Muslim, Christian groups clash in NY libel suit

Albany, N.Y. — A Muslim group is accusing a Christian organization of defamation for publishing a book that accuses the Muslim collective of holding terrorist training in its enclaves.

The Christian Action Network refuses to back down, challenging Muslims of America Inc. to prove the allegations wrong in an upstate New York court.

The Muslim group has a community in Hancock, near Binghamton, N.Y., and others around the U.S. It calls the network's accusations deliberate and damaging lies.

Attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud said the Muslim group is seeking retractions and $18 million in damages, and a halt to further publication of network founder Martin Mawyer's 2012 book, "Twilight in America: the Untold Story of Terrorist Training Camps Inside America."

The group's residential communities are peaceful, Amatul-Wadud said.

"The property upstate has farms; it has gardens; it has buildings for work; it has little stores," she said. "It's a community of families and of individuals who are just trying to get by day to day."

Their common denominator is their faith, she said. "Everyone believes in one God and the Prophet Mohammed as his messenger."

The Christian group has denied the defamation allegations and asked U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy to dismiss the complaint. It hasn't withdrawn the book and continues to promote it on its website.

"The defendants intend vigorously defend this case in order to protect their right to free speech under the First Amendment," attorney Michael Grygiel said.

The Lynchburg, Va.-based network was founded in 1990 by Mawyer, former editor of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority Report."

A scheduling conference is set for May 17 in Binghamton before a magistrate. Trial is expected next year.

The book claims both state and federal authorities "turn a blind eye" to the Islamic extremists trying to convert U.S. citizens in the communities, that Muslims of America is a front for the radical group Jamaat Al Fuqras and that it has held terrorist training at the rural enclaves.

In court papers, Muslims of America said it was founded around 1985 as a New York religious corporation whose principal place of worship is Hancock, where it bought 60 acres of rural property to provide a safe haven for inner city families. It now also has communities in Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Canada and Trinidad.

The group said that it has always counseled members and residents to abide by U.S. laws and avoid criminal, immoral and antisocial behavior. The communities include doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers, tradesmen, farmers and business people, with workshops, seminars and interfaith outreach open to the public, it has said.

Its complaint said the Christian network harassed its communities in Red House, Va., and Commerce, Ga., and that the book presents false, defamatory and therefore libelous statements as fact, not just opinion. It cited this from the book's back cover: "These Islamic extremists convert our own citizens, then teach them how to kill."

In its court response, the network cited a host of defenses, including that lawsuits aren't allowed for damage to reputation because of expressions of opinion and rhetorical hyperbole, that statements were made "within the sphere of legitimate public interest" and that the published statements weren't made with either malice or reckless disregard of probable falsity.