Culture

Pressured, the Southern Poverty Law Center Admits It Was Wrong

Maajid Nawaz (Wikimedia Commons)
British Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz complained after it defamed him and hurt fund-raising for his organization. It’s now paying him more than $3 million.

Any free society must expect that a certain number of chancers, hucksters, and shake-down artists will prosper among them. But rarely have they come in so grossly endowed and shameless a guise as the “Southern Poverty Law Center.”

The SPLC was founded in the 1970s, and back then it did some respectable campaigning work to target and shut down — through legal means — actually racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. All well and good, and the SPLC can still be applauded for this work. And yet students of non-profits and charities worldwide will be familiar with a certain tendency in this field, which is that such organizations rarely shut themselves down. Or, to put it another way, a charity set up to cure a disease may find a cure for that disease and yet strangely also find some reasons to continue. For of course salaries and pensions are at stake. Comfortable halos have been created. Who would want to divest themselves of the gold and glory that comes from such a sinecure? And so the charity will become, for instance, a charity to help people who once suffered from the disease that has now been cured.

So it is — though in far worse form — with the KKK and the SPLC. Of course as the KKK dwindled to an all but negligible fringe, the SPLC could not afford to bask in its victories. There was still cash to collect. Indeed more cash than ever. And who but a fool, or an honest man, would leave tens of millions of dollars on the table? So it is that in recent years the SPLC reoriented itself. It became an organization that looked into all those things that were not racist but that might be deemed right of center. It decided to look into not terrorism and racism but “extremism.” It decided, in particular, that it should become the self-appointed arbiter of what is acceptable in American life and what is unacceptable. For years the mainstream press, lazy on its memories of the SPLC’s past manifestation, indulged it in its new self-definition. Indeed for a few years the words “whom the SPLC has described as” wormed their way into some of America’s — and the world’s — most otherwise respectable and usually fact-reliant publications.

Yet the SPLC has repeatedly shown itself to be woefully unfit to perform its self-assigned task. For instance in 2015 it “designated” (as though this should have had any standing anywhere other than in the minds of the SPLC’s employees) Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson as an “extremist.” So within the space of only a few decades the SPLC moved from targeting the KKK to targeting a black conservative. Elsewhere it has attempted to anathematize multiple mainstream scholars of a conservative persuasion, including Charles Murray (no relation). About the radical Left it has shown a strange lack of interest.

Like many other organizations, the SPLC has spent recent years attempting to make any links it can between any conservative who says anything and any terrorist who does anything. So it was almost moving to observe their own standards come back to bite them in 2012 when a gunman walked into the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., intent on killing its staff. The gunman on that occasion admitted that he had chosen his target because the SPLC had listed it as a “hate group” on its website.

So it has consequences, this sinister and spendthrift game that the SPLC has been playing. In any other context the SPLC might be regarded as participating in a game of exceptionally dangerous target selection. But somehow the organization has clung on to its halo, even as it has time and again shown itself to be a dangerously ill-informed group that has turned from anti-racism to incitement within a generation.

Which brings us to today. For as of today it seems possible that the SPLC’s position may finally be taken back down to the position it should have been reduced to years ago. Perhaps after today those donors who still give money to the SPLC will realize that they are backing a disgraced and disgraceful organization, if any were unaware of and unbothered about this before.

For today it has been announced that the SPLC has been forced to pay $3.375 million to the British Muslim reformist and anti-extremism campaigner Maajid Nawaz.

Two years ago the SPLC published one of its typically poorly put-together hack jobs. It described this one grandiloquently as a “Field guide to anti-Muslim extremists.” Like their opposite numbers in the U.K. (the incorrectly titled “Hope Not Hate”), the SPLC has decided in recent years that it has the ability to judge not merely what is a correct interpretation of Islam and what is an incorrect interpretation of Islam, but also (mirabile dictu) who may criticize Islam with some legitimacy and who may not. In both cases the general sense is given off that in fact nobody can criticize any aspect of Islam legitimately without being named in a “field guide” put together by a gaggle of people who are overfunded and underinformed.

Even by its own standards the SPLC’s 2016 report was more than usually sloppy. For among the many other people they incorrectly labeled “anti-Muslim extremists,” the SPLC listed Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Which, given that Ayaan was born a Muslim and Maajid still is a Muslim, is really the sort of thing would give any sensible person pause. Or, to put it another way, how many more black people do the white far-leftists at the SPLC have to target before having to put themselves on one of their piss-poor “field guides”?

Anyhow — Nawaz very sensibly sued. Not just to clear his name, but also to make up for the fact that in the wake of the SPLC’s designation, Nawaz’s think tank (the counter-extremism organization Quilliam) found its fundraising efforts to be seriously affected. Of course they would be. Because even two years ago there were still people who took the views of the SPLC seriously. A “designation” by the SPLC that a Muslim reformer is in fact, secretly or otherwise, an “anti-Muslim extremist” is the sort of thing that might scare away all but the most robust and rigorous foundations and individuals from supporting said outfit. The SPLC’s actions were also a serious warning note sounded against any other Muslims keen to get into the realm of counter-extremism. After all, now they must know that if they do dedicate their lives and careers to the cause of battling the extremists in their faith, then they not only face the potential retributions of the jihadists — as Nawaz has done — but the anathematizing and target-selection practices of the SPLC.

Anyhow — Quilliam has released the news of Nawaz’s stunning victory just this afternoon. Every person who wishes for a cleaner debate on the issues around Islamic extremism (issues that the SPLC has again shown itself wholly uninterested in exploring) will welcome the news. Everybody who has seen through the baleful effect that the SPLC has had on public life will rejoice with Nawaz and Quilliam in their victory over an entity many hundreds of times better endowed than them. And every person who wants politics to breathe that little bit cleaner may well be mulling over the same thought that I am having.

What if everybody whom the SPLC has erroneously smeared over recent years — the individuals, the groups, the scholars and activists — took this precedent to launch legal actions of their own? The SPLC has a vast endowment of tens of millions of dollars. But going by this precedent, if everybody decided to correct the lies that the SPLC has taken upon itself to spread over recent years, then the SPLC, which failed to shut itself down when its work was done, could be shut down by the very people it has spent recent years trying to shut up. Which would not just be poetic, but justice too.

Douglas Murray — Douglas Murray is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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