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Alms for Jihad By: Robert L. Houbeck, Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 12, 2007


In 1989, former Conservative Party chairman and retired British officer, Lord Aldington, won a libel suit against Count Nikolai Tolstoy for allegations of complicity in war crimes which Tolstoy had made in his 1986 book, The Minister and the Massacres. Following up on his U.K. court victory, Aldington had his lawyers write to “… public libraries throughout Britain threatening further legal action if they continued to make [the book] available …. Even today, the book is virtually unavailable in Britain ….”[1] Out of print, it is easier to find in New Zealand libraries than in the U.K.[2]

András Riedlmayer, a bibliographer at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, sees a family resemblance between the Tolstoy case and the current dust-up about Alms for Jihad. In both cases, an attempt was made by influential elites to intimidate libraries into suppressing a book.

In late July, Cambridge University Press settled a U.K. libel suit brought against it by Saudi businessman, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz had disputed statements in Cambridge’s 2006 book, Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, that he had been involved in financing terrorist groups.[3] A press release by Bin Mahfouz’s lawyers at Kendall Freeman[4] announced that, in addition to publishing a comprehensive apology, paying substantial damages, and pulping unsold copies of the book, “Cambridge University Press is taking the almost unprecedented step of … writing to over 200 libraries worldwide which carry the book telling them of the settlement and asking them to withdraw the book from their shelves.”

Two weeks later, Cambridge Intellectual Property Director Kevin Taylor followed through with a letter to libraries known to hold the book, asking them to remove it.[5] Cambridge, apparently recognizing that librarians would almost certainly not comply, included an errata sheet with the letter. If libraries would not remove the book, Cambridge insisted that they insert the errata page.

Alms for Jihad quickly disappeared from U.S. bookstores and online suppliers.[6] What about the shelves of U.S. libraries?

Cambridge guessed right—librarians did not remove the book. To the contrary, they seem to have gone out and bought up the last elusive copies. More copies of Alms for Jihad were on library shelves in mid-September than before Taylor sent his August 15 letter.[7] U.S. holding libraries range from Harvard and Yale to Dearborn’s Henry Ford Community College.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom issued a statement encouraging librarians to stand firm. “Libraries,” ALA noted, “are considered to hold title to the individual copy or copies, and it is the library’s property to do with it as it pleases. Given the intense interest in the book, and the desire of readers to learn about the controversy first hand, we recommend that U.S. libraries keep the book available for their users.”[8]

A quick poll of library directors at Michigan academic libraries brought similar responses: We paid for the book, we own it, we’re going to keep it. “The book itself,” one director noted, “has now become part of the conversation.” A commentary had become an artifact.

These librarians were affirming the profession’s commitment to preserving and disseminating the “Great Conversation” of recorded knowledge. Academic libraries don’t adjudicate debates, but on their shelves preserve and foster them.

On the substance of the Bin Mahfouz case, librarians had mixed views. One former library director observed that, to agree to such dramatic settlement terms, Cambridge must have concluded it was “dead-on wrong.” Others were not so sure. “The … reaction of CUP to the pressure brought forward by Mahfouz,” observed Mark Herring, Dean of Libraries at Winthrop University, “only serves to show just how powerful and influential money is, even in the face of intellectual freedom.”

Others found it significant that the U.S. authors of Alms for Jihad were standing by their scholarship.[9] Bin Mahfouz had not brought action against them. Moreover, while the Saudi businessman has, since March 2002, initiated or threatened suit 36 times,[10] he has taken legal action only in the U.K., where libel cases favor the plaintiff. The matter, in the view of many librarians, remains a legitimate topic for examination.

The examination will go on not only in U.S. colleges and universities. Copies of Alms for Jihad are in the collections of many federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI Academy, the Air Force and Naval academies, and U.S. Special Operations Command. Did Cambridge send letters to federal libraries, too? If so, a search of the WorldCat database reveals that they aren’t removing the book, either. It’s hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi pressing Congress to surrender its copy, never mind Condoleezza Rice or Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Librarians have been taking steps to protect this suddenly rare book. Charles Hamaker, Associate University Librarian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, reports that “my library, like many academic libraries, has placed Alms for Jihad in a reserve collection to keep it available for current and future users.” The University of Michigan recalled its two circulating copies and put both on reserve—housed, as an added precaution, in separate locations. A search of their online catalogs reveals that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as the University of California-San Diego, have also placed their copies on reserve. Ohio State and Cornell put Alms for Jihad in non-circulating rare book collections. Prudent moves: the $30 book now has a market value of more than $500.[11]

Jonathan Rodgers, head of the University Michigan’s Near East collections, reports that the message traffic among Middle East Librarians Association members has been uniformly supportive of protecting copies and resisting any request to return the book. Riedlmayer of Harvard and others believe it would be reasonable to insert the errata page. But the consensus view among U.S. librarians is to resist any request to remove Alms for Jihad from library shelves.

