Nearly two years after the Southern Poverty Law Center wrongly put Maajid Nawaz on its controversial list of “anti-Muslim extremists,” the organization is apologizing for its mistake and paying a $3.375 million settlement to Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation.
It also means Nawaz is no longer considered by the SPLC to be in the same category as people who actually want to eradicate Muslims.
It’s a remarkable turn of events. All it took was a year and a half of criticism from Nawaz, his allies, and people wondering why the SPLC was condemning a former Islamic terrorist now working to reform the extremists in the faith.
SPLC President Richard Cohen issued a formal apology on the group’s website as well as in a separate video (which I can’t embed here).
The apology says:
… Given our understanding of the views of Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam, it was our opinion at the time that [A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists] was published that their inclusion was warranted. But after getting a deeper understanding of their views and after hearing from others for whom we have great respect, we realize that we were simply wrong to have included Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam in the Field Guide in the first place.
Among those who contacted us were human rights advocates affiliated with the United Nations who emphasized that Mr. Nawaz’s work combatting extremism “is actually analogous to that of the SPLC over the years in the South.” Indeed, one of the reasons Mr. Nawaz has said that he was so troubled by our listing was the fact that he had respected our work for many years. Although we may have our differences with some of the positions that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have taken, we recognize that they have made important contributions to efforts to promote pluralism and that they are most certainly not anti-Muslim extremists.
As part of our settlement, we have paid $3.375 million to Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam to fund their work to fight anti-Muslim bigotry and extremism. It was the right thing to do in light of our mistake and the right thing to do in light of the growing prejudice against the Muslim community on both sides of the Atlantic. We will look to our insurance carrier to cover the cost of the settlement.
In addition to apologizing to Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam, we offer our sincerest apology to our supporters and all those who depend on our work. We pride ourselves on the accuracy of our reports and, although we know we are not perfect, it pains us greatly whenever we make a mistake. As we move forward, we are committed to redoubling our efforts to ensure that our work is always carried out with the utmost care and integrity. The stakes in the battle against hate and extremism are simply too great to be satisfied with anything less.
Nawaz was more blunt in his announcement of the apology:
I don’t fuck around.
— Maajid – (Mājid) [maːʤɪd] ماجد (@MaajidNawaz) June 18, 2018
He said more on his website:
“With the help of everyone who contributed to our litigation fund, we were able to fight back against the Regressive Left and show them that moderate Muslims will not be silenced,” said Nawaz. “We will continue to combat extremists by defying Muslim stereotypes, calling out fundamentalism in our own communities, and speaking out against anti-Muslim hate.”
This saga began in October of 2016, when the SPLC published its list of people who “routinely espouse a wide range of utter falsehoods, all designed to make Muslims appear as bloodthirsty terrorists or people intent on undermining American constitutional freedoms.” To the surprise of many atheists, the list included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Nawaz.
Hirsi Ali, of course, is the Somali-born activist who was a victim of faith-based genital mutilation. Her friend, director Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim extremist who then stuck a knife in van Gogh’s body with a note that said Hirsi Ali was next. She has since written two memoirs and a book offering ways to reform the faith.
She understands that there’s a direct connection between a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the terror we’re seeing in parts of the world. She knows that a non-trivial percentage of believers feel that violence in the name of Islam is sometimes justified. Her foundation works to end faith-based “honor killings” and female genital mutilation.
That, somehow, made her the Worst Person Ever in the eyes of the SPLC.
Nawaz, too, wants to reform the faith. He published a book (co-authored with Sam Harris) called Islam and the Future of Tolerance and began Quilliam International, a non-profit that calls itself the “world’s first counter-extremism organisation.”
Both of them believe — rightly, I would say — that Islam is uniquely problematic compared to other religions and moderate Muslims have a role to play in helping steer the ship in the right direction.
They may be critical of Islam, but they were never suggesting violence against Muslims as a solution.
The SPLC designation was problematic for other reasons. If criticizing religious beliefs made them extremists, then how long would it be before other vocal atheists ended up on that list, too? There’s a difference between being anti-Muslim and critical of the worst aspects of Islam. For goodness’ sake, it’s not like Nawaz and Hirsi Ali were attacking Malala Yousafzai.
So why were they added to SPLC’s list?
For Hirsi Ali, the SPLC said this:
… Although she now positions herself as an ex-Muslim champion of women’s rights, her anti-Muslim rhetoric is remarkably toxic. In 2007, she told Reason magazine that the West should “defeat” Islam and that “we are war with Islam.” The same year, she said that Islam was “the new fascism” and a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” in an interview with The London Evening Standard. In 2014, Brandeis University withdrew its offer of an honorary degree for her, saying that it had been unaware of her vitriolic attacks on Islam.
When Brandeis revoked the honorary degree, the reporter from Reason magazine wrote on this very site that their interview was often seen in an unfair light:
There was certainly an illiberal aspect to it all. But again, context is everything. If you’ve read Infidel, you know that, in her native Somalia, Hirsi Ali was the victim of forced genital mutilation when she was five and was later almost married off to a distant cousin she despised. Those experiences equipped her with a rare determination to combat the deeply misogynistic “death cult” (her term) that is Islam, something she has done in an admirable way with the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation, an organization that helps free women and girls from cultural and religious oppression. (If that isn’t Social Justice, I don’t know what is.)
