Maajid Nawaz, the British Muslim reformer who recently recovered a large monetary settlement from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), is scheduled to meet with SPLC president Richard Cohen next week to demand an explanation for its decision to label him an “anti-Muslim extremist,” National Review learned Friday in an exclusive interview with Nawaz.
The SPLC’s “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” — intended to serve as resource for journalists to identify purveyors of hateful propaganda — suggested that Nawaz’s criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, which are informed by his personal experience as a former Islamic radical, constituted a “savaging” of the religion. After demanding a retraction for the better part of two years, Nawaz threatened to sue over the characterization in April. The SPLC admitted fault earlier this month and agreed to pay him, and his anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation, $3.375 million “to fund their work to fight anti-Muslim bigotry and extremism.”
Now, Nawaz wants answers. He reached out to Cohen following the settlement and Cohen replied Thursday night agreeing to the meeting.
“I’m going to fly out to New York in the coming week or so for the specific purpose of meeting with [Cohen] in private for however long it takes — a day, two days. And I have two objectives: I want to understand what the f**k happened. I really want to understand how on earth this could have happened,” Nawaz says. “I have my suspicions about whether the SPLC has been influenced by CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and other Islamist-leaning organizations. In other words, was this a hit job? Did the SPLC go out and say, ‘Hey, Muslim community, we want to know who’s anti-Muslim,’ and instead of those organizations giving them genuine anti-Muslim individuals, they decided to use that as an opportunity to basically go after their opponents politically?”
The list of “anti-Muslim extremists,” which had been active on the SPLC’s website since it was published in December 2016, did include genuine promoters of hate; but it also included a number of liberal reformers such as Nawaz, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born scholar who has spoken out against cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, which she herself was subjected to. The list branded her discussion of such topics “toxic.”
Cohen and the SPLC were too quick to view the Muslim community as a “homogenous” group likely to understand all criticism as an affront, Nawaz says. During their meeting, the radio host and activist hopes to educate Cohen as to the explosive contest between fundamentalism and liberalism that is occurring within the Islamic community, citing political divisions within mainstream American society as a reference point.
“I want to say to him, ‘You guys are getting it seriously wrong, which means you don’t understand the Muslim community. You need help and I’m prepared to help you understand the Muslim community but that will require a huge cognitive shift. It will require that you recognize that the debate that you have within the wider society about liberalism verses conservatism is a debate we’re having within our Muslim community, between liberalism and fundamentalism.'”