No librarians interviewed objected to Cambridge University’s settling the lawsuit. Some accepted the firm’s explanation[12] that the book contained erroneous statements which defamed Bin Mahfouz. Most understood Cambridge’s reluctance to spend money on a suit it was likely to lose. Cambridge, too, recently announced plans to expand sales in the Gulf region and perhaps feared that any defense of the book would alienate potential customers.[13]

But librarians do object to the terms of the settlement. Cambridge University Press is the self-described “oldest printer and publisher in the world.”[14] Yet this distinguished firm agreed to a virtually unprecedented insult to free inquiry: a request to academic libraries to be complicit in the suppression of a published work. Some wondered if Cambridge’s request might portend more aggressive attempts at redress in future cases. In previous suits no settlement had included an attempt to suppress library copies. Some also worried about the potential chilling effect of these cases on lesser publishers who may become reluctant to accept manuscripts on terrorism issues.[15]

While questions are regularly raised about books in school or public libraries, challenges to books in academic collections are rare. A request to remove a book initiated by its publisher is virtually unheard of.[16]

When Little, Brown withdrew Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life after the author confessed to plagiarizing portions, it did not ask libraries to suppress their copies.[17] The book remains in many academic collections. Similarly, Knopf stopped printing Michael Bellesiles’ discredited Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, but did not advise libraries to remove it.[18] Libraries were not asked to remove Antoni Gronowicz’s God’s Broker, even though the publisher denounced its own book as “fraudulent” and voluntarily destroyed the unsold remainder of its 35,000 volume print-run.[19] The prestigious academic journal Science editorially retracted two fraudulent cloning articles by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk, yet did not purge the pieces from its article database.[20]

Publishers, generally, and academic librarians, certainly, do not suppress the printed record, even when that record contains acknowledged fraud and error, never mind disputed claims. It’s not that either is indifferent to fraud and error. But, given “the endless twistiness of the human mind,”[21] the consensus has been that less mischief will be done by leaving the sorting out to readers. Caveat lector.

Harvard’s Riedlmayer could recall one example of attempted mischief by a publisher. In 1953, the publisher of the second edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia sent a letter to subscribing libraries asking that they remove from Volume Five the article on Lavrentiy Beria and replace it with a piece on the Bering Sea. Beria, the brutal head of Stalin’s state security police, had been liquidated. Purged from life, the Soviets attempted to purge him from memory. Clumsily helpful, they enclosed a razor blade.[22] Librarians did not remove the Beria article, but tipped-in the Moscow letter along with the replacement piece. No reports on what became of the razor blades.

Taylor of Cambridge didn’t enclose razor blades with his letter. Nor did he advise librarians what to do with Alms for Jihad, should they remove it. Cambridge pulped its 2,340 unsold copies.[23] Some librarians are taking a page from their predecessors in 1953 and plan to tip-in, along with the errata sheet, the Taylor letter. It is now part of the record of the controversy and will be part of the ongoing Conversation.

If the Cambridge edition of Alms for Jihad has now become rare, its contents will not be so for long. Authors Burr and Collins have re-secured their copyright to the manuscript,[24] and several U.S. publishers are interested. Soon an even wider circle of readers will have the opportunity to evaluate the authors’ arguments for themselves—without having to travel to New Zealand.

Mr. Houbeck is a former chair of the Michigan Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. He writes occasionally for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.



[1] Corsellis, John, and Marcus Ferrar. Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival After World War II. (London: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 2005), p.188. See also Mitchell, Ian. The Cost of a Reputation: Aldington versus Tolstoy: The Causes, Course and Consequences of the Notorious Libel Case. (London: Canongate, 1997); and Rayment, Tim. “The Massacre and the Ministers.” The Sunday Times (London) April 7, 1996. http://www.serendipity.li/hr/mm.htm

[2] Twenty libraries in New Zealand own The Minister and the Massacres, just 17 in the U.K. For library holding statistics, search titles at: http://www.worldcat.org/ .

[3] For a summary of the controversy, with links to related articles, see Stillwell, Cinnamon. “Libel Tourism: Where Terrorism and Censorship Meet,” http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/08/29/cstillwell.DTL . For Mr. Bin Mahfouz’s views, see his website: http://www.binmahfouz.info/ . For background by one of the book’s authors, see Robert O. Collins, “The Saudi Billionaire vs. Cambridge University Press.” http://hnn.us/articles/42436.html . See also Rachel Donadio, “Libel Without Borders.” New York Times, Sunday Book Review, 7 October 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/books/review/Donadio-t.html?_r=2&ref=books&oref=slogin&oref=slogin .

