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Southern Poverty Law Center labels a Muslim reformer and ex-Muslim atheist as ‘extremists’

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In a misguided attempt to protect Muslims from bigotry and harm, the venerable Southern Poverty Law Center has gone off the rails—so say former Muslims and moderate Muslims working for reform within their own communities.  The SPLC has a long history of fighting racism and holding public figures accountable for inciting violence. In 1981, their legal team bankrupted the United Klans of America after Klan leaders incited the racist murder of a young black immigrant. But the group recently published a document that some say borders on their own version of racism and incitement.

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At the heart of the controversy is a media blacklist under the title “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.”  The title itself is indisputably dehumanizing and indirectly threatening. “Field guides” typically describe plants and non-human animals, and the term is associated with hunting.  An online search brings up “2016 Hunting and Trapping Field Guide” and “Field Guide for Buck Deer” and “Field Guide: Duck Hunting the Skagit County Coastline.” The title may or may not constitute incitement, but it is at best surprising coming from an organization that has built its legacy by calling out dangerous innuendo.

But outcry against the list—including a Change.org petition that garnered 8000 signatures in three days—centers on the fact that the SPLC list of 15, which does include some deplorable racists also includes two well-known and widely respected (if controversial) critics of Islam, Aayan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. Ali, is a former Dutch politician of Somali descent and a harsh critic of Islam whose foundation opposes honor killing, forced marriage and female genital cutting—which she faced in her own family and community. She recounts this history in her book, Infidel. Nawaz is a practicing Muslim reformer, founder of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank in London.

One Iran-based atheist who blogs under an assumed name, Kaveh Mousavi, for safety reasons, expressed how many former Muslims and reformers see Ali and Nawaz:

If only Ali was on this list, one could somehow squint and say they missed the point because of ignorance and lack of nuance. While I firmly believe she is a very important voice that shouldn’t be ignored, and while I think reading her quotes in context would show that when she used to say things like “there are no moderate Muslims” would show that ultimately her positions do not mean to paint all Muslims as bad (she has gotten much better at communicating nuance recently), I could be charitable and consider this an example of poor research.

But there’s no excuse when it comes to Nawaz. This is simply atrocious. This is simply poor arguments, and it simply equates being critical of Islam as being an anti-Muslim “extremist”. Nawaz is a Muslim himself, he is just an honest and ethical reformist who prioritizes reforming Islam over “saving face” for Islam.

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Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist offered a glimpse of Ali’s story and provided context for some of her more provocative statements. Nawaz spoke to a Jewish media outlet, Tablet Magazine in response to the SPLC list, describing himself as a proud Muslim:

I learned Arabic in order to read my holy book,” he said. “In an Intelligence Squared debate, I defended the proposition that Islam was a religion of peace. This was the same week that the man who attempted to bomb Times Square was sentenced, so it wasn’t the friendliest New York audience. I hosted Morgan Freeman in a mosque for his documentary The Story of God.”

Mousavi suggested in a tongue-in-cheek letter, that the SPLC should put add him to the Field Guide in the interest of completeness, and the creator of the Change.org petition, Ahnaf Kalam, has created a hashtag, #SPLCaddmetoo. But the tone of their reaction doesn’t imply that they find the list a laughing matter. Blacklists pose a real and potentially lethal threat to critics of Islam. In 13 countries where the Quran holds sway, apostasy is punishable by death; and squads of young men sometimes take it upon themselves to carry out the sentence. In 2013, Bangladeshi jihadists published a list of 84 atheist bloggers. To date, ten of them are dead at the hands of assassins.

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Last year, Bangladeshi American blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka, and his wife was seriously injured.  The problem isn’t only extrajudicial killings. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years in jail and a potentially-lethal 1000 lashes for announcing his atheism and insulting Islam online. He is due for more lashing, and his family in Canada has pleaded unsuccessfully for his release.

In an article published by the Daily Beast, Nawaz defends his track record. He pleads for patience from those of us who work on social change from the relative safety of the U.S., the distant intellectual vantage of feminist or racial theory, and the reactive polarization of American politics. At the end, he utters a cry of betrayal:

Nothing good ever comes from compiling lists. And so I say to the Southern Poverty Law Center: You were supposed to stand up for us, not intimidate us. Just imagine how ex-Muslim Islam-critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali must feel to be included in your list of “anti-Muslim” extremists. Her friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. And back then there was another list pinned to Theo’s corpse with a knife: it too named Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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The irony—that two people of color, a former Muslim and practicing Muslim, are being accused of racism by white Western liberals under a dehumanizing title—seems to have gotten missed by the folks who compiled the SPLC Field Guide. So do the psychological implications of blacklisting people who live constantly under the shadow of death, whose friends and colleagues have been jailed and lashed or hacked or stabbed for the very same kind of social critique that they themselves engage.  Putting the names of ex-Muslims and reformers in a blacklist is the psychological equivalent of doxing feminists or publishing the names and addresses of abortion providers. It is scary.

How the Southern Poverty Law Center will address this debacle remains to be seen. I, for one, am hoping they will be able to say they were wrong, fix the list, and get back to the important work they have been doing for decades, because the current state of affairs is beneath them.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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