A Muslim lobby group has filed a $2 million defamation suit against a U.S. Congressman who asserted in a newspaper interview the Washington, D.C.-based group is tied to terrorism.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, charges Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., falsely claimed the group raised funds for terrorists and did so “with actual malice, wrongful and willful intent to injure and with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.”
Rep. Cass Ballenger
The suit was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in response to an interview with the Charlotte Observer published Oct. 4.
“With this lawsuit, we are sending a clear message to all those who make malicious and defamatory statements against American Muslims or their institutions that they will be held accountable in a court of law,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR’s director of legal affairs.
Coincidentally, the nine-term congressman announced yesterday he will not seek re-election. Ballenger’s press secretary, Preston Hartman, told WorldNetDaily, however, CAIR’s announcement of the lawsuit came “out of the blue.”
Hartman said he first learned of it yesterday from a reporter.
In its lawsuit, CAIR said Ballenger’s “defamatory statements” harmed the group’s reputation and were “not protected speech because he did not make them within the scope of his role as a member of the House of Representatives.”
In the October interview, Ballenger, 76, claimed the stress of living across the street from CAIR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., was partly to blame for the breakup of his 50-year marriage.
He downplayed the remarks in a story yesterday by the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, stating his family was concerned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and during anthrax scares in Congress.
“I was quoting my wife’s feelings,” he said. “I could give a hoot about the Muslims across the street.”
Ballenger noted he and his wife, who are both “very wealthy,” are legally separated but do not plan to divorce. The congressman owns a plastics company.
According to the Observer’s October story, Ballenger called CAIR a “fund-raising arm” for terrorist groups and said he reported CAIR to the FBI and CIA.
The couple’s proximity to CAIR headquarters, just down the street from the Capitol, “bugged the hell” out of his wife, he said.
“Diagonally across from my house, up goes a sign – CAIR the fund-raising arm for Hezbollah,” said Ballenger, according to the Observer, referring to the Lebanese group regarded by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. “I reported them to the FBI and CIA.”
Ballenger told the Charlotte paper his wife, a homemaker, was anxious about all the activity at CAIR headquarters, including people unloading boxes and women “wearing hoods,” or headscarves, going in and out of the office building on New Jersey Avenue.
“That’s two and a half blocks from the Capitol,” he added, “and they could blow it up.”
CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper responded in the Observer story.
“This is out-and-out bigotry,” he said. “It’s unworthy of an elected official at the national level. You wonder what he’s been doing in Congress if this is the kind of analysis he does: ‘You’re a Muslim, so you’re guilty.’”
But the lawsuit is an unusual move for CAIR, says Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, a close observer of the group who notes some of its employees have been indicted on terror charges.
“I have always thought that they would be wary of engaging in a lawsuit of this sort, particularly one that associates them with terrorism, because of the discovery that will follow,” he told WND. “So, this would seem to suggest that the leadership in CAIR is feeling confident.”
In July, a member of CAIR’s national staff, Randall Todd “Ismail” Royer, was among 11 men indicted for conspiring to train on American soil for a “violent jihad.” Another CAIR figure, Bassem Khafagi, was arrested in January while serving as the group’s director of community relations. Last December, Ghassan Elashi, the founder of CAIR’s Texas chapter, was indicted for financial ties to Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzook.
Pipes sees the suit as a form of intimidation, “an attempt to shut down political discourse.”
“They’ve gone out of their way to take obscure statements in a local newspaper and give them national prominence,” he said. “This is not something that was foisted on them.”
CAIR is a spin-off of the Islamic Association For Palestine, labeled a “front group” for the terrorist organization Hamas by two former heads of the FBI’s counterterrorism section.
CAIR’s leaders also have provided evidence the group has aims beyond civil-rights advocacy.
As WorldNetDaily reported, CAIR’s chairman of the board, Omar Ahmad, was cited by a California newspaper in 1998 declaring the Quran should be America’s highest authority.
He also was reported to have said Islam is not in America to be equal to any other religion but to be dominant.
Hooper himself indicated in a 1993 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he wants to see the United States become a Muslim country.
“I wouldn’t want to create the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future,” Hooper told the paper. “But I’m not going to do anything violent to promote that. I’m going to do it through education.”