The Unlabelling of an ‘Anti-Muslim Extremist’

The Southern Poverty Law Center misstepped by including Maajid Nawaz on a 2016 list. But in trying to correct that mistake, it just made a new one.

Peter Morrison / AP

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the venerable civil-rights organization, has issued a formal apology to British political activist Maajid Nawaz and will make a $3.4 million payment over his inclusion in a 2016 list of “anti-Muslim extremists.”

The settlement is the culmination of a bitter battle between the two sides that has stretched nearly two years. As I wrote when SPLC’s original report, A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, was published, Nawaz’s inclusion was baffling and difficult to defend. SPLC did not grant Nawaz’s demand for a retraction, but it did make some edits to his entry while defending his inclusion. Then, in April, the group removed the guide altogether.

On Monday, however, SPLC President Richard Cohen posted an apology to Nawaz and to the Quilliam Foundation, his think-tank.

“Given our understanding of the views of Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam, it was our opinion at the time that the Field Guide was published that their inclusion was warranted,” Cohen said in a statement. “But after getting a deeper understanding of their views and after hearing from others for whom we have great respect, we realize that we were simply wrong to have included Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam in the Field Guide in the first place.”

On the merits, SPLC seems to have made the right choice. Nawaz’s inclusion made the report look more like an attempt to police the discourse on Islam than a true inventory of anti-Muslim extremists, of whom there is no shortage, and opened SPLC up to charges that it had strayed from its civil-rights mission at a time when it's more important than ever. But the terms of the settlement are troubling at a time when free speech and the free press are under fire, sometimes from the very same people who threaten civil rights.

SPLC also posted a video apology. It said that the payout will go toward Quilliam’s work and will be paid for by insurance. “It was the right thing to do in light of our mistake and the right thing to do in light of the growing prejudice against the Muslim community on both sides of the Atlantic,” Cohen said. The statement does not specify which elements of the field guide were incorrect. SPLC did not respond to a request for further comment.

There was no lack of irony to SPLC labeling Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist,” because Nawaz has described himself as a former extremist—but an Islamist one. A British-born Muslim of Pakistani descent, he joined the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir as a teenager, and eventually ended up in an Egyptian prison. Nawaz came to see Islamism, the ideology that combines the religion of Islam with politics, as a dangerous problem, and one that is separable from the religion. Back in the United Kingdom, he opened Quilliam, named for an early British convert to Islam, to fight Islamist extremism.

Nawaz is undoubtedly controversial. To what is broadly his left, critics find him to be far too strident in his criticism of Islamism and too apt to align himself with right-wing politicians. To the right, critics view him as too much of an apologist for Islam still. Nawaz has also said he receives death threats.

Yet even some of Nawaz’s critics were perplexed by SPLC’s choice to include him. Unlike other figures on the list, including Frank Gaffney or Pam Geller (or some figures who aren’t, like Donald Trump), Nawaz does not argue that Islam itself is the problem. There’s also the small problem that he is a Muslim himself, which separates him from figures like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another controversial figure, included in SPLC’s report, who was raised Muslim but now identifies as an atheist.

SPLC cited four particular reasons for Nawaz’s inclusion on the list. As I noted at the time, the first two—his tweeting of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad and visiting a strip club—were both tacky at worst. SPLC said Nawaz wanted to criminalize the niqab, or face veil; Nawaz countered that he favored a “policy” against the veil, not a law against it. SPLC and Nawaz also quarreled over a list of Islamist groups compiled by Quilliam, which SPLC said enabled government targeting and which Quilliam said was intended to defend the listed groups.

But this devolution into quibbling risks obscuring the larger point: It’s possible to disagree with much or some of what Nawaz says, and the way he says it (as I in fact do) without concluding he is an anti-Muslim extremist. In its statement, SPLC seemed to agree.

“Although we may have our differences with some of the positions that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have taken, we recognize that they have made important contributions to efforts to promote pluralism and that they are most certainly not anti-Muslim extremists,” Cohen said.

The list that included Nawaz became a central bone of contention in a broader debate over SPLC in general. While the fabled nonprofit has long had its critics, many of them hatemongers like Gaffney, the new chorus included sympathetic observers and fellow researchers on hate groups, who worried that SPLC was mixing its research and activist strains. “Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way?” Politico Magazine asked.

Nonetheless, the settlement, and especially its size, are somewhat surprising because SPLC might well have prevailed in court, albeit at great cost. Defamation lawsuits are famously difficult to win in the United States. A plaintiff who is a public figure must show not only that what is written about him is factually untrue, but also that it was published with “actual malice,” which is to say that whoever published knew or suspected it was untrue.

“The words ‘anti-Muslim extremist’ certainly sounds and indeed must be a matter of opinion,” the noted First Amendment litigator Floyd Abrams told me. “The language that someone is an extremist may not in and of itself be a defamatory statement of fact. The argument would be it’s not defamatory—it’s not even a statement of fact!”

Even if Nawaz could prove a factual statement, he would then have to prove actual malice. “If it was a mere overstatement or thoughtless or any of those characterizations, then the defendant would start out in pretty good position,” Abrams said.

Ken White, a First Amendment lawyer and blogger, wrote Monday that the result was troubling. The firm representing Nawaz, Clare Locke, has sued a long list of media organizations. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly called for changing libel laws to make it easier to sue the press. While White criticized SPLC for having transformed itself from a bulwark against bigotry into a policeman for political correctness, he said the surrender could set a bad precedent:

The threatened lawsuit appears to be part of a trend of suing the SPLC for its opinions and characterizations. The settlement will embolden that trend. The trend will not stay confined to the SPLC — that's not the way the law works. Especially in such bitterly divided times, suing over opinions is deeply censorious and corrosive of free speech. Nawaz — who has himself been the target of attempted censorship — should know that.

If White’s prediction is correct, that makes the episode all the more disappointing. SPLC’s work is especially important in this moment, as President Trump rolls back civil-rights laws, targets marginalized communities, and offers encouragement to white supremacists. By overreaching in its description of Nawaz, SPLC undercut its own reputation and the noble goal of fighting against anti-Muslim sentiment, and by settling, it risks undercutting free-speech protections at a time when they are already under threat.