Southern Poverty Law Center

Southern Poverty Law Center Scraps Its Anti-Muslim Hate List

But its illiberal tactics against liberal Muslim reformers remain extremely troubling.


RobertKingPolaris via Newscom

Last month, I wrote a piece calling out the Southern Poverty Law Center, the country's self-appointed watchdog of hate groups, for putting Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali victim of genital mutilation, and Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim militant-turned-reformer, on its anti-Muslim hate list along with genuine Islamophobes like Pamela Geller. And yesterday came word that the SPLC quietly scrapped its list called the Journalist's Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.

Poof! It's gone.

I wish I could take credit for helping SPLC see the light, but, I suspect, the real reason was that Nawaz recently retained Clare Locke—the same firm that went after Rolling Stone for publishing the University of Virginia rape confabulation—to sue SPLC for defamation. Nawaz claims that SPLC showed a "reckless disregard for the truth"—the legal bar for proving actual malice to make a defamation lawsuit stick—when it put him on its hate list. And instead of fighting him in court, SPLC seems to have folded like a four flusher.

Worse, unlike most responsible outfits that issue a correction when they make a mistake, SPLC removed its list without a word.

Now, if SPLC has indeed backed down (one can't be sure because it didn't respond to queries for comment), it can't be because it is wanting for resources like some poor non-profit operating out of a trailer park. It owns one of the plushest buildings in Alabama and has net assets upwards of $328 million that it's been doubling literally every decade. No, it is because it probably didn't want probing litigation to expose just how hollow its name-and-shame exercise is.

Nawaz believes that Islam is a religion of peace and is publicly spooked by the rising Islamophobia in the West. (How could he not be? He is after all a practicing Muslim of Pakistani descent living in Britain.) He routinely condemns anti-Muslim bigotry and insists that Muslim profiling is counterproductive and ineffective—on Fox News, to boot.

So how in Allah's name did he land on a list of people who allegedly "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."

He is the founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an Islamic reformist outfit fighting against jihadist interpretations of the Quran, and in 2014 he tweeted a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad with the note that "God is greater than to feel threatened by it."

This, along with accusations that he exaggerated some aspects of his biography, is apparently why SPLC thought it fit to put him in the same league as Geller who sponsored the infamous Draw-A-Mohammad cartoon. In other words, this righteous outfit sees no difference between constructive pushback by a well meaning dissenter and a cheap stunt by a vicious troll.

But painting with such a broad brush is wrongheaded for a whole host of reasons not the least of which is that it disarms reformers by taking away an important tool of protest. When Geller sponsored her odious contest, she was sticking it to Muslims. But that is far from Nawaz's motive, whatever one thinks of his tactics. He is simply trying to push back against his religion's rigid notions of blasphemy and stretch the inner boundaries of acceptable opinion. In any normal universe, he would be applauded for his courageous stance against the forces of orthodoxy and intolerance. But not in SPLC. Indeed, if SPLC had been around when Martin Luther denounced the Papacy as "the institution of the Devil" and called King Henry the Eighth, a devout Catholic who later became a Protestant, "a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king's robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face… a lubberly ass… a frantic madman," it might well have branded Luther a bigot and a hater.

Putting Nawaz on a hate list is irresponsible, but this is not the first time that SPLC's over-zealous hate classification has gotten it into trouble. Indeed, as I noted , it put the Family Research Center, a Christian traditional-values outfit, on its list of anti-gay organizations featured on its "Hate Map" page, which prompted a gun-toting gay activist to show up in its office and shoot a guard. It also put Dr. Ben Carson on its "extremist watch list" because he called homosexuality a sin. Again, one can disagree with them. But haters?

Nor is the hate list the outfit's only questionable exercise. As Jesse Walker has pointed out, it also plays fast-and-loose when tabulating the number of hate groups in the country. Its 2016 report on "The Year in Hate and Extremism" found a big spike in KKK groups, but that was at least partly because the KKK formed smaller new klaverns after two big Klans fell apart, something that SPLC only reluctantly conceded. And there is also some double counting in its list of sinister "Patriot" groups – for example it counts WorldNetDaily and WorldNetDaily's book imprint as separate entities.

Still, SPLC is not completely useless yet—although it is working on it. This is terribly unfortunate given that the country really could use a credible outfit tracking hate and hate groups at this juncture. SPLC did some excellent work fighting lingering segregation in the South in the 1970s, scoring some major legal victories against vile white supremacists.

But now it has become more interested in enforcing (il)liberal orthodoxy than fighting real hate.