Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who is now working to reform the faith, will sue the Southern Poverty Law Center for defamation for putting him on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” He made the announcement during tonight’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.
This saga began last October. The Southern Poverty Law Center, long known for its list of “hate” groups, published the list of “Anti-Muslim Extremists” in order to highlight people who had “shamelessly exploited terrorist attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis, among other things, to demonize the entire Islamic faith.” To the surprise of many atheists, the list included Ayaan Hirsi Ali along with 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 religion.
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. How does that make 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 a non-profit, Qulliam International, which 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 are not suggesting violence against Muslims.
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 they were attacking Malala Yousafzai.
So why were they added to SPLC’s list?
For Hirsi Ali, they 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 participated in 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 13,000 signatures. I know many atheists who refuse to donate another penny to the SPLC until they remove the names and apologize.
Nawaz even told the New York Times Magazine that the SPLC’s hit list “compromised some funding” for his Qulliam organization.
So he can 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 enemies of the faith.
That’s why he’s suing the SPLC.
Speaking with Bill Maher tonight, he said he’s “sick to death” of the SPLC’s actions. He called the group “well-meaning” but completely wrong in this instance. He’s suing them for defamation and he’ll be crowd-funding money for his lawsuit. (A link to the lawsuit is not yet available.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has not said if she’ll be part of the lawsuit.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Large portions of this article were published earlier)