Essentially, while her words may have been harsh, they should be seen with the understanding that she has been personally affected by the worst aspects of the faith. It took a very uncharitable interpretation of Hirsi Ali’s words to think her goal of “defeating Islam” meant we should commit violence against peaceful law-abiding Muslims or descended into hate speech. Her goal was full-scale reform of Islam, not genocide against all Muslims. She has repeatedly said that her goal is to prevent the spread of Islamic radicalism, not to prevent peaceful Muslims from practicing their faith.
What about Nawaz? The SPLC said he exaggerated or lied about aspects of his biography, but look at this example they cited as proof of his anti-Muslim bigotry:
According to a Jan. 24, 2014, report in The Guardian, Nawaz tweeted out a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad — despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous to draw Muhammad. He said that he wanted “to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge.”
That would be this picture:
That’s not anti-Muslim. That’s a statement of free speech. It’s something we’ve done on this site as part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Those of us who are not Muslim are not bound by Islamic doctrine. Devout Muslims may not be allowed to draw Muhammad, but we sure as hell can, and they have no right to stop us. Posting a cartoon version of Muhammad is not hate speech. You can say it’s disrespectful (and I would disagree), but by no means is that bigotry.
The SPLC also said Nawaz was spotted at a strip club once. As if that’s relevant.
After the list came out, Nawaz wrote a piece for the Daily Beast calling out his fellow liberals at the SPLC for “Islamsplaining” and essentially putting a fatwa out on him:
… liberal reform Muslims and ex-Muslims stepped up to this challenge [of calling out extremists], only to be labelled as “anti-Muslim” extremists by those we had hoped were our allies, and who we now call the regressive-left. They are those who talk of progressive values: feminism, gay rights and free speech, and who criticise Christian fundamentalists within their own communities. A long time ago, we liberal reform Muslims had high hopes for this group. Just as they challenge the conservatives of their own “Bible belt” we thought they would support our challenge against our very own “Qur’an Belt.” How wrong we were.
Nothing good ever comes from compiling lists. And so I say to the Southern Poverty Law Center: You were supposed to stand up for us, not intimidate us. Just imagine how ex-Muslim Islam-critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali must feel to be included in your list of “anti-Muslim” extremists. Her friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. And back then there was another list pinned to Theo’s corpse with a knife: it too named Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Criticism against the SPLC was also fierce after their article came out. A Change.org petition calling for the removal of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz from the list received more than 14,000 signatures. Many atheists refused to donate another penny to the SPLC until they removed the names and apologized.
Nawaz even told the New York Times Magazine that the SPLC’s hit list “compromised some funding” for his Quilliam organization.
So he could make a solid argument that being put on the list affected him negatively. And that’s even before we talk about how Muslim terrorists could easily target every name on there as a way to eliminate so-called enemies of the faith.
He eventually vowed to sue the SPLC. Speaking with Bill Maher last June, he said he was “sick to death” of the SPLC’s actions. He called the group “well-meaning” but completely wrong in this instance. He planned to sue them for defamation and he crowd-funded money for the eventual lawsuit.
In April, just after his legal team at Clare Locke sent a letter to the SPLC, the group just poofed away the controversial page. They made no mention of the change on their social media outlets at the time.
Now they have. And it’s complete vindication for Nawaz.
There has been no similar apology to Hirsi Ali, though she also didn’t threaten to sue them for defamation. With the page now gone, it may be moot.
I would add one other thing: Nawaz said on his website recently that “Phase 1” was complete — i.e. he had raised $25,000 for “preliminary legal analysis” — and he needed $125,000 more for the “pleading and pleading challenge phase.” That was before the threat of a lawsuit was sent. Now that it’s over, for the sake of transparency, he should publish a detailed explanation of where all that money went (including what was paid to lawyers) and where remaining donations will go. (Update: I’ve corrected this paragraph to make clear a lawsuit was never filed.)
That said, it’s good to see that he’s finally been vindicated. It never should’ve taken this long for the SPLC to do the right thing, and it’s unfortunate that an organization that does important work in tracking hate groups didn’t do proper research before casually throwing a couple of atheists on their list of hate-mongers.
I’m not about to donate to them until I have a fuller understanding of why they thought that was a good idea at the time. Their own stated reasons didn’t make any sense at the time, and they still haven’t explained why they resisted a correction for so long.
***Update***: The legal team behind this settlement, Clare Locke, issued this statement:
“It’s a shame that it took impending litigation for the Southern Poverty Law Center to finally set the record straight and admit it was wrong all along,” said Megan Meier, a partner at Clare Locke. “Quilliam and Mr. Nawaz do admirable work, and we are honored to have restored their reputations and achieved this victory on their behalf.”
The settlement agreement itself also says the SPLC must send the apology statement to every group that it sent its original Field Guide to, whether it was an email, hyperlink, or physical copy.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)