In addition to threats of violence by Islamic fundamentalists, liberal critics of Islam are increasingly abandoned. At best, we are inconvenient afterthoughts, at worst, bigots and hate-mongers.
The intellectual confusion and moral paralysis plaguing the Western Left around the religion of Islam has done much to add credibility to the Western Right. Embodying the now-common approach of elevating politics over principle, the Southern Poverty Law Center has accused the ex-Muslim atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz of “anti-Muslim extremism”.
In the recently issued report Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, the SPLC claims to have identified 15 “anti-Muslim extremists” who it believes are represented too often in mainstream media.
These “extremists”, the SPLC contends, spread “baseless and damaging lies” in order to demonize all Muslims. The Field Guide aims to arm journalists with information so that they may challenge the “hateful rhetoric and misinformation” of the extremists, or better yet, “deny them a public platform altogether.”
Perhaps in more competent hands, a report such as this may have been a useful guide for journalists with little time to spend on background research. However, the one produced by SPLC is neither reliable nor factual, and often steers closer to the category of yellow journalism than anything worth serious consideration.
Nuance is lost where the religion of peace is concerned, and the SPLC paints its targets with a broad, clumsy brush. Those profiled range from pundits who believe that radicals have “infiltrated the CIA, FBI, Pentagon, and State Department” to activists who offer compassionate, empathetic, and exceedingly balanced views on the faith. The latter is exemplified by the Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, who spent his formative years in the service of an Islamist organization working to re-establish a global caliphate. After disavowing his former associates, he has spent the past decade working to encourage reform and secularization in Muslim countries and communities.
Nearly every charge against him in the report is patently absurd. His act of solidarity with students who wore a benign cartoon of Prophet Muhammad on a t-shirt is a cited as a qualification for his “anti-Muslim extremism”. Nawaz tweeted a picture of the cartoon, declaring that such trifles don’t offend him.
— Radical (@MaajidNawaz) January 12, 2014
For this conciliatory and progressive gesture, he earned the ire of the Muslim community, condemnation by “liberals”, and death threats by fanatics. It appears that the SPLC now polices acts considered blasphemous as “anti-Muslim extremism”, citing the Islamic religious belief in their indictment.
If mere tweeting of cartoons is tantamount to bigotry, one wonders how they would judge the actions of the actual cartoonists. Perhaps the SPLC list should include the creators of the show South Park for their depictions of Jesus and Mohammed. In the same vein, Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ surely also qualifies him as an anti-Christian “extremist”, along with the National Endowment for the Arts that presented him with an award. But I won’t be holding my breath for the latter. In the eyes of some my fellow liberals, blasphemy is bigotry only when Islam is the target.
Nawaz’s entry reads like a gossip blog written by his most paranoid enemies, repeating debunked claims and rumors as factual evidence. In reference to his account of his journey to deradicalization, SPLC ominously contends that “major elements of his story have been disputed by former friends, members of his family, fellow jihadists and journalists”, neglecting to substantiate this damning assessment in any form whatsoever.
Let’s break that down, shall we?
Nawaz is a “reformist” Muslim, that is to say, he wishes to make changes to the way his fellow Muslims practice their faith. Anyone who takes on such a task (especially where Islam is concerned) will find themselves the target of smears and attacks from the religious conservatives.
In Nawaz’s case, the denunciations are by his former allies and associates – many the same conservative, even jihadi(!), persons and groups who he now challenges. What else would anyone in their right mind expect? Is it more likely that former Islamist allies shower him with praise as he fights against the values they hold most dear? It may come as a surprise to SPLC, but those who function as whistleblowers of any stripe are defamed and villainized by the people whom they speak out against.
Such “evidence” should be beneath any publication that fancies itself more reputable than a tabloid, and in any case, disparagement by religious groups should surely count in his favor as a dedicated secularist. For a publication which hopes to be a resource to journalists, the SPLC has failed to do diligence to a basic tenet of ethical journalism: provide sources.
However, even as SPLC gives no citations to justify that particular ad-hominem, it mysteriously gains the ability to read Nawaz’s mind and divine his motives, adding that “the evidence suggests that Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute.”
This is par for the course for confused regressive types: deny the individual the autonomy to name their own motivations, ascribe instead those more convenient to the narrative. A terrorist swears that it is his dedication to the religious faith that motivates his violence – regressives frantically search for other answers. Anti-fundamentalists like Nawaz declare a desire for a secular world as the fuel for their activism – regressives grasp at straws for evidence of a more nefarious agenda.
To the politically-motivated, it is of the utmost importance that the “narrative” around the religion of Islam remain undisturbed by critical voices. The good word has already been revealed: The ideology of Islam is, and always will be, entirely peaceful and good. The effect it has on its believers is, and always will be, entirely peaceful and good. When the faithful act in grotesque ways, the blame can only be placed on politics, poverty, or disposition. The mandates of the religion itself are beyond reproach, even by former or current Muslims.
Both actual violent extremists and reformers present a problem to this narrative: They claim that belief has a relation to the behavior.
Evidence of Nawaz’s “anti-Muslim extremism” also includes a trip to a strip club he took with friends. Citing the Daily Mail, SPLC mentions (as yet unproven) allegations made by the Muslim owner of the strip-club against Nawaz, who claims that Nawaz repeatedly tried to touch a lapdancer. The dancer herself never came forward.
Even if one were to accept these accusations as true, what bearing do sexual activities, criminal or otherwise, have on “anti-Muslim extremism”? If one is related to the other, I await the SPLC’s denunciation of the actions of Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner as “anti-Muslim extremism”. Unless of course, mentioning such allegations has nothing to do with any “extremism”, but is merely an underhanded attempt to cast shadows over Nawaz’s character.
In reality, Maajid Nawaz has been one of the most consistently rational, compassionate, and nuanced voices in an atmosphere brimming with hostility and competing agenda-driven narratives. As an apostate myself, I am grateful he represents Muslims who fight for our right to exist.
Nawaz’s entry may have been the most clearly ludicrous, but other profiles are similarly problematic. SPLC points to valid, factual claims made by those profiled as “evidence” of their extremism as often as it identifies falsehoods. Worse, it pools compassionate, anti-war Muslims with the likes of those who really do want to bomb the Muslim world – enacting terrible harm to the public discourse in the process.
Consistently, the report 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. In fact, the only string that really does tie together the supposed “extremists” listed in the SPLC guide is that they are all deeply despised by right-wing conservative Muslims.
Nawaz and Hirsi Ali, in particular, have been targeted by fatwas and threatened with violence for their advocacy by actual extremists – those who do more than merely print opinions SPLC doesn’t like. No doubt that Nawaz and Ali’s inclusion in this list will subject them to more threats than ever before.
Already, too few are willing to stand up to religious privilege for the sake of human rights. When that privilege belongs to a religion whose followers include some ready to die (and kill) for the honor of their faith, activists face devastating costs. This report is an example of the careless, reactionary response by the American media (on both the right and the left) to the challenge posed by this religion. In the past, the Southern Poverty Law Center has built a reputation among progressives for identifying and monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups. With this report, it has tarnished its reputation and joined the ranks of the hate-mongers it purports to combat.
As critics of Islam are hunted by Muslim fanatics around the world, I hope we will remember the courage and sacrifice of those willing to speak out, and the role played by unscrupulous detractors painting targets on their backs.
Sarah Haider is a co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, a community-building organization for ex-Muslims across the non-theist spectrum, and can be reached at @SarahTheHaider.