Extremism, Liberalism, and Vice: The Southern Poverty Law Center vs. Maajid Nawaz

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization with a long history of fighting against hate crime in the US, recently compiled a list of supposed “anti-Muslim extremists.” On this list – alongside people who claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or who want to ban Muslim immigration into the US – was Maajid Nawaz, a self-described “liberal Muslim” activist born in the UK.

I first became aware of Maajid Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Based on what I know of his work, I do not see him as fomenting bigotry against his fellow Muslims. Instead, he opposes both the politicization of Islam (i.e., Islamism) as well as the Islamophobia spread by the people now ironically on the SPLC’s watch list with him. The “extremist” sentiments the SPLC attributes to Nawaz are thus nothing short of nonsense.

According to his autobiography, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, Nawaz became a member of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir as a teen, but grew disenchanted with Islamism following a stint in an Egyptian prison. He and other ex-radicals formed Quilliam in 2008, with the mission to counter radicalization within Britain’s Muslim community.

A 2010 Quilliam report, cited by the SPLC as evidence of Nawaz’s “anti-Muslim extremism,” warned that Islamist organizations in Britain wanted to “bring together all Muslims around the world under a single government and then impose on them a single interpretation of shari’ah as state law.” This ideology, it continues, makes non-violent Islamists sympathetic to the ends, if not the means, of jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. While some have argued that Quilliam paints with too broad a brush, the document does note that only a minority of British Muslims participate in Islamist organizations and also recognizes that not all members of such organizations are ideologues. Nor does Nawaz see Islamists as cliched villains: when Tunisia’s main Islamist party formally embraced pluralist politics and the democratic process, he praised the development.

Criticizing the goals and ideology of certain Islamist groups does not equate to anti-Muslim propaganda, and for the SPLC to suggest that it does implies that they regard these groups as the de facto spokespeople for all Muslims. The remaining examples of Nawaz’s “extremism” presented by the SPLC are similarly specious, indicating that they and their progressive partners possess little awareness of (or concern for) diverse points of view within Islam.

Nawaz has called for prohibiting facial coverings like the niqab or the burka in any place “where a balaclava, motorcycle helmet or face mask would be deemed inappropriate.” Such facial coverings are neither universally nor exclusively Islamic, having originated in pre-Islamic Persia. Persian culture influenced art, literature, and dress throughout the Islamic world (to say nothing of the West, as evidenced by the khaki trousers I’m wearing as I type this), but the niqab and the burka have only been mandated under very strict Islamist regimes, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. To limit the wearing of such garments might be a restriction on individual liberty, but it is not an attack on Islam.

Another act inviting the SPLC’s opprobrium was Nawaz tweeting a drawing of Muhammad in 2014, almost a decade after the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. While it was once acceptable among Turkish and Persian Muslims to create images of the Prophet, such depictions are controversial today largely because of the influence of Wahhabism, a conservative form of Islam that originated in 18th-century Arabia as a reaction against the cultural dominance of those very same Turks and Persians. The oil wealth of the Saudi royal family has allowed them to export Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world over the past few decades, but it would be a mistake to see Wahhabi positions as constituting the whole of Islam.

By far the most ridiculous piece of evidence provided by the SPLC that Maajid Nawaz is an “anti-Muslim extremist” is the accusation that he touched a stripper at his bachelor party. Even if true, such behavior has no connection whatsoever to the bigotry that the SPLC accuses him of promoting. The implication here, rather, is that Nawaz, who identifies as a feminist, is insufficiently liberal and thus a hypocrite. A negative profile of the activist that appeared in The New Republic concluded the same. Author Nathan Lean drew his conclusions not only from Nawaz’s seeming eagerness to cozy up to the surveillance state, but also from his oh-so-fashionable wardrobe. One of these is a germane criticism, the other is not.

Lean depicts Nawaz as a less than pious liberal today, but also asserts that he wasn’t a particularly committed Islamist during his younger days, calling Nawaz’s credibility into question. Such questions are legitimate, but what the Southern Poverty Law Center has done in order to paint Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist” is not. For their profile, the SPLC relied on a straw-man version of Islam, cobbled together out of pieces of Wahhabism, Islamism, and pre-Islamic custom. By holding up the burqa-wearing, cartoon-hating Islamist as the normative Muslim, the SPLC reinforces the most negative Western stereotypes of Islam. By then insisting that this fetishized Muslim stereotype is a victim in need of their protection, they also feed the Islamophobic narrative that anyone sympathetic toward Muslims is somehow in league with the terrorists.

The term “extremist” should describe views that fall well outside of a mainstream, centrist consensus, but it’s difficult to find such a consensus between the polarized Western views of Islam today. To counter the view that Muslims are all burqa-wearing, cartoon-hating Islamists who are out to get us, the SPLC insists that the burqa-wearing, cartoon-hating Islamists are really just misunderstood and unfairly persecuted by our racist Western society. Regardless of whether or not his liberal bona fides are 100% up to snuff, Maajid Nawaz puts forth the idea that Muslims are capable of integrating into Western society and that Western society is capable of accommodating Muslims. To me, at least, that sounds like a position eschewing extremes.

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