The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group founded 45 years ago with a focus on combating hate and extremism, has often come under fire from conservatives who argue its classification of extremists and hate groups has a left-wing bias — mainly because of disputes over labeling traditionalist views of homosexuality as anti-gay hate. But now the center has done more to discredit itself than its worst enemies could by branding critics of radical Islamism — including a liberal Muslim reformer — as Muslim-hating bigots.
The center’s “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” released last week and compiled with Media Matters for America and two other left-of-center advocacy groups, includes 15 men and women. The report urges the media to treat them as “propagandists . . . far outside of the political mainstream” and their views as “toxic” and dangerous.
Some critics have taken issue with the entire list. However, the label fits some of the people on it — those who paint nearly all Muslims as potential terrorists and violent jihadists and even argue that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment protections.
One of the most notorious people on the list, anti-“Islamization” activist Pamela Geller of Hewlett Harbor, has compared a proposed Islamic center and mosque in downtown Manhattan with a Ku Klux Klan center and accused President Barack Obama of jihadist sympathies. Geller has voiced support for perpetrators of war crimes against Muslim civilians in the Balkans and relentlessly stoked Islamists-under-the-bed paranoia in America.
Other names on the list are questionable, to say the least. Middle East Forum founder and former Harvard professor Daniel Pipes is labeled an extremist for offenses that include ridiculing the claim that the Islamic State is not truly Islamic. (Many scholars agree the group’s ideology is rooted in Islamic scriptures, though it is only one radical version of Islamist ideology.) No mention is made of the fact that Pipes has argued for moderate Islam and against Muslim-bashers.
Then there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist, writer, and women’s rights advocate. Ali has made some intemperate statements, collected by the SPLC guide, that lump together all Islam as inherently violent. But the document does not mention that she has recently modified her position to advocate for Islamic reformation and stress that most Muslims embrace the peaceful aspects of Quranic teachings. Ali continues to argue for a formal repudiation of the more intolerant and oppressive aspects of Islamic doctrine.
But the most bizarre choice is the inclusion of Maajid Nawaz, a British Pakistani Muslim. An ex-radical turned reformer, Nawaz heads the Quilliam Foundation, which promotes moderate Islam. He has spoken out against anti-Muslim hate. His extremist crimes? Nawaz has warned that many mainstream Muslim organizations which reject terrorism nonetheless espouse Islamism (i.e. the imposition of authoritarian Islamic norms by political means). Also, he has tweeted a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammed “despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous to draw Muhammad.” Is violation of Islamic blasphemy laws now a form of hate?
Responding to the report in The Daily Beast, Nawaz has written that there is something deeply ironic about mostly white American leftists chastising a brown Muslim for offenses against his faith.
The report strips the center of all credibility as a voice against extremism. It also validates the perception of many on the right that “political correctness” makes it impossible to criticize modern Islam’s very real problem with radicalism. That perception helps fuel the truly toxic anti-Muslim and anti-liberal backlash exemplified by the rise of Donald Trump.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.