The Southern Poverty Law Center Isn’t Perfect—and Humanists Can Do More than Just Criticize It

Many humanists feel that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) failed to make a critical distinction between criticism and hate speech last week when it included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, two vocal critics of extremist Islam, in its report listing “anti-Muslim extremists.” The SPLC has faced backlash from humanists who are asking the group to rescind its classifications of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz. (A petition is online here.) While humanists are right to demand that the SPLC reconsider its decision, we should not dismiss the SPLC entirely, given its overall work toward the humanistic ends of combating racism and bigotry.

The problem with the SPLC’s report, as explained by Sarah Haider (co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America), is that it “consistently…conflates criticism or dislike of the religion as ‘hate’ against its believers—effectively granting this particular religion a privilege no other ideology maintains. In this sense, the SPLC, considered by many to be a progressive institution, allies itself with the right-wing theocrats of the East.” Haider specifically debunks the Southern Poverty Law Center’s claims against Hirsi Ali and Nawaz. The Atlantic also observes that “what makes Nawaz’s appearance on the list so peculiar is that he and SPLC share the goal of fighting back against unfair targeting of Muslims. If even natural-seeming allies are preoccupied fighting each other about tactics, what hope is there prevailing in the fight against real bigots?”

Hemant Mehta summed up the root of the outrage when he wrote on The Friendly Atheist that “the SPLC is making the mistake of equating fair criticism of Islam with unfair bigotry against Muslims. No one has to agree with what Hirsi Ali and Nawaz say about Islam, but it’s absurd to claim that they hate Muslims to the point of being extremists.” Humanists criticize religion because many of us know firsthand, as Hirsi Ali and Nawaz do, how much damage it can do. The deaths of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the Charlie Hebdo editors and journalists, Dr. George Tiller, and the three individuals outside the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado,  among many others, remind us of the danger of extreme beliefs when combined with other factors. Humanists’ opposition to violence fuels these criticisms and sets us apart from those who do engage in hate speech, which often calls for violence against oppressed groups. Unfortunately, this is a distinction that the SPLC failed to make, and humanists must hold it accountable.

However, we must also consider ways that we can stand with Muslims against the racism that is increasingly directed at them. The SPLC published its “field guide” at a time when hate crimes against Muslims and “those perceived as Arab” have risen sharply in the United States. Emboldened by the media attention this presidential election cycle has given to bigots scapegoating Muslims for our nation’s problems, more racists feel justified in acting on their hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center explains, “This misinformation and hateful rhetoric have consequences. When huge numbers of Americans believe that a majority of Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, it can hardly be a surprise that some percentage of them engage in hate crime attacks.” While humanists claim that our criticisms of Islam focus on ideas and not on people, as Samreena Farooqui has explained, a Muslim identity is inherently racialized in the United States in a way that other religious identities are not.

For this reason, humanists’ criticisms of Islam require a certain amount of nuance that is unnecessary for criticisms of Christianity, the dominant, white religious narrative in the United States. Humanists also need to understand that our criticisms of Islam can be read by others as criticisms of Muslims and those perceived as Muslim, and we need to be sensitive to the ways in which they can be interpreted. We also need to face the hard truth that within our community, these criticisms of ideas within Islam can and are sometimes used to mask racism. As humanists, we must remember that our values go beyond criticisms of religious ideology and also require action to uphold human rights and dignity for all, including Muslims.

One way humanists can differentiate our critiques of extremist Islamic ideologies from the racism directed at Muslims and those perceived as Muslim is to recognize that extremist religious ideologies do not exist in a vacuum. Blaming religion for the problems faced by Muslims ignores the historical, social, and economic factors that contribute to the current state of affairs in the Middle East today. Focusing solely on extremist religion also conveniently lets the United States off the hook for fueling unrest in the Middle East while failing to acknowledge the many justified reasons Middle Easterners have for distrusting the US. For instance, some humanists point to Iran as an example of the horrors of theocracy but ignore the US role in bringing about that theocracy when in the 1950s the CIA backed efforts to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister. More recently, our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, air strikes in Syria, and a whole host of other unsuccessful US actions in the Middle East have impoverished the region. Rather than bringing peace, US “interventions” have spread violence and unrest and contributed to the growth of extremist religious ideologies.

Locally, humanists can stand in solidarity with Muslims by opposing white supremacist groups that scapegoat Muslims for our country’s problems. We can protest white supremacists when they host demonstrations in our local communities, and we can call out racist language and rhetoric when we hear it. (You can learn more about ways to be an ally to Muslim Americans here.) The Southern Poverty Law Center has long documented the activities of these groups, and while humanists might disagree with the SPLC’s classification of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, the majority of the hate groups on its website do deserve that label. The Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and the growing alternative right (aka alt-right) are dedicated to rolling back what small gains our society has made toward racial equality. Unfortunately, recent events such as the acquittal of the armed, antigovernment Bundy brothers may embolden similar racist, right-wing, antigovernment groups to take action without fear of consequences.

The hateful rhetoric that has been bandied about in this presidential election cycle will likely last us several generations, as it’s being picked up by children. White nationalism is not just rising in the United States but globally, and it can only be stopped if all of us do what we can to oppose it within our own communities.

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