Letter to Ms. Irshad Manji

22 May 2007

Sheila Kay
Random House
[email protected]

Dear, Ms. Kay.

I am writing to you because I would like to contact Ms. Irshad Manji about her upcoming engagement with the American Library Association in June of this year. I would like to apprise her of certain ongoing issues involving the ALA and centering around the oppression of independent journalists and librarians effected by the government of Cuba in March of 2003. Specifically, the issue of the independent librarians, the court ordered treatment of their confiscated collections, and the ALA's
refusal to condemn the actions of the courts. There is a group within the ALA that is doing everything it can to divert attention away from and to cover up this important issue. I would further note that the ALA leadership has a long history of ignoring appeals on behalf of these independent librarians that have [been] issued by Ray Bradbury, Nat Hentoff, Madeleine Albright, Amnesty International, and International PEN.

In brief: In 2003, seventy-five Cuban citizens were arrested and subjected to one day long trials. A number of those citizens were people who had taken to collecting and lending out books out of their own homes in the manner of public libraries. These independent librarians were subsequently given sentences ranging from thirteen to twenty-six years imprisonment; an average of 20.8 years apiece. At least six of the collections were ordered to be destroyed -- in some cases specifically to be
burned -- by the courts. These rulings were written into the sentencing documents.

On 14 January 2004, in what appears to have been a pure political-publicity move, the ALA governing council voted to adopt a report from two of its committees on the issue of the Cuban crackdown on independent librarians. The four-page report said the association expresses its "deep concern" over the arrest and jailing of the librarians and urges the Cuban government to "respect, defend and promote" basic human rights. This is the full extent of their opposition to this oppressive movement.

The ALA's involvement with this issue to date has been a very concerted effort to avoid any involvement whatever:

  • the 2004 resolution passed by the ALA was essentially an effort to distract attention from the ALA's ongoing failure to condemn the persecution or book burning in Cuba;
  • it has failed to call for the release of the jailed library workers;
  • it has failed even to mention the names of any of the indy librarians as if they are Orwellian "non-persons".

The Cuban independent librarian movement was started after Fidel Castro publicly proclaimed at an international book fair, "In Cuba there are no banned books, there just isn't any money to buy them." It was begun basically as [an] expermiment to test that assertion. In the space of five years or so, there were two hundred libraries being operated out of people's homes. Since the 2003 crackdown, indy librarians have been subjected to external exile, police harrassment, intimidation, and on 10
October 2006, the Assembly to Promote a Civil Society, a dissident organization in Cuba, began a series of meetings at independent libraries affiliated with the group. When the ten people who had assembled at Noelia Pedraza Jimenez's house tried to leave at the end of the meeting, they were attacked by a Rapid Response Brigade; a government-organized mob. At least two indy librarians, Orestes and Nancy Suarez, were beaten. Images of the couple are archived here: ( href="http://bitacoracubana.com/desdecub a/portada2.php?id=3166">http://bitacoracubana.com/desdecuba/portada2.php?id=3166)

There has been a group of activists, Freadom, (with which I have come to associate), that has been agitating for more firm action by the ALA. The ALA leadership, while ignoring the ongoing persecution in Cuba, claims it is merely following the lead of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), when in fact the ALA leadership has ignored IFLA's 1999 report on this subject which condemned the Cuban government and called for an end to the repression of independent librarians on
the island. A copy of that report is archived at the IFLA site: (http://www.ifla.org/faife/faife/cubarepo.htm). The group has also been lobbying the ALA to have the matter of Cuba's book burning published on the ALA web page dedicated to Book Burning in the 20th Century. The ALA basically stonewalled on that issue until this spring when it announced flat out that it would not carry the incident on its book burning page.

By January of 2004, the silence of the ALA became so contentious that civil libertarian Nat Hentoff sent his Imroth Award back to the ALA. The citation on the award, from June 1983, reads: "For courageous and articulate advocacy of the First Amendment as an author, speaker, and activist for human rights." Mr. Hentoff wrote in his column for Thursday, 29 January 2004, "I now publicly renounce the Immroth Award and demand that the American Library Association remove me from the list of
recipients of that honor."

What seems to be the key to the ALA's lack of opposition is a statement by Eliades Acosta, then head of the Cuban Library System, that the private citizens were not "real" librarians. A sentiment that has come to be adopted and repeated by some of the ALA officials who have given support -- first implicitly and now complicitly -- to this oppressive movement. Mr. Acosta's statement, however, is a half-truth. It is true only in that in Cuban, one requires permission from the government to call,
or to comport one's self as, a librarian. This is not a sentiment adopted by either Andrei Codrescu or Madeleine Albright, both of whom chided the ALA at that body's 2006 mid-Winter and annual conferences respectively.

I would like to ask Ms. Manji to take up the torch where those worthies left off, and to also question what has become a conspiracy of silence. At the very least, because the support of this oppressive movement is in direct violation of the ALA's own policies as regards freedom of information. At the most, because it is also in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And overall, simply because it is such a vile injustice.

If you or Ms. Manji would like further information, I will be happy to answer any questions or provide links to the relevant archives, aside from those below. And, of course, I hope Ms. Manji will feel free to contact the ALA for their perspective on this issue.

Thank you.

Michael Nellis
[Contact information deleted]


For further information on these issues, I recommend the following sites:

Friends of Cuban Libraries:




The Lair of Fang-Face DreamWeaver: Celebrate Freedom:


Sentencing Documents from the trials:

Amnesty International:


Organization of American States: