The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is under fire for including Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz on its new list of anti-Muslim extremists.
On Oct. 25, the SPLC and three other liberal civil rights groups — Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community and ReThink Media — released a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” which profiles 15 “propagandists” who allegedly exploit terrorist attacks to demonize the Islamic faith.
Many on the list were expected, like anti-Islamic activist Pamela Geller, who hosted
a “Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest” and led the campaign against the wrongly labeled “Ground Zero Mosque.” But Nawaz’s placement came as a shock to his supporters.
Nawaz, a liberal Muslim reformer, rose to prominence in part because of his fascinating biography. In his youth, he was arrested in Egypt for his membership in a banned Islamist group. Amnesty International labeled him a “prisoner of conscience.” This led to his gradual embrace of democratic values and disavowal of extremism.
Nawaz’s history places him in a unique position for encouraging reform within Islam. He is the founding chairman and executive board member of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank that fights for religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy.
As evidence of his alleged anti-Muslim extremism, the SPLC report cites an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Mail arguing that the veil should be barred in schools, a cartoon he tweeted of the Prophet Muhammad (which some Muslims consider blasphemous) and his trip to a strip club during a bachelor party (which seems irrelevant to the topic at hand). The SPLC also cited a report from the Guardian alleging that the Quilliam Foundation sent a secret list to a top British security official that accused peaceful Muslims of sharing the ideology of terrorists. Quilliam disputes this.
Nawaz responded to the report with an article on the Daily Beast Saturday. He accused the SPLC of a “naively dangerous form of neo-Orientalism” that he dubbed “Islamsplaining.” He said the “the largely white American non-Muslim ‘progressive’ leadership” of the SPLC had just arrogated to itself the decision about which debates Muslims may and may not have in reforming their own religion.
“In a monumental failure of comprehension, the SPLC has conflated my challenge to Islamist theocracy among my fellow Muslims with somehow being ‘anti-Muslim.’ The regressive left is now in the business of issuing fatwas against Muslim reformers,” Nawaz wrote.
If reforming liberal Muslims are to liberate fellow Muslims from “the oppressive yoke of theocrats,” he said, it’s crucial that they not be “smeared as ‘anti-Muslim.’”
When contacted for comment, Heidi Beirich, a director of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC, told Yahoo News that Nawaz spread conspiracy theories about Muslims infiltrating places like Scotland Yard and television networks.
“That kind of talk is not what we want people to discuss when discussing Muslims. These are conspiracy theories and it’s dangerous to portray every Muslim essentially as an infiltrator,” she said in a Monday phone interview.
Beirich said Nawaz’s rhetoric foments anti-Muslim hatred that encourages people to see Muslims not as individuals but as “part of some secretive, dangerous cabal.”
But Nawaz’s supporters see things quite differently. Ahnaf Kalam, a college student from Aurora, Colo., launched a Change.org petition calling for Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch-American activist, to be removed from the list. Ali is an ex-Muslim who calls for reform within Islam, opposes female genital mutilation and fights for women’s rights.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center, like the actual radical Islamists themselves, has shown the world that they too do not want people like Nawaz and Hirsi Ali to be allowed a platform,” Kalam wrote. “While on the surface, it may seem like a well-intentioned and sympathetic gesture as to shield Muslim communities from uncomfortable truths to which they may take offense, but in actuality, is doing exactly what the Islamists want to happen.”
As of Monday afternoon, the petition gathered 7,333 supporters. Several high-profile figures, such as Skeptic magazine editor in chief Michael Shermer and neuroscientist Sam Harris (who has collaborated with Nawaz), have publicly endorsed the petition.
Please sign petition asking SPLC to remove human rights activists from discredited list of anti-Muslim extremists https://t.co/9MeSWTlEXB
— Michael Nugent (@micknugent) October 30, 2016
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) October 31, 2016
— Juan Carlos Girauta (@GirautaOficial) October 30, 2016
Nawaz also promoted the petition.
— Radical (@MaajidNawaz) October 31, 2016
Nawaz has been praised elsewhere for challenging Islamophobia. In August, a U.K. Independence Party voter called Nawaz’s radio show accusing the British-born activist of being part of an “Islamic takeover” of the country.
“If this is representative of your members’ views,” Nawaz replied, “then I suggest to you that they are quite xenophobic, and in your case, because you’re suggesting by your analogy that I should compare the fact that I’m hosting you on my radio show here with how you would be treated in Pakistan, I’d say slightly racist too, only because I’m British.”
But the SPLC isn’t backing down. Yahoo News asked Beirich if she is sympathetic to the view of Nawaz as a liberal reformer who is trying to amplify moderate voices within the Muslim world.
“My problem with that is he’s muddying that image with these conspiracy theories, so it’s hard for me to believe that that is his goal when he’s doing these other things,” Beirich said. “He doesn’t sound much different from Pamela Geller or David Horowitz or some of these other people about how Muslims are infiltrating everywhere. So my suggestion would be, if that’s what he’s trying to do, then he should ditch the conspiracy theories.”
Update: After this article first appeared, Kalam, who launched the Change.org petition, wrote in an email to Yahoo News the following response to Beirich’s allegations about Nawaz.
“The claims of Nawaz spreading conspiracy theories are largely unfounded, and hold no significance in his (or Hirsi Ali’s) inclusion on the SPLC’s list of anti-Muslim extremists.
Let’s not forget that Maajid himself is a practicing Muslim working to [move] Islam from illiberalism and violence — an anti-Extremist, not an anti-Muslim extremist — and by grouping together the collective experiences and beliefs of all Muslims by excluding his ideas from the public discourse surrounding the topic, the SPLC does nothing but perpetuate the bigoted narrative that all Muslims must think and behave in the same way, or else they’re somehow not Muslims anymore.
If the SPLC refuses to remove Nawaz and Hirsi Ali from their list of anti-Muslim extremists, then I would suggest that they make an amended version of their list which includes every[one] who has been critical of the illiberalism and human rights abuses that are rampant in the Muslim world — including myself as well as the 8,000 people who have signed my petition.”