers who work on the topics of radical Islam, terrorism and their sources of financing.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is assistant director at the Legal Project of the Middle East Forum and Legal Correspondent to the Terror Finance Blog.