Criticize Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of ‘Anti-Muslim Extremists’
On Oct. 25, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” a manual that, antithetical to its aim, distorts, rather than illuminates, reality.
The SPLC of Alabama is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that was founded in 1971 to fight for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged peoples in American society. The group became well known in the 1980s and 1990s with its many successes in civil rights cases against white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Recently, with the apparent decline of these sorts of hate groups, the Center has expanded its focus to other progressive issues. Among them are LGBT rights, immigration and, now, anti-Islamic extremism. But surprisingly, the Center has chosen to approach Islamic extremism backwards, in both method and substance.
Instead of drawing attention to Islamic extremists themselves, the SPLC has published a list of 15 of what they dub “anti-Muslim extremists.” That is, the group has condemned 15 people who have, with their pen and notably not their sword, allegedly criticized Islam to such an extreme as to stimulate hate crimes on the Muslim community in America.
But why are certain groups in the habit of publishing McCarthy-style blacklists? What purpose does such a list serve? The group suggests an answer: “Our hope is that journalists and others will use [this guide] to effectively counter these extremists and their damaging misinformation.” I’d be curious to know what the Center’s criteria is for “extremist.” They must set a low bar; head-chopping, marathon-finish-line-bombing and night-club-murdering clearly do not make the list.
But a prominent British-Pakistani and Muslim reformist and author does. As a former political prisoner in Egypt, Maajid Nawaz has experienced the brand of Quran-inspired terror that the academics of the SPLC seem unable to understand. In 2008, he founded Quilliam, a London-based think tank that counters extremism through written works and public advocacy. Nawaz denounced the list’s misjudgment of him in an Oct. 29 Daily Beast article: “In a monumental failure of comprehension, the SPLC have conflated my challenge to Islamist theocracy among my fellow Muslims with somehow being ‘anti-Muslim.’” What Nawaz implied was that he challenges Islam from within; despite his critique of the religion, he retains his Muslim identity. In other words, Nawaz has the best interest of his faith at heart. How shameful it is, then, for an American non-Muslim group to lambaste a practicing Muslim for some healthy introspection and refinement.
The Field Guide’s attack of Nawaz is disgraceful. Raising doubt not only on the truthfulness of his narrative but also on his integrity, the document claims that, in fact, “Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute.” Quite the contrary―— as an author, radio host and politician, Nawaz has dedicated his life to championing freedom of expression and empowering Muslims in their community. He is an activist in the truest sense of the term and continues to face ample hostility in his effort to reform Islam.
On Oct. 29, the Atlantic underscored just why Nawaz’s presence on the list is so strange: “He and SPLC share the goal of fighting back against unfair targeting of Muslims.” That’s right; both are working tirelessly to stamp out Islamophobia.
Nawaz’s dubious listing raises the question whether the “Field Guide” does indeed reveal some of the SPLC’s murky underlying intentions. The Wall Street Journal thinks so. On Oct. 30, their editorial board wrote: “The unstated premise of the report is that criticizing Islamist movements, ideologies and regimes, and Islam itself, is the same as hating Muslims.”
The falsity of that presumption goes without saying. Criticism, at least in the United States and especially when warranted, is legitimate, as long as it does not cross certain red lines. The SPLC’s blacklist is so dangerous because it threatens to pull back those lines of free expression. In other words, by stigmatizing the condemnation of fanatic applications of Islam, the Center’s “Field Guide” imperils the free speech the West desperately requires to eradicate the grave threat.
To be able to speak openly and honestly is an essential part of addressing any issue. Without sincere conversations about the threat radical Islam poses, eliminating it will be unachievable.
The SPLC is not alone. The left at large is also making it more difficult for reformers of Islam to do their critical job. Typically, groups with shared principles have similar goals. Would one not then assume that progressives support liberal activists, like Nawaz, who endeavor to modernize Islam to the Western values of liberty and multiculturalism?
That would make sense. But it’s the opposite; as Nawaz wrote in an Oct. 29 piece for the Daily Beast, “too many on the left not only abandoned us, but took to openly attacking us for advocating these very same progressive values among our own — extremely socially conservative — communities.” Thus we are presented with an odd phenomenon: When the reform is within Islam, the left seems to suddenly turn conservative.
This curious discovery also sheds some light on another marvel: the left’s largely indifferent stance toward the systemic human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East and Africa. For example, homosexuality can be punishable by death in the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Iran, according to a June 16 Washington Post article, but reporting on these human rights abuses is far too infrequent in the mainstream media.
Beyond the mainstream media, Amnesty International is also part of the problem. According to an April 23 report by the Gatestone Institute, the left-leaning human rights NGO consistently places “pro-Muslim politics above women’s rights.”
The neglect of these cases evinces the lamentable reality that, in the Muslim world, the left is not the torchbearer of human rights that we want and expect them to be. On the contrary, it seems that the left opposes the reform of Islam, even as the number of lives lost to radical Islamic terrorism only increases. We see this reflected in both the micro and macro levels: with the SPLC’s attack of Nawaz, as well as the left’s growing hindering of criticism of parts of Islam.
To be sure, some of those featured on the SPLC’s “Field Guide” do perhaps warrant such distinction. Pamela Geller, for example, has made comments that could be construed as anti-Islam. But the majority of those on the list simply hold right-wing opinions that the SPLC finds troubling.
Ultimately the fight against radical Islam need not be a partisan issue. Preserving human life is a basic moral necessity, one around which we should all be able to coalesce. The left must maintain consistency in its progressive values both beyond and within the Muslim community.
The so-called “religion of peace” inspires too many deadly attacks worldwide to be ignored.
Like Nawaz, the West must work to end this current misapplication of Islam by so many. Freedom of expression is crucial in this endeavor; we cannot allow the SPLC’s blacklist to threaten our ability to have an honest conversation about radical Islam.
A quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali seems particularly relevant: “tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” Next time, instead of wasting their breath criticizing activists with whom they disagree politically, the SPLC would be much better off denouncing those killing people in the name of Allah.