Opinion

Removed in the dead of night

Removed in the dead of night

Back in October 2016, a US group that monitors far-right hate groups – think KKK and similar racist fomenters of violence – issued a new report/field guide on what it called ‘anti-Muslim public figures’. And on that list it included Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, above – a liberal Muslim reformer and a conservative (but not far-right) ex-Muslim reformer.

I wanted to link to the press release the Southern Poverty Law Center issued at the time, but they have now removed it, so instead I’ll quote from the press release via the blog post I wrote at the time:

In response to the high levels of anti-Muslim extremists regularly provided a platform in the media and in the public eye, the Southern Poverty Law Center has partnered with Media Matters for America, ReThink Media and the Center for New Community to provide a resource on anti-Muslim public figures for reporters and media professionals.

You see the problem. Nawaz and Hirsi Ali are not extremists, they are opposed to extremists, so opposed that the opposition is their life’s work. Both were Islamist extremists for a time in early adulthood and both turned sharply away in revulsion. Both campaign against fanatical religious thought, laws, and violence.

The SPLC continued:

The newly released Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists contains profiles of 15 prominent anti-Muslim extremists, many of whom are associated with organizations identified by the SPLC as hate groups.

And, they didn’t bother to say, at least two of whom are not associated with organizations identified by the SPLC as hate groups, yet the SPLC included them anyway – people who campaign against religious hatred and violence.

The report itself, also not linkable for reasons which will be revealed, has a lot to say about Nawaz, but none of it comes close to resembling a reason for calling him an “anti-Muslim extremist” in an official report. Most of it just amounts to “we don’t like him.” For instance, again via my blog post at the time:

Maajid Nawaz is a British activist and part of the “ex-radical” circuit of former Islamists who use that experience to savage Islam. His story, which has been told repeatedly in the British and American press and in testimony to legislators as well, sounds compelling enough – Nawaz says he grew up being attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads in the United Kingdom, spent almost four years in an Egyptian prison after joining a supposedly non-violent Islamist group, but had a change of heart while imprisoned and then returned to England to work against the radicalization of Muslims.

But major elements of his story have been disputed by former friends, members of his family, fellow jihadists and journalists, and the evidence suggests that Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute.

Being excessively concerned with self-promotion is not the same thing as being an extremist or a hate-monger. It’s not even close.

Then there was this:

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.”

So because Nawaz is the liberal sort of Muslim who is not angry about or threatened by the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo therefore he is a violent extremist? Of course he damn well isn’t, but that didn’t stop the SPLC.

It was sad as well as infuriating, because I had long been used to thinking of the SPLC as a brave and outspoken foe of racism and racist violence. Many people wrote to them in protest and received the same useless non-responsive reply from a SpokesPerson. My message to them was carefully specific:

Like many people, I’m horrified by the inclusion in the SPLC’s report on “Anti-Muslim extremists” of Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Please don’t send me the stock response from Heidi Beirich, because I’ve already seen it via several people. I want to ask you for more explanation of two items in that response.

First, Heidi Beirich writes:

‘We respectfully disagree with your assessment that Nawaz is “non-extremist.” Let me cite some examples as to why we came to this conclusion. For starters, his organization sent a letter to a security official, according to The Guardian, that said, “the ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists.”’

Please explain. Why do you think it’s false and/or anti-Muslim to say that the ideology of Islamism is broadly the same apart from the espousal of violence? Are you not aware that Islamism is not the same thing as Islam? Are you assuming that all Muslims embrace Islamism? If so you’re very wrong indeed. Islamism is the theocratic ideology that Islam should be the source of law and entwined with government.

You really should consult with some liberal secularist Muslims, such as for instance my friends Tehmina Kazi, Elham Manea, Lejla Kuric, Sara Khan, Raquel Evita Saraswati. They could explain to you how terrible Islamism is for women, and how wrong outsiders are to think all Muslims are Islamists. I’ll introduce you if you like.

Second:

‘Finally, in reference to the “Jesus and Mo” cartoon tweet, depicting the Prophet Mohammad in any form is a very offensive thing for Muslims …’

No no no. Again you are assuming that Muslims in general are as narrow and intolerant as the most fundamentalist reactionary segments. You are assuming that the only authentic Muslim is a fanatical Muslim. Can you not see how insulting that is? My liberal Muslim friends can, I promise you!

You wouldn’t assume that the Westboro Baptists are the only authentic Christians. Why do you assume that illiberal intolerant Islamists are the only authentic Muslims?