[5] Author’s copy of Cambridge letter.

[6] A record of the print copy of the book even disappeared from the online edition of Books in Print.

[7] On August 2, University of Richmond library director, Jim Rettig, reported that the OCLC database indicated approximately 325 institutions worldwide held at least one copy of the book. http://keillor.richmond.edu/blojsom/blog/jrettig/intellectual+freedom/?permalink=Cleanse-libraries-of-books-containing-errors-of-fact.html . By early October, the number had increased to 337. Nearly 300 of those libraries, mostly academic collections, were in the U.S. Only four U.K. libraries reported holding the book. Readers can search the OCLC database at: http://worldcat.org .

[8] “Can They Do That?” 8/14/07, http://blogs.ala.org/oif.php?cat-194 .

[9] See Stillwell and Collins pieces.

[10] Duncan Currie, “The Libel Tourist Strikes Again: How to Kill a Book You Don’t Like.” Weekly Standard, v.12, no.46, 20 August 2007, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Utilities/printer_preview.asp?idArticle=13987&R=1149BF4

[11] Stillwell reports that a copy sold on eBay for $538. Booksellers have offered Collins $500 for a copy, presumably to sell them for considerably more. See Albanese, Andrew, and Jennifer Pinkowski. “ALA to Libraries: Keep Alms for Jihad, Pulped in UK”, Library Journal, 8/23/2007. http://www.libraryjournal.com/index.asp?layout=articlePrint&articleID=CA6471402 .

[12] Kevin Taylor, “Why CUP acted responsibly.” The Bookseller, 8 August 2007. http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/43397-page.html .

[13] See “Middle East and North Africa” section at http://www.cambridge.org/about/world.htm , where the Press notes that it is pursuing “a strategic Joint Venture with the Obeikan Group of Saudi Arabia which focuses on publishing for schools in the Gulf area.” Cambridge has offices in Cairo, Dubai, and Riyadh. An article by Katherine Rushton, Information World Review, 28 September 2006, adds that Cambridge “is targeting swift expansion in other Arab territories.” http://www.infomaticsonline.co.uk/articles/print/2165276 .

[15] On this point see comments by Emory University professor, Deborah Lipstadt, in Gary Shapiro, “Libel Suit Leads to Destruction of Books.” New York Sun, 2 August 2007, http://www.nysun.com/article/59706.

[16] Of 6,364 reports by librarians of challenges to books, as submitted to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom from 1990-2000, 71% occurred in schools and school libraries, 24% in public libraries. Less than 1% occurred in college or university settings (during 2000-2005, about 2.4% of reported formal challenges occurred in higher education settings). If ALA received any reports of publisher-initiated challenges, there were not enough to warrant an “initiator” category. See http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/challengedbanned/challengedbanned.htm#backgroundinformation . See especially the “challenges by institution” and “challenges by initiator” reports.

[17] Motoko Rich and Dinitia Smith, “Publisher Decides to Recall Novel by Harvard Student.” New York Times, 28 April 2006, p.A16.

[18] See chapter 2, “The Noble Lie: ‘Arming America’ and the Right to Bear Arms”, in Ron Robin, Scandals & Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy.” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp.57-84.

[19] McDowell, Edwin. “Publisher to Withdraw a Book on Pope’s Life.” New York Times, 30 July 1984, p.C19.

[20] See articles by Hwang Woo-Suk et al., in the 12 March 2004 and 17 June 2005 issues of Science. The database in which I found the articles was ProQuest, http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=22&did=592965751&SrchMode=3&sid=1&Fmt=4&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1189800130&clientId=16043&aid=2 . For the magazine’s formal retraction, see http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/311/5759/335b . For a discussion of the problem of labeling retracted or suspect articles in the medical literature, see Harold C. Sox and Drummond Rennie, “Research Misconduct, Retraction, and Cleansing the Medical Literature: Lessons from the Poehlman Case.” Annals of Internal Medicine 144:8 (18 April 2006) http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/full/0000605-200604180-00123v1 .

[21] A characteristically pungent phrase of the formidable Elizabeth Anscombe, late of Cambridge University, in Ethics, Religion and Politics. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, v.3. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p.60.

[22] See http://www.news.uiuc.edu/news/02/1217censorship.html for recollections of University of Illinois librarians about the razor blade. Nor is Beria mentioned on any page of the 31 volumes of the English translation of the encyclopedia’s third edition.

[24] Donadio.




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