***Update***: Here is a letter that Maajid Nawaz’s legal team at Clare Locke sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Media Matters for America (both of whom were behind the “anti-Muslim extremists” guide).
The Southern Poverty Law Center has removed a controversial list of “anti-Muslim extremists” from its website, a huge reversal from the organization best known for designating “hate groups” around the country.
That means, by extension, that Maajid Nawaz (a former Islamist now working to reform the faith) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — both critics of Islam — are no longer listed in the same category as people who actually want to eradicate Muslims.
Nawaz made the announcement on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast yesterday just a minute into the episode:
You may recall that this saga began last October, 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 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 a non-profit, Quilliam 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 were never suggesting violence against Muslims was 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.
That’s why he said he was planning 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.
And we now know that the SPLC just poofed away the controversial page. It must have happened in the past couple of days since the page was still up over the weekend. They have no mention of the change on their social media.
According to Nawaz on Rogan’s podcast, he recently retained the help of attorneys with the legal firm Clare Locke — the same firm that went after Rolling Stone — in order to file a defamation case against the SPLC. The lawyers sent the SPLC a letter about the issue and the website was taken down immediately.
What that means for the potential lawsuit, I don’t know.
Nawaz says on his website that “Phase 1” is complete, meaning he’s raised $25,000 for “preliminary legal analysis,” and needs $125,000 more for the “pleading and pleading challenge phase.” But as of this writing, no lawsuit has been filed, it’s not clear if the case is now moot, and we don’t know where the money will go if he ultimately doesn’t sue.
A request for comment to the SPLC, Quilliam International, and Clare Locke were not immediately returned. I’ll post updates as I get them.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)