Their reply was simply the generic “thank you and we will ignore you while pretending not to”:

Thank you for writing in about the SPLC’s report, “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.”

We understand that not everyone in this report is equal in their rhetoric and positions on Islam. However, its purpose was to point out that many people who regularly appear on television news shows as Islamic experts routinely espouse a wide range of falsehoods that depict Muslims as intent on undermining American constitutional freedoms or prone to support terrorism.

Promulgating misinformation – whether intentional or not – pollutes democratic discourse, makes it more difficult for citizens to cast informed votes, and limits the ability to participate meaningfully in public debate.

When people use their public platform to make false claims, such as Muslims being responsible for “70% of the violence in the world today,” they give credence to fringe activists and politicians who are pushing extreme anti-Islam policies, such as banning all Muslims from immigrating to the United States. Remarks like these are not thoughtful criticisms of Islam — they are factually incorrect statements that some people will accept as fact and, as a result, have a distorted view of all Muslim people.

We take your criticism seriously, and will take it under advisement when writing on this topic in the future.

They said, having ignored my questions and replied at random. I don’t call that taking criticism seriously.

In short the whole thing was infuriating and destructive. Maajid Nawaz is suing them. A couple of days ago the SPLC quietly and without apology removed the Field Guide from their website, which is why I can no longer link to it when quoting from it.

The right-wing outlet National Review reported:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has removed the “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” from their website after attorneys for Maajid Nawaz, a practicing Muslim and prominent Islamic reformer, threatened legal action over his inclusion on the list.

The report, which had been active on the SPLC’s website since it was published in December [October actually] 2016, was intended to serve as a resource for journalists to identify promoters of hateful propaganda; but it included a number of liberal reformers such as Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist who has since dedicated his life to combating the hateful ideology.

I have to cite National Review’s account because I can’t find any outlets to the left of them that have reported it. It’s pitiful.

Maajid meanwhile is still suing.

8 responses to “Removed in the dead of night”

  1. andym says:

    How odd this whole episode is. Is it really as simple as them conflating not only criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim hatred, but also, as their foes on the populist right do,Islam and Islamism? Is it really just rank stupidity, or something more? A court case would be revealing,but I’ve a strange feeling the SPLC won’t let it get that far.

  2. I really don’t know; I cannot figure it out. Many people told them of their mistake, and they simply stonewalled. As I mentioned, I used to admire them – they were (and I guess still are) a pillar of the civil rights movement. There is of course plenty of connection between racism and blanket mindless hostility to Muslims, but how they manage to turn that into a reason to lie about reformers like Nawaz and Hirsi Ali I will never understand.

  3. Dave Ricks says:

    I put the original SPLC URL into the Wayback Machine. The most recent snapshot of the page was April 13, 2018. This does not identify exactly when SPLC deleted the page, but this does provide a copy of the deleted page for future reference:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20180413161954/https://www.splcenter.org/20161025/journalists-manual-field-guide-anti-muslim-extremists

  4. Lurker111 says:

    What this whole episode did for me is destroy the credibility of the SPLC. It’ll take a LO-O-ONG time for the SPLC to regain much of it.

  5. Yes, for me too, and many others. That’s very unfortunate, given their history.

  6. Steve says:

    This isn’t the first case of the SPLC moving into bizarre, just wrong territory. Don’t forget that these are the same people who labelled a cartoon frog as a hate symbol equivalent to the swastika, despite it being used to deliberately mock and parody the very people the SPLC claimed have adopted it.
    They’ve gone completely off their rockers.

  7. Diesel Balaam says:

    Ophelia Benson is right, but we shouldn’t be surprised. In the UK we also have many liberal and leftist dullards who conflate criticism of both Islam and Islamism with “anti-Muslim hatred” and even “racism”. The risible IslamophobiaWatch website is perhaps the worst offender, but crank organisations like the frankly hysterical Lesbian and Gay Campaign against Racism (LAGCAR) are equally silly and disingenuous. Worse still, organisations that peddle the discredited ideology of multiculturalism, like the BBC and Guardian newspaper, also censor legitimate and progressive challenges to the toxicity of Sunni and Shia Islam and Islamism, while the National Secular Society is loath to rock the boat and soft-soaps Islam in order to avoid upsetting the liberal and leftist metropolitan elites (hence its increasing irrelevance in public discourse about Islam and religion in general).