PARIS — Few people of conscience doubt that the Southern Poverty Law Center, known as the SPLC, has done great work investigating and exposing those who preach hate in today’s world. Founded in 1971 “to ensure that the promise of the civil rights movement became a reality for all,” it has become a leading force in the struggle against bigotry.
Probably there has been no moment in recent memory when that fight is more important than now, with a man in the White House who has built his presidency around fear and loathing, effectively licensing hate-speak against all who are deemed alien, especially those whose skins are dark or whose faith differs from his cult-like coterie of followers. And, yes, especially Muslims.
So it was with something akin to horror that many of us first read a pamphlet the SPLC co-published with Media Matters for America in October 2016 called “A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremism”—and found therein a denunciation of Maajid Nawaz as well as the organization he has built in Britain, the Quilliam Foundation. He is an “anti-Muslim extremist,” said the SPLC manual. He and Quilliam caused “hate-based violence” and “criminal hate violence.”
This was far from the truth, as anyone who actually followed Nawaz’s career would know. For decades now his struggle has been to oppose extremism, both by Muslims and by anti-Muslim bigots. As a former Islamist radical himself, he is only too well aware of the way the extremes fuel each other as they try to close off the middle ground of moderation and tolerance where most people actually want to live their lives, whatever their faith.
All this was of particular interest to The Daily Beast, which has published many of Nawaz’s columns, and to me, since I have known Nawaz for several years, consider him a friend, and have been his editor here. He can be overbearing and abrasive, I will testify to that, but the SPLC accusations were wildly off base.
Many others agreed. Yet despite the storm the “Field Guide” provoked, and some sneaky post-publication tweaking on its web site, the SPLC refused to retract the offending entry completely and apologize—until it did, abjectly, after an out-of-court settlement signed on Monday that also granted Quilliam a whopping $3.375 million.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center was wrong to include Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation in our Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a video and a written statement, using language apparently stipulated in the settlement. “Since we published the Field Guide, we have taken the time to do more research and have consulted with human rights advocates we respect. We’ve found that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have made valuable and important contributions to public discourse, including by promoting pluralism and condemning both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism. Although we may have our differences with some of the positions that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have taken, they are most certainly not anti-Muslim extremists. We would like to extend our sincerest apologies to Mr. Nawaz, Quilliam, and our readers for the error, and we wish Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam all the best.”
The irony here, as Cohen pointed out in a subsequent column, is that he’d learned from human rights advocates affiliated with the United Nations that Nawaz’s work combatting extremism “is actually analogous to that of the SPLC over the years in the South.” Cohen noted that the money paid out to Quilliam, which may be covered by insurance, is intended to help it fight “anti-Muslim bigotry and extremism.”
Indeed. So, what the hell happened? Some critics have noted the SPLC's tendency to slip from solid reporting toward reflexive political correctness.
But in a an exclusive—and largely conciliatory—interview, Nawaz suggested there probably are other explanations.
He thinks the SPLC authors may have been led astray by their sources. He suggested they were unfamiliar with the political and social terrain in Britain and relied on “community groups” with their own Islamist political agendas. And he noted that a public relations firm retained as part of the SPLC effort included a staffer who formerly worked with CAIR, a group often criticized by Nawaz for taking positions “leaning,” as he put it, toward Islamist political lines. “I think that that probably skewed the outcome in this case,” said Nawaz.
It's also relevant to the critical question of “malice” in the defamation suit brought by Nawaz and Quilliam. In U.S. courts it is notoriously hard to prove defamation, since the plaintiff must establish that the defendant not only was sloppy or lazy or opinionated but actually intended to defame the subject.
The first published version of the SPLC “field guide” was full of accusations made out of context, even though there was ample material to establish that Nawaz’s aim is, precisely, to counter extremism with solid religious, social and political arguments. A key point, which he has made many times is that Islamism, a political credo, is distinct from the religion of Islam. “Refusing to name and shame Islamism only increases anti-Muslim hate,” he points out.
The SPLC manual noted that Nawaz tweeted out a cartoon of Muhammad and Jesus that many Muslims might find offensive, but omitted Nawaz’s accompanying text in which he said not only that his intention was to “carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death,” in Muslim countries. But also “to demonstrate that Muslims are able to see things we don’t like, yet remain calm and pluralist. … [and] to highlight that Muslims can engage in politics without insisting that our own religious values must trump all others’ concerns, and to stand before the mob so that other liberal Muslim voices that are seldom heard, women’s and men’s, could come to the fore.”
The SPLC claimed Nawaz had given a list of radicals to the Metropolitan police, which he firmly denies: “That is totally false. Absolutely false.” He attributes that allegation to a misreading of a public report on radical groups, and the machinations of a police officer who has been firmly discredited and dismissed from the force.
The SPLC even mentioned a video released to the British tabloids of Nawaz cavorting at a strip club during his bachelor party. It is worth noting that the owner of that club, who claimed he released the video because it shows Nawaz is not a “religious Muslim” is himself a Muslim. That’s right, the owner of the strip club! Surely that’s a new definition of holier than thou hypocrisy.
All of which was pretty petty and vindictive stuff for a supposedly serious guide to extremism, but might not qualify as defamation, and probably would not have if the SPLC had merely backed down a few days or weeks after publication. But it would not.
“After you have gone to the wrong people for advice you start believing and trusting those people for advice,” said Nawaz. “They had every opportunity during a year and a half. They could have seen the error of their ways, but there was this ongoing insistence that they were correct.” And that, indeed, started to look like the kind of malice that could be proved in a court battle that would have used up a lot of resources, and might have caused grievous damage to both the SPLC and Quilliam in their fights against extremists.
"When you’ve had bank accounts shut, accountants refusing service, visas denied, tiring airport inspection and doors closed to projects, it gets to a stage where you say ‘enough is enough,’" Nawaz wrote to me in an email after our phone interview. "The only way I got my name cleared was through taking action. Love it or hate it, legal action worked."
Once Nawaz’s lawyers at Clare Locke presented their case in April this year, the SPLC’s confidence in its reporting apparently collapsed completely. It took exactly two months to reach that $3.375 million settlement.
“This isn’t the time to gloat,” Nawaz told me. “I think this is an instructive moment. In fact, I am going to fly out to New York to meet Cohen to see how we can move forward.”
At this critical time, that would be a good thing for all of us.
Correction: An earlier version of this story in several places used the initials SCLC in place of SPLC. We regret these typographical errors. The quotation from Nawaz about the efficacy of legal action also has been added.