WASHINGTON — After years of smearing good people with false charges of bigotry, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has finally been held to account. A former Islamic radical named Maajid Nawaz sued the center for including him in its bogus “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” and this week the SPLC agreed to pay him a $3.375 million settlement and issued a public apology.
The SPLC is a once-storied organization that did important work filing civil rights lawsuits against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. But it has become a caricature of itself, labeling virtually anyone who does not fall in line with its left-wing ideology an “extremist” or “hate group.”
Nawaz is a case in point. Since abandoning Islamic radicalism, he has advised three British prime ministers and created the Quilliam Foundation, to fight extremism. He is not anti-Muslim. He is a Muslim and has argued that “Islam is a religion of peace.”
So how did he end up in the SPLC’s pseudo-guide to anti-Muslim bigots? His crime, apparently, is that he has become a leading critic of the radical Islamist ideology he once embraced. Thanks to his courage, the SPLC has been forced to pay a multimillion-dollar penalty and acknowledge in a statement that it was “wrong” and that Nawaz has “made valuable and important contributions to public discourse, including by promoting pluralism and condemning both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism.”
Let’s hope this settlement is the first of many, because this is not the first time the SPLC has done this. In 2010, it placed the Family Research Council (FRC) — a conservative Christian advocacy group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage — on its “hate map.” Two years later, a gunman walked into the FRC headquarters with the intention to “kill as many as possible and smear the Chick-fil-A sandwiches in victims’ faces.” He told the FBI that he had used the SPLC website to pick his target.
In the aftermath, the FBI removed the SPLC from its list of legitimate resources on hate crimes.
While the FBI no longer takes the center seriously, many in the media still do. Last year, ABC News ran a story headlined: “Jeff Sessions addresses ‘anti-LGBT hate group,’ ” in which it reported that “Sessions addressed members of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was designated an ‘anti-LGBT hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016.” The Alliance Defending Freedom is a respected organization of conservative lawyers dedicated to defending religious liberty, and it just argued a case before the Supreme Court, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It won 7 to 2. It is not a “hate group.” If anything, it is fighting anti-Christian hate.
In 2014, the SPLC placed Ben Carson — later a Republican presidential candidate and now the current secretary of housing and urban development — on its “extremist watch list,” alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists. After an uproar, the group removed him and apologized.
The SPLC also lists Charles Murray, a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the most respected conservative intellectuals in the United States, on its website as a “White Nationalist.” Last year, an angry mob of students, many citing the SPLC’s designation, physically attacked Murray during a speech at Middlebury College.
He escaped unharmed, but the liberal professor who invited him ended up in the hospital.
Little wonder that Nawaz was not just angry but also afraid about being designated an extremist by the SPLC. He told the Atlantic in 2016, “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.”
Unfortunately, the settlement that the SPLC reached with Nawaz is not likely to deter it from smearing others — $3.4 million is a drop in the bucket for the center, which raised $132 million between November 2016 and October 2017 and has a $477 million endowment, including a reported $92 million in offshore accounts. Sliming conservatives is big business.
The only way to stop the SPLC is if people stop giving it money and the media stop quoting it or taking it seriously. The SPLC once did important work fighting the Ku Klux Klan. But when it declares Maajid Nawaz, the Family Research Council, Ben Carson and Charles Murray as moral equivalents of the Klan, it loses all integrity and credibility.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.