The Ohio State University Press, in 1965, published an important book by the late Henry Kalven, called one of the preeminent legal scholars of the 20th century, a chaired professor at the University of Chicago. His book chronicled and analyzed the crucial role that the First Amendment played in protecting blacks who marched and protested against segregation during the 1960s.
Today’s activists should be aware of the importance of free speech in the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, a prominent and respected civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), should embrace the First Amendment—especially so when it counts among its central purposes, “teaching tolerance.” The SPLC publishes a “hate map” of the entire United States, locating hate groups, such as the White Aryan Resistance, headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana.
Consequently, it is surprising that the SPLC has decided to identify as “hateful extremists” people who preach peace, do not advocate violence, but criticize jihadist Muslims. The SPLC recently published a Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists. The SPLC wants the media to “deny them a public platform to speak” or “challenge their hateful rhetoric and misinformation.” So, who are these people who are as hateful as the White Aryan Resistance? Let’s consider the two famous names.
First, Maajid Nawaz, a practicing Muslim, whom the SPCC claims is one of the “former Islamists who use that experience to savage Islam.” Mr. Nawaz would be surprised to learn that. Let me explain: if you asked yourself what are the top ten items you associate with Harvard University Press, I bet “platform for Islam-haters” would not be on the list. Harvard University Press published Nawaz’s book, coauthored with Sam Harris, called Islam and the Future of Tolerance. The New York Times Book Review tells us that it is “refreshing to read an honest yet affectionate exchange between the Islamist-turned-liberal-Muslim Maajid Nawaz and the neuroscientist who advocates mindful atheism, Sam Harris.” When Nawaz advocates a more secular Islam, he “means an American separation of church and state.”
It is hardly unusual for members of a religion to leave one church and found another, such as Martin Luther. Others seek change from within the religion—the Counter Reformation is a prominent example. Others leave all religion and become atheists, or atheists discover God. In all cases, they may criticize their former beliefs, even in very vocal terms, but that does not make any of them extremists, even if adherents of another religion consider them infidels or heretics.
Yet, the SPLC tells us that the American media must quarantine people like Mr. Nawaz, and “deny them a public platform to speak.” I hesitate to make predictions because they offer evidence of my fallibility but I will stick my neck out and predict that The New York Times will not shun Nawaz even though he made it on SPLC’s list. The author of the New York Times book review praising Nawaz’ book is, Irshad Manji, founder of the MoralCourage Project. Her latest book is Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom. The SPLC does not label her as a hater, and she did not earn a place on the SPLC list, although she argues that we must reject the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities.
Mr. Nawaz, a practicing Muslim, is definitely worried about being on the SPLC list:
They put a target on my head. The kind of work that I do, if you tell the wrong kind of Muslims that I’m an extremist, then that means I’m a target. They don’t have to deal with any of this. I don’t have any protection. I don’t have any state protection. These people are putting me on what I believe is a hit list.
Odd, isn’t it, that SPLC, which is supposed to preach toleration, ends up aiding and abetting those violent jihadists who might be looking for a handy hit list.
One of Nawaz’s major sins, according to the SPLC, is that he “tweeted out a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad—despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous to draw Muhammad.” That makes you an extremist, the SPLC says. The SPLC must not know that many Muslims, particularly those belong to the Shiite branch, have no problem with images of Muhammad. Indeed, you can see numerous such images if you tour the famous Topkapi Palace Museum, in Istanbul, which proudly displays images of Muhammad. Perhaps SPLC should add the curators of the Topkai Palace Museum or even Recep Erdogan, the President of Turkey, to its list of anti-Muslim extremists.
Nawaz objects to any claim that his tweet makes him an extremist promoting violence in any way. He said:
On 12 January I participated in a BBC debate on human rights and religious rights. Two students were wearing T-shirts depicting a stick figure of Jesus saying ‘Hi’ to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: ‘How you doin’?’ Some Muslims, having just argued for their own right to veil, took issue with the students. I argued that just as Muslim women have the right to veil, atheists have the right to wear these T-shirts.
I am acutely aware of the populist sentiment in Britain that derides Muslims who seek special treatment for their sensibilities, so I tweeted the bland image and stated that, as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that.
Right after that, he received death threats.
When the SPLC created its list to “deny them a public platform to speak” or “challenge their hateful rhetoric and misinformation,” the SPLC should be more concerned with the people who threaten Mr. Nawaz with death. Instead, they are more concerned with a Muslim who does not embrace the iconoclasts—using that term in its original sense, those who destroy religious icons and other images for religious or political motives.
Nawaz emphasizes that he used his tweet to “defend my religion from those who have hijacked it just because they shout the loudest.” He is head of an organization with the purpose to promote “religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy.”
Another “extremist” who made the SPLC list is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Muslim and a former Dutch politician. She has been very active in opposing female genital mutilation, a practice not limited to Muslims. She calls for a reformation of Islam. In her book, Heretic, she says. “Without fundamental alterations to some of Islam’s core concepts, we shall not solve the burning and increasingly global problem of political violence carried out in the name of religion.” The New York Times book review says of her book, “That may sound incendiary, but for Hirsi Ali, who has renounced her own Muslim faith, the idea that Islam should and could be reformed is practically conciliatory.”
SPLC’s labeling of Hirsh Ali as an extremist is overwrought. SPLC should rethink who is beyond the pale when it criticizes a former Muslim who says Islam should reform from within. She has never threatened anyone or urged anyone to commit violence. She is unlike Mohammed Bouyer, the radical Islamic terrorist who killed Hirsh Ali’s film-making partner Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. Bouyer also issued a death threats against Hirsh Ali (Bouyer pinned a note to Van Gogh’s chest saying Hirsi Ali would be next). Those who make death threats, not those who are the targets of them, should cause greater concern to the SPLC.
If it is so extremist to tell Islam it must reform itself, one wonders what the SPLC thinks of the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a devout Muslim, who publicly urges Islamic clerics to lead a religious revolution. “I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you.” President el-Sisi added, “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible that this thinking—and I am not saying the religion—I am saying this thinking.”
We can go through the other names on the SPLC list we he had the time. Some of them argue that there are a greater number of jihadist Muslims than others estimate to exist. Some, unlike Mr. Nawaz, are not Muslims. Some are openly critical of Islam and are quite blunt in their portrayal of the Muslim faith. None make death threats.
SPLC says it speaks against “prejudice.” Its list is an example of prejudice. The SPLC should not target those who disagree with Iran’s Ayatollah on the beliefs of true Muslims.