For years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has enjoyed respect and deference in American political culture, with its list of “hate groups” frequently invoked as authoritative. All people of good faith, on the right and the left, should lament these facts. The SPLC’s hyper-partisanship is bad enough. Far worse is its dilution of the word “hate” to denote any worldview that is not in step with a specific kind of ideological orthodoxy. The good news? People are beginning to notice.
Maajid Nawaz has noticed. Nawaz, a British Muslim activist who spent his teens and early twenties professing radical Islamist ideology before reforming, intends to sue the SPLC for defamation of character. The organization recently branded Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist,” for reasons that even sympathetic media outlets have found puzzling. By all appearances, Nawaz is a serious political thinker whose ideas have found cross-partisan support in the United Kingdom.
Why does the SPLC conclude that Nawaz is a hateful bigot? Its explanation is incoherent and petty, even by SPLC standards. The SPLC includes in its incriminatory “In Their Own Words” section the following notation: “According to a Jan. 24, 2014, report in The Guardian, Nawaz tweeted out a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad—despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous to draw Muhammad. He said that he wanted ‘to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge.’” This is a truly bizarre indictment. As The Atlantic’s David Graham observes, the SPLC appears to be taking a theological position on the issue of cartoons and blasphemy, and then condemning Nawaz as a bigot based on his opposition to that position.
The SPLC’s willingness to designate itself an arbiter of correct Islamic theology would be amusing if it weren’t so destructive.
Discussing his lawsuit during a recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, Nawaz posed a question to defenders of the SPLC. Citing the SPLC’s longstanding opposition to (and besmirching of) conservative Christian groups, Nawaz asked, “They arrogate to themselves the right to criticize their own Bible Belt. But they don’t want me to criticize my belt, within my own community? It’s this hypocrisy that is the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Nawaz is right to point out the hypocrisy, though one wishes he’d extend this line of reasoning farther. If the SPLC sees no contradiction between its blackballing of Christianity and its blackballing of Nawaz, could that be because the Center is not, in fact, interested in flagging real hatred?
Of course, the duplicity of the SPLC comes as no surprise to social conservatives. The SPLC has long designated the Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson, as an “anti-LGBT hate group.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with the theology and policy proposals of the FRC is irrelevant. Far more urgent is the need for supporters of the “hate group” designation to explain how such a pronouncement doesn’t immediately apply to thousands of traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations, and many millions of religious believers, who take conservative positions on sex and marriage.
The answer, of course, is that it does apply to those millions of believers. Can we really be shocked, then, when such sweeping denunciations trigger political violence? Floyd Lee Corkins, who walked into the FRC front lobby in 2012 with a pistol and fifty rounds of ammunition, told police that he had found the FRC listed on the SPLC’s website. And as Nawaz remarked to Maher, Muslim intellectuals who are labeled haters by the SPLC are frequently targeted and sometimes assassinated. Though we should always distinguish clearly between those who use rhetoric and those who use violence, a connection between word and deed in specific instances is inarguable. And it would not be tolerated by the SPLC’s supporters, if anyone other than the SPLC were doing the labeling.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s philological gerrymandering has been far too influential for far too long. Liberals and conservatives who want more for the public square than echo chambers and outrage factories should hope that Maajid Nawaz wins his lawsuit, and that the SPLC learns a costly lesson about bearing false witness.