So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?
It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.
But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose.
Yet people who espouse that doctrine are making me feel unsafe! They seem to be heading for the sort of society where the thought police can come knocking on your door, and inform you that someone has reported that they were made to feel “unsafe” by some comment that you made, and that you are now suspended from your job and are being taken away for “re-education”. But, of course, me feeling unsafe is not held to matter, because I am not from any of the groups that are regarded as “oppressed”, and indeed being white and male and Western I am too privileged for my feelings to matter.
But let’s now consider people who are brown or black, and who may indeed be female, and who belong culturally to the Islamic communities. Surely they are “oppressed”, and surely their views matter? Well yes, exactly. Except, not if they are moderates. Not if they want to reform Islam to make it more tolerant. Not if they exercise their right to doubt the truth of Islam. Not if they think that there should be no blasphemy laws and act accordingly.
You might think that the moderate reforming Muslims and the ex-Muslims who want secular societies would be among those seen as friends and allies by Western left-leaning liberals. But if you are so naive as to think that then you’ve not been paying attention. Quite the opposite. The allies of the left-leaning liberals are now the hard-line Islamists who want to impose their austere and intolerant version of Islam on whole populations, whether those populations like it or not. They are the authentic voice of true Islam, they are the oppressed people, whose right to impose Islamic diktats on others must be accepted because they (the imposers!) are the oppressed people here.
It follows that anyone who does not want Islam imposed on them (though they may want it as a choice), or who wants a more moderate and tolerant version of Islam, is then the extremist. By speaking against the diktats of Islamists they are oppressing those poor Islamists even more. And that makes them extremists.
So you might think that Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist and member of the hard-line Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who has since rejected his former hardline ideology, and who now argues for a moderate and tolerant version of Islam and has founded the Quilliam Foundation to promote moderate Islam — you might think that such is a journey from extremism to moderation that would be welcomed by left-leaning liberals. Wrong! No, no, no! In the minds of the SPLC, that is a journey towards extremism. In that journey, Nawaz has become the oppressor!
So exactly how is Nawaz now oppressing Islamists? Well, chief amongst his vast legion of sins, was this. He tweeted a “Jesus and Mo” cartoon:
If you’re not thinking the right way you might struggle to see anything oppressive about that rather innocuous cartoon. But the point is that hardline Islamists don’t want anyone to draw Mohammed at all. They want total control over how people think about Mohammed and Islam, and they want to enforce that with strict blasphemy laws.
And not accepting such diktats quite obviously oppresses the poor Islