Former Muslim charter school head sues ADL for libel

The former superintendent of a Muslim charter school system accused by the ADL of having ties to terrorist groups has replied by suing the local branch of the Anti-Defamation League and its director for libel.

In a January 2002 letter to Delaine Eastin, then-state superintendent of schools, ADL regional director Jonathan Bernstein requested the Fresno-based Gateway Schools' charter be revoked.

He claimed that Gateway's superintendent, Khadijah Ghafur, is an officer of Muslims of the Americas, "a virulently anti-Semitic extremist group" founded by El Sheikh Sayyid Mubarik Ali Jilani of Pakistan.

In January of last year, the schools' charter was indeed revoked by the Fresno Unified School District. The district claimed Gateway — which operated as many as 14 schools between Pomona and Oakland — amassed $1.3 million in debt, failed to run criminal background checks on its employees, and hired uncredentialed teachers and staff.

At the time, Ghafur blamed anti-Muslim hysteria for the schools' demise.

Bernstein's letter linked Ghafur to the Pakistani-based terror group al-Fuqra, which was also founded by Jilani, the man Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was scheduled to meet when he was kidnapped and subsequently murdered in Pakistan last year. Jilani is currently in Pakistani custody, appealing a death sentence handed down after the Pearl trial.

In a suit filed last month in San Francisco Superior Court by attorney and former Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, Ghafur claims statements indicating she is an officer in a virulently anti-Semitic Islamic extremist group or in any way connected to Jilani and al-Fuqra are libelous. She is seeking unspecified damages.

Bernstein declined to elaborate on the pending litigation, but said he doesn't regret writing the letter.

"All I can really tell you is I know we acted appropriately," he said.

Ghafur's suit does not confirm or deny her membership in Muslims of the Americas. According to the ADL, the group regularly posted highly anti-Semitic messages on its now-defunct Web site.

"Jews are an example of human Satans," read one message. "This is why Jews are the founders of Satan worship and Masonic lodges, and are now trying to take over the entire globe in which the global religion is to be Satanism."

Snippets of MOA literature posted on the ADL Web site also express homophobic, anti-Christian and anti-American beliefs.

Ghafur could not be reached for comment.

Jill Meltzer, a New York-based ADL attorney, said the suit caught the ADL by surprise.

"Until it was served, we didn't know what was happening," she said.

"We had good reason for the statements we made and the action we took, and right now we're in the process of lining up legal counsel to represent us."

McCloskey, meanwhile, was in Italy this week and could not be reached for comment.

The former congressman was also counsel for 18 individuals who sued the ADL in 1993, claiming they were illegally spied upon. After a six-year struggle, the ADL agreed to purge information from its records and pay the plantiffs' legal fees, so long as it did not have to admit wrongdoing.

In 1993 McCloskey helped to found the Council for National Interest, which, according to its Web site, exists "to uncloak the myths and show the public how their Middle East policy is being hijacked by Israeli supporters, including their Christian fundamentalist allies, and why our policy needs to be more balanced if our credibility and influence as a country is not severely damaged worldwide."

The ADL's Meltzer admitted, "We have a history with [McCloskey]."

While Pakistani adherents of Jilani claim there is no such group as al-Fuqra, the organization is identified as a militant terrorist organization by the State Department. Group members have been convicted of several bombings and murders, and are suspected in others in both the United States and Canada.

In addition to alleging ties to terrorists, Bernstein's letter claimed that Gateway students were being indoctrinated in Islam and praying in class with teachers — a violation of the First Amendment for a school receiving public funds.

A case management conference between the parties is set for June 13.

"I think we're in a strong position," said Meltzer. "We have a good defense."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.