The Jewish Federation of Nashville, TN recently announced a May 23rd event with Joseph Levin, Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), on the subject of "Hate in the Mainstream." While no specifics have been released, it is likely that Levin will be discussing right-wing anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, both of which the SPLC attributes to the influence of President Trump.
The SPLC should be the last organization to invite in as experts. Despite its storied legacy and claimed expertise on modern extremism, the SPLC has a long history of sensationalism, exaggerating the scope of extremist threats, and deliberately conflating political opposition with bigotry. Unfortunately, their behavior with regard to anti-Muslim bigotry (a relatively new enthusiasm of the SPLC) is simply par for the course.
In 2016, with great fanfare, the SPLC published a report titled "Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists." Several of the profiled figures are clearly bigots in the traditional sense; but the SPLC slandered several legitimate activists for the apparently unforgivable offense of pointing out Islamist extremism, and working against it.
Chief among these was Maajid Nawaz, a practicing Muslim and a former Islamist extremist jailed by Egypt for nearly four years. After his release, he renounced his extremism and has since worked energetically in Britain as a peacemaker, founding the Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim counter-extremist think tank. Infuriated by the SPLC's baffling description of him as anti-Muslim, Nawaz filed a lawsuit. Last month, the SPLC quietly removed its webpage featuring the Field Guide.
The SPLC's report is still present on its servers, however, allowing us to see the SPLC's slurs against other anti-Islamists, often based on the flimsiest of pretexts. For example, the Clarion Project, another counter-extremism organization, is attacked for having shared staff with Aish HaTorah, which the SPLC describes as "ultra-Orthodox." Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum, is attacked for disputing President Obama's farcical claim that ISIS was "not Islamic." The SPLC castigates several researchers for having initially speculated that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Islamists – an understandable assumption given the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish Center attack.
The most pernicious aspect of SPLC's work, however, is that it has systematically refused to distinguish principled opposition to the totalitarian ideology of Islamism, from crude bigotry against ordinary Muslims. Make no mistake, bigotry against Muslims is real, and should be opposed; but also real is the long-term program of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups like it to impose totalitarian control over Muslim populations across the globe.
Yet the SPLC has systematically given a free pass to Islamists who express the same sentiments for which others are hate-listed. The SPLC laughably claims that "radical traditionalist" Catholics "may make up the largest single group of serious anti-Semites in America" (without defining that term or estimating their numbers, or comparing it to the Islamist population in the U.S.); but while a mere three tiny Islamist extremist groups are discreetly tucked under "General Hate" in the list of hate groups, more dangerous groups like Students for Justice in Palestine are ignored, despite the documented statistics that SJP chapters are associated with increased anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish students. Not a single Islamist is included in SPLC's Extremist Files (Louis Farrakhan and Malik Shabazz are better described as black separatists), despite a wealth of potential candidates; prominent imam Siraj Wahhaj, for example, warns his listeners to "take not into your intimacy those outside your race" and is openly hostile to homosexuals, and progressive darling Linda Sarsour is known for blaming terror attacks on the CIA and for regularly blaming her bad press on the "Jewish media." Neither merits notice by the SPLC, apparently.
Why tolerate Islamist bigotry, and attack those who point it out? In fact, this is of a piece with the SPLC's support of progressive politics in general. Its research focuses almost exclusively on right-wing extremism, and systematically ignores extremism on the left, which has regrettably embraced the cause of Islamism as a facet of "intersectionality." As Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC's Intelligence Project, says candidly, "We are focused, whether people like it or not, on the radical right…. We believe that it's uniquely threatening to democracy."
There is no denying that the SPLC once did important work in attacking the Neo-Nazi movement in the United States, but the hard work was largely accomplished by the 1980s. Since then, as has been widely reported, the SPLC coasted on its achievements in order to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, much of which went to pay its executives and to build its current palatial headquarters in Montgomery. The SPLC keeps the donations flowing by systematically overstating the threat from hate groups; it loudly reports that the number of hate groups is rising, for example, but comes to that result by counting each local branch of a given group as a separate entity. Other organizations are included not for true extremism, but for mere political opposition to the SPLC's policy preferences.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is demonstrably biased, deceptive, and hypes up right-wing anti-Semitism even as it covers up Islamist extremism. I do not trust the SPLC to discuss "mainstream hate" honestly if it cannot tell the difference between bigoted conspiracy theories and justified alarm, or if it persists in whitewashing the extremism of its ideological fellow-travelers; and neither should the Nashville Jewish community.
Oren Litwin is a research fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum