British writer and activist Maajid Nawaz is suing the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for defamation. Last October, the SPLC published a report entitled, “A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” The report contained the “profiles of fifteen anti-Muslim extremists who are frequently cited in public discourse,” and described “anti-Muslim extremists” as the “men and women [who] have shamelessly exploited terrorist attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis, among other things, to demonize the entire Islamic faith.” Nawaz was one of the fifteen commentators profiled in the report and the only Muslim on the list.
Nawaz describes his inclusion as “the regressive left bullying a Muslim who has spent the last ten years trying to tackle all forms of extremism, particularly Islamic extremism.” He says his lawsuit against the SPLC is meant to “create a precedent, and provide a warning to those who think they can throw around damning labels like ‘Islamophobe,’ ‘racist,’ and ‘Nazi’ without any evidence and simply get away with it.” (Although he doesn’t mention the terms specifically, I’m sure Nawaz would also like his lawsuit to act as a warning to those who think they can throw around damning labels like “regressive leftist,” “social justice warrior,” and “Islamic apologist” without any evidence and simply get away with it.)
Proud free speech defenders like Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Bill Maher, and Christina Hoff Summers have all come out in favor of Nawaz’s lawsuit; Harris encouraged his Twitter followers to support it, while Shermer told the SPLC: “So long… by putting [Maajid Nawaz] on your extrimist [sic] list you may have just put yourself out of the hate business.” Nawaz himself is currently asking for donations of twenty pounds or to give “as much as you can.”
It’s worth noting that the SPLC is one of the most heavily funded civil rights organizations in the country, so it’s doubtful Nawaz’s lawsuit will put them out of “the hate business” (a potentially libelous statement itself since we’re playing that game now).
The SPLC’s report makes it fairly clear how a public commentator makes it on their list. First, he or she must have a perverse obsession with the Muslim question. Second, he or she must be accepted as a mainstream authority on the subject.
Besides Nawaz, those listed in the SPLC’s report (Robert Spencer, Pam Geller to name two) shouldn’t surprise anyone. Some have objected to Ayaan Hirsi Ali being included, but in the past she’s called for a war with Islam (not just jihadism) and has likened the religion to Nazism.
To be fair to Nawaz, he is treated differently than everyone else in the report. While the others are depicted as true-believing hate-peddlers, he’s portrayed as a financial opportunist. The authors call into question some details of his autobiography before concluding: “The evidence suggests that Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute.”
SPLC also brings up the awkward incident of Nawaz’s “anti-extremism think tank” the Quilliam Foundation, caught paying Tommy Robinson to pretend they played a role in his disaffection with the English Defense League. In Robinson’s book, Enemy of the State, he claims he was already planning on leaving the EDL over tactical disagreements. A Quilliam representative, however, saw in the situation a good PR opportunity and reached out to Robinson about working together on the press-management aspect of his departure. In his book, Robinson describes Quilliam as “a handful of well meaning people [sic] unfortunately with little influence…more despised by Muslims than I was.”
Nawaz obviously shouldn’t be on the SPLC’s list of anti-Muslim extremists because, as they themselves imply in the report, at worst he’s a loathsome con artist. And sure, vilifying others for money is of course bad manners. But given the excess of enmity and paranoia regarding Muslims and Islam currently out there, it seems like a great waste of energy by the SPLC to scare their liberal supporters into a frenzy about Nawaz. Mosques are being vandalized and set on fire. Individual Muslims are being attacked and even killed (a lot of “road rage” incidents recently). None of these violent acts were provoked by anything Nawaz said. Nor were the people who did them waiting to hear a voice from a brown face telling them their hatred of Muslims was justified.
On the other hand, Nawaz and his supporters’ hypocrisy on free speech would be laughable if it weren’t so pernicious. Using the civil-justice system to “provide a warning” to your critics is a form of censorship. This isn’t the first time it’s been evident that these so-called defenders of free speech really only defend the speech they agree with (plus Holocaust denial—it’s always Holocaust denial—so they can appear bravely consistent). They never raise a peep over any of the actual and serious threats to free speech in this country: employees not having the right to speak freely at work, calls to ban the online content of jihadist organizations, the monitoring and sabotage of political activists, or billionaires using the legal system to destroy media outlets. No, it’s strictly college kids and hysterical minorities for them.
Nawaz is suing the SPLC because they published something about him that he finds offensive. The free speech crusaders who make a living pretending to care about liberal values publicly support the lawsuit. Once again, they’re fighting against windmills—except this time they don’t even have the courage to imagine the windmills are giants.