When I was 16, I joined an educational program that brought African-American and Jewish-American teens together to explore our communities' mutual struggles and intersecting histories. As part of our journey together, we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) Alabama headquarters and learned about its crucial role in dismantling neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember feeling deeply inspired by my visit to the SPLC, impressed by its commitment to truth and justice above all. I am not surprised, then, that many companies have deferred to the SPLC's judgment when making corporate decisions about with whom to associate.
Recently, a cornerstone of the SPLC's work -- its designations of hate groups or extremist figures -- has revealed the organization's failures and inconsistencies. The case of anti-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz is a telling example of how the SPLC has zealously labeled Muslim-born reformers and others who stand against Islamist political ideology as perpetuating "anti-Muslim hate." Worse, the SPLC seems to have fabricated information to support its designations. In the case of Jewish anti-Islamist activist and lawyer David Yerushalmi (whose SPLC profile is oddly lumped together on a list with notoriously hateful KKK leader David Duke and Nation of Islam preacher Louis Farrakhan), the SPLC falsely attributed to him a quote: "The Mythical 'moderate' Muslim ... the Muslim who embraces traditional Islam but wants a peaceful coexistence with the West, is effectively non-existent." Nowhere in Yerushalmi's cited essay does such a quote -- or even a similar sentiment -- appear, and only very recently was the quote removed.
Despite the SPLC's dedicated curation of its anti-Muslim "Extremist Files," one group of hatemongers are conspicuously underrepresented among SPLC watch lists: American Islamists who openly castigate Jews, homosexuals, and minority Muslim sects. Islamists -- the true extremists -- seem to get a free pass from the SPLC. Islamist Watch recently submitted information to the SPLC using their own "Report Hate" online tool. We alerted the SPLC to the upcoming Muslim American Society-Islamic Circle of North America (MAS-ICNA) conference which will featuresome particularly egregious purveyors of Islamist hate speech; the SPLC has taken no notice. On the contrary, the SPLC frequently cites and defends the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) -- a group that routinely turns a blind eye to its own staffers' bigotry and hosts hateful preachers at its events.
Why, despite these clear imbalances, does America still accept the SPLC as the ultimate arbiter of what counts as organized hate?
Case in point: In early September, the Washington, D.C.-based organization Act! for America (ACT) hosted its annual conference at the Hyatt hotel in Crystal City, VA. In the lead-up to ACT's 2018 conference, SPLC's designation of ACT as a "hate group" under the "anti-Muslim" category helped fuel a Muslim Advocates petition and campaign pressuring Hyatt to ban ACT's convention. In the end, Hyatt didn't cancel ACT's 2018 event -- but later that month, Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian announcedthat the hotel chain would now be "draw[ing] the line" by refusing to host "hate groups" at its properties. Both Muslim Advocates and the SPLC published press releases celebrating "victory."
Hoping that Hyatt would be open to hearing judgments from groups other than a deeply biased SPLC, we reached out to the hotel chain to offer support for their declaration, and to share our concern about a group called American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) -- an Islamist organization with a long history of promoting anti-Semitism (among other types of bigotry). For years, AMP has held its annual convention at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago. AMP's next conference was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend at the same Hyatt location.
Despite the SPLC's inattention, one might have thought that the Hyatt would be receptive to tips concerning the dissemination of Jew-hatred in its hotels. After all, the first Hyatt hotel was bought and developed by Jay Pritzker, the entrepreneurial grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled a Kiev ghetto in 1881 -- the year of the infamously violent Kiev pogrom against Jews. And the family hasn't forgotten its Jewish heritage; among the Pritzker family's philanthropic efforts have been the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, the support of Jewish Federation of Chicago, and the building of a new memorial at Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.
Hyatt chose to discount our evidence of AMP's bigotry. The company replied: "[W]e have concluded that this group is not in violation of our policy."
This statement is dismaying, given that AMP's Hyatt-hosted conference turned out to be just as extreme this year as previously.
Featured speakers included notoriously bigoted preacher Omar Suleiman, who has said of homosexuality: "If as Muslims we don't take a clear stance on this, we will be forced to conform and watch this disease destroy our children." Others on the program included CAIR staffer Zahra Billoo, who has tweeted her support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad board member Sami Al-Arian and Hamas; and Abdallah Marouf, a professor of Islamic history in Turkey, who used his speech at AMP's event to glowingly quote a famous hadith in which Muhammad told the Jews: "I am more worthy of Moses than you are."
Previous AMP conferences (also located at the Hyatt O'Hare) have included Khadija Benguenna, an Al-Jazeera Arabic anchor who posted a video on social media of a Palestinian stabbing an Israeli, with the caption "bless you, my hero."
Furthermore, the speakers aren't the only way in which AMP's conventions provide a platform for hatred and the sanction of violence. The 2018 gathering also featured tables of printed material, some of which called for the release from jail of the "Holy Land Five" -- a group of Hamas fundraisers who were convicted for funneling millions of dollars of charitable donations to overseas terrorism.
Another table featured propagandistic art prints, including one depicting a Palestinian woman inside a map of Israel, holding what appears to be a Kalashnikov rifle (a weapon of choice for Palestinian terrorists in the 1970s and 1980s).
Other Hyatt locales have hosted AMP's equally bigoted partner groups. In 2017, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago hosted a conference held by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Among the featured speakers was Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokesperson who claims that Hamas rockets don't contain explosives.
JVP also featured Rasmea Odeh, a convicted terrorist -- Odeh masterminded a Jerusalem bombing that murdered two students in 1969.
The SPLC, meanwhile, has stayed silent about all these examples of hate-filled speech.
When we objected to Hyatt's decision that AMP is not a hate group, a Hyatt senior customer care specialist replied: "We do not have a predetermined list [of hate groups] and are using internal and third-party resources to evaluate on a case by case basis moving forward."
Hyatt's "third-party resources" almost certainly include the SPLC, which shockingly does not consider AMP a hate group either. The SPLC needs to explain why AMP gets a free pass despite its calls for mass murder and repeated dehumanizing rhetoric.
The SPLC that I visited in 2003 made prejudice against Jews and people of color unacceptable by relentlessly pursuing truth and exposing hate groups like the KKK. The SPLC of 2018 has tarnished its own venerable legacy by ignoring the reality of Islamist bigotry and instead condemning those who expose groups like AMP for what they really are: purveyors of hate. If the SPLC wants to regain its lost credibility, it should stand strongly against all types of hate once again.
Samantha Rose Mandeles is the Coordinator of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.