Two prominent critics of Islamic extremism – Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, above, have found themselves on a list of 15 ‘anti-Muslim extremists’ published by the American-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
The list has enraged many commentators, including Sarah Haider, a co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, who accused the SPLC of “losing the plot” by publishing a report entitled a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists”.
These “extremists”, the SPLC contends, spread “baseless and damaging lies” in order to demonise all Muslims. The Field Guide aims to arm journalists with information so that they may challenge the “hateful rhetoric and misinformation” of the extremists, or better yet, “deny them a public platform altogether.”
Perhaps in more competent hands, a report such as this may have been a useful guide for journalists with little time to spend on background research. However, the one produced by SPLC is neither reliable nor factual, and often steers closer to the category of yellow journalism than anything worth serious consideration.
Nuance is lost where the religion of peace is concerned, and the SPLC paints its targets with a broad, clumsy brush. Those profiled range from pundits who believe that radicals have “infiltrated the CIA, FBI, Pentagon, and State Department” to activists who offer compassionate, empathetic, and exceedingly balanced views on the faith.
The latter is exemplified by the Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, who spent his formative years in the service of an Islamist organisation working to re-establish a global caliphate. After disavowing his former associates, he has spent the past decade working to encourage reform and secularisation in Muslim countries and communities.
Nearly every charge against him in the report is patently absurd. His act of solidarity with students who wore a benign cartoon of Prophet Mohammed on a t-shirt is a cited as a qualification for his “anti-Muslim extremism”. Nawaz tweeted a picture of the cartoon, declaring that such trifles don’t offend him.
For this conciliatory and progressive gesture, he earned the ire of the Muslim community, condemnation by “liberals”, and death threats by fanatics. It appears that the SPLC now polices acts considered blasphemous as “anti-Muslim extremism”, citing the Islamic religious belief in their indictment.
If mere tweeting of cartoons is tantamount to bigotry, one wonders how they would judge the actions of the actual cartoonists. Perhaps the SPLC list should include the creators of the show South Park for their depictions of Jesus and Mohammed.
In reality, Maajid Nawaz has been one of the most consistently rational, compassionate, and nuanced voices in an atmosphere brimming with hostility and competing agenda-driven narratives. As an apostate myself, I am grateful he represents Muslims who fight for our right to exist.
Nawaz’s entry may have been the most clearly ludicrous, but other profiles are similarly problematic. SPLC points to valid, factual claims made by those profiled as “evidence” of their extremism as often as it identifies falsehoods. Worse, it pools compassionate, anti-war Muslims with the likes of those who really do want to bomb the Muslim world – enacting terrible harm to the public discourse in the process.
Consistently, the report conflates criticism or dislike of the religion as “hate” against its believers – effectively granting this particular religion a privilege no other ideology maintains. In this sense, the SPLC, considered by many to be a progressive institution, allies itself with the right-wing theocrats of the East. In fact, the only string that really does tie together the supposed “extremists” listed in the SPLC guide is that they are all deeply despised by right-wing conservative Muslims.
Nawaz and Hirsi Ali, in particular, have been targeted by fatwas and threatened with violence for their advocacy by actual extremists – those who do more than merely print opinions SPLC doesn’t like. No doubt that Nawaz and Ali’s inclusion in this list will subject them to more threats than ever before.
In the past, the Southern Poverty Law Center has built a reputation among progressives for identifying and monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups. With this report, it has tarnished its reputation and joined the ranks of the hate-mongers it purports to combat.
As critics of Islam are hunted by Muslim fanatics around the world, I hope we will remember the courage and sacrifice of those willing to speak out, and the role played by unscrupulous detractors painting targets on their backs.
Said Heidi Beirich, above, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center:
We wrote this manual because Muslims in America continue to be vilified by a network of anti-Muslim extremists spreading baseless and damaging lies and we think the media can play a role in helping to stop it.
A shocking number of anti-Muslim, self-described “experts” are seen regularly in the media, where they spread falsehoods that too often go uncontested. Their rhetoric has toxic consequences, from promoting xenophobia, to poisoning democratic debate, to inspiring hate violence.
We hope journalists will use this guide to learn more about these extremists and the damage they cause to society and either deny them a public platform altogether or be better prepared to publicly challenge their hateful rhetoric and misinformation. The public really should know who these extremists are and the damaging impact they have with a platform to spread hate and bigotry.