Canadian Muslim charity wins 'milestone' settlement after being falsely accused of funding terrorism
Islamic Relief Canada reached settlement in suit against Thomas Quiggin, others who admit claims 'unfounded'
One of Canada's largest faith-based charities has won a settlement over a set of publications that falsely claimed it was a "front" to fund terror groups abroad.
Islamic Relief Canada reached the out-of-court settlement earlier this month in a lawsuit against Thomas Quiggin — a former military officer turned self-described researcher who last year emerged as one of the more recognizable names in the truck convoy protests — and six others who it argued made "false, malicious and defamatory" statements aimed at harming the charity.
Along with Quiggin, the $2.5-million lawsuit from December 2018 took aim at Benjamin Dichter, who later emerged as a convoy spokesperson; writer Tahir Aslam Gora and an online television channel of which Gora is CEO; writer Raheel Raza and her husband Syed Sohail Raza; as well as a Yarmouth-based man named Joseph Hazelton who interviewed Quiggin about the charity in a YouTube video that garnered over 10,000 views.
"This case illustrates the kind of misinformation that legitimate aid organizations too often face in carrying out their vital humanitarian missions," said Usama Khan, Islamic Relief Canada's CEO.
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"The settlement reached by Islamic Relief Canada is a milestone in this fight," said Khan. "By holding those who spread misinformation accountable for their actions, we can send a clear message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated."
The exact terms of the settlement have not been made public, but as part of it, the defendants issued a statement of clarification acknowledging their statements were "unfounded."
"We did not exercise sufficient due diligence in researching, drafting and/or publishing the defamatory statements," the defendants said.
Misinformation easily amplified by 'bad actors': lawyer
The clarification added that the defendants "never intended" to suggest the charity "supports terrorist groups, has an Islamist agenda or is a 'front or sham' organization." It also says the defendants have removed or asked various publishers to remove their defamatory statements.
Despite the settlement, CBC News easily located the 132-page so-called "Quiggin Report" online and available for download. The long, winding document packages in a pseudo-academic format conspiratorial references to an "Islamist cancer" and "globalist beliefs" within the federal government.
Using hundreds of footnotes and numerous graphics and charts, the report attempts to draw a line from the charity to militant groups like Hamas through the charity's parent organization Islamic Relief Worldwide.
Lawyer Nader Hasan, who represents Islamic Relief Canada, said the charity intends to hold the defendants to their commitment to remove their statements. But the fact that they may remain in some corners of the internet illustrates how easily misinformation can proliferate online.
"This ultimately speaks to the pernicious nature of defamation on the internet, where untrue statements get repeated and amplified by bad actors that might be outside of the control of any party," he said.
Defendants authored complaint to RCMP
Islamic Relief Worldwide itself has faced accusations of links to terror groups before. In 2014, the Israeli government banned the organization, claiming it was funding Hamas. Following that, Hasan says, IRW commissioned a "comprehensive, independent" review of its operations in the Palestinian occupied territories, which found no evidence that its West Bank office engaged in any improper or illegal practices.
The United Kingdom, United States, Sweden and Canadian governments have all continued to fund IRW's programs despite Israel's ban, he added.
According to the lawsuit, the defendants' "campaign of defamation" began on Oct. 9, 2018, when Quiggin, Gora, Dichter, Raza and her husband sent a letter to then-RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki. The letter contained a publication by Quiggin, claiming the federal government was funding terrorism with taxpayers' money by providing grants to Islamic Relief Canada.
Those grants included money to provide health-care services for sexual assault survivors in Iraq; aid programs for Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen; Ethopia flood relief assistance and funds for victims of the Myanmar crisis, the statement of claim says.
The complaint to the RCMP has since been retracted.
Hasan told CBC News that because it operates in hot zones around the world and because of the increased scrutiny that Muslim charities generally face, Islamic Relief is "one of the most audited, scrutinized, and inspected charities in the world."
"Every dollar they spend is for legitimate purposes. That's why the allegations were so frustrating and outrageous in the first place," he said.
Lawyer Lorne Honickman, who represents the defendants, told CBC News his clients are "very happy with the settlement, and the fact that a long trial was avoided."
National security watchdog probing possible CRA bias
The added scrutiny facing Muslim charities is something Anver Emon, director of the University of Toronto's Institute of Islamic Studies, zeroed in on in a report he co-authored last spring. The report, called Under Layered Suspicion, documented how potential biases within the Canada Revenue Agency's auditing rules may unfairly put certain Muslim charities under the microscope and how real-world anti-terror can be influenced by Islamophobic bias.
"Since 9/11 we have witnessed many self-declared experts claiming to know where terrorism is, who finances it, and how. These so-called experts contribute to an echo chamber that reverberates in the halls of all our Canadian institutions, public and private and in between," said Emon.
Earlier this year, CBC News reported the watchdog for Canada's security and intelligence agencies has begun an investigation into the CRA's work on charities following allegations of bias and Islamophobia within its auditing practices.
For its part, the charity says the settlement affirms what it has always maintained: that it is a "respected, purely humanitarian" organization supporting vulnerable people in Canada and around the world.
Oxfam Canada, with which the charity has long worked to respond to conflict and natural disasters, agrees.
In a statement, its executive director Lauren Ravon told CBC News, "the space humanitarian organizations can operate in is shrinking around the world and development organizations are increasingly under attack."
"The Islamophobic attacks that IRC has been the target of over the years are shameful and absolutely out of step with the professional and principled organization I have always known them to be."