Middle East Forum bankrolls free speech defenses for critics of ‘Islamist threat’
When the people sounding alarms over the ‘Islamist threat’ run into trouble with the law, the Middle East Forum’s Legal Project is increasingly the go-to funder tapped to mount defenses here and abroad.
In September, Reuters revealed that the Legal Project paid legal bills for Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders. Wilders faced charges in the Netherlands for inciting hatred against Muslims in interviews, articles, and his short film, “Fitna,” which compared “Islamic ideology” to Nazism and Communism.
Wilders was acquitted on all charges in June 2011.
The Legal Project’s work on the case is part of its focus on what it sees as a pattern of unwarranted legal actions designed to silence those who speak against Islamic radicalism. On its website, the group says that it “protect[s] researchers and analysts who work on the topics of terrorism, terrorist funding, and radical Islam from lawsuits designed to silence their exercise of free speech.”
The Middle East Forum — which runs the Legal Project – “promotes American interests in the Middle East and protects the Constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats,” according to its website. “Domestically, the Forum combats lawful Islamism; protects the freedom of public speech of anti-Islamist authors, activists, and publishers; and works to improve Middle East studies in North America.”
The Middle East Forum is run by Daniel Pipes, who — in a statement promoted in a 2008 Forum press release — argued, “Quietly, lawfully, peacefully, Islamists do their work throughout the West to impose aspects of Islamic law, win special privileges for themselves, shut down criticism of Islam, create Muslim-only zones, and deprive women and non-Muslims of their full civil rights.”
“[I]f Obama once was a Muslim, he is now what Islamic law calls a murtadd (apostate), an ex-Muslim converted to another religion who must be executed. Were he elected president of the United States, this status, clearly, would have large potential implications for his relationship with the Muslim world,” wrote Pipes in a January 2008 FrontPageMag column.
The two staff members listed on the Legal Project’s website have also been outspoken about controversies involving Islam.
Sam Nunberg, the Legal Project’s director, “played a significant role in opposing the construction of the Ground Zero Mosque both at the New York City Landmark Commission hearing and subsequent legal action,” according to the group’s website.
Adam Turner, the project’s staff counsel, regularly contributes pieces to conservative publications, including Pajamas Media and FrontPageMag.
“[T]hese days, when Islamists threaten free speech about Islam-related topics with violence, legal action, boycotts, or complaints about ‘Islamophobia,’ many Westerners — especially the leftist European and American elite — actually join in the efforts,” wrote Turner in a March 2012 piece for Pajamas Media.
In one recent case, the Legal Project “coordinated and financed the defense” of a writer who was fighting a defamation lawsuit filed by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
NIAC, which is based in Washington, DC, advocates non-military strategies towards resolving tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and opposes “broad sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians,” according to the organization’s website. In 2008, NIAC and its director, Trita Parsi, accused Seid Hassan Daioleslam of writing a series of defamatory articles suggesting that Parsi and NIAC were agents of the Iranian government.
On September 13, U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed the suit on the grounds that NIAC had failed to show evidence of actual malice but noted he wasn’t assessing the accuracy of Daioleslam’s claims.
Through its journal, the Middle East Quarterly, The Middle East Forum had its own connection to Daioleslam’s attacks on NIAC.
Emails that emerged in the discovery phase of the lawsuit show Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and frequent advocate of regime change in Iran, advising Daioleslam on how best to criticize NIAC and Parsi. NIAC provided the emails to The American Independent.
Rubin encouraged Daioleslam’s efforts, promising to forward Daioleslam’s work to “people that work on the Hill.”
“Just keep doing what you’re doing as carefully as possible,” wrote Rubin. “People are reading your stuff.”
Rubin also repeatedly suggested that Daioleslam use more “understated” rhetoric. “Never use pejorative terms for the Iranian government and avoid adjectives and adverbs, especially those that might be negative,” Rubin advised. “You have such a strong set of facts, this way the facts will speak for themselves and no one can accuse you of being biased.”
In December 2008, Rubin asked Daioleslam to submit an article to Middle East Quarterly, where Rubin served as an editor. Rubin described the proposed story as “a long, summary piece” that would run under the proposed headline: “Does NIAC lobby for the Islamic Republic?”
Rubin urged Daioleslam to “[h]ighlight how NIAC describes itself (a civil rights advocacy organization for Iranian Americans) but note how many of its fights have nothing to do with its stated purpose but rather parallel the trends of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy positions.”
He concluded by advising Daioleslam, “Before we publish, we will run it past one of our lawyers to make sure that it is written in a way that adheres to libel laws in the United States but, as you know, libel laws in the United States usually allow you to say what you need to say.”
Rubin did not respond to inquiries about the email exchange.
Daioleslam confirmed to The American Independent that the article was never published.
“I reiterate my deepest gratitude toward MEF and Sidley Austin for supporting my legal defense. Every American and anyone who seeks peace and democracy should be grateful to them as their support helped me and others to confront NIAC’s bullying and we were able to continue writing and show the deception behind NIAC’s lobby,” said Daioleslam in an email. “This lawsuit is a victory for peace lovers and real progressives whose criticism of American foreign policy do not turn them into advocates of Tehran rulers.”
Neither the Middle East Forum nor the Legal Project responded to requests for comment.
The Legal Project’s activities extend beyond providing assistance in legal cases. The project developed a Continuing Legal Education course for attorneys called, “Suing The Messenger: The Misuse of Law to Suppress Free Speech Regarding Terrorism, Radical Islam and Related Topics.”
The Project also supports the implementation of state and federal anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) legislation to protect bloggers and “anyone who has ever posted something on an internet forum” from costly lawsuits, according to the Project’s website.
The Middle East Forum’s tax disclosures show that the Legal Project incurred $209,278 in expenses in the 2008 tax year. Tax disclosures haven’t listed the Legal Project’s expenses in subsequent tax years.
The Legal Project’s work is funded in part by a number of nonprofit foundations through contributions to the Middle East Forum. An examination of tax documents reveals that two of those foundations, the Bradley Foundation and Koret Foundation, specified the Legal Project as a recipient of certain grants to the Middle East Forum.
Between 2007 and 2010, the Bradley Foundation — an influential funder of conservative causes — issued $150,000 in grants that specified the Legal Project as one of the initiatives to be supported through the funding.
“The Bradley brothers were committed to preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise that has enabled the American nation and, in a larger sense, the entire Western world to flourish intellectually and economically,” reads a mission statement on the foundation’s website.
The San Francisco-based Koret Foundation has also made significant donations to the group. Between 2008 and 2011, the foundation issued $180,000 in that specified the Legal Project as one of the projects to receive funding.
The Foundation was “seeded with the estates of Joseph and Stephanie Koret, whose Koret of California sportswear line was a leader in ladies’ coordinated fashion,” says the foundation’s website.
The website continues: “Over the years, the Foundation’s priorities have evolved from feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, and providing for the needy to contemporary program areas. These include public policy initiatives, K-12 education reform, free-market economic expansion in Israel, a thriving Bay Area cultural landscape, and the Koret Taube Initiative on Jewish Peoplehood.
“Since 1979, the Koret Foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in strengthening the communities of the Bay Area and Israel. Its cumulative philanthropic investment is currently approaching $500 million.”
Neither foundation responded to inquiries about the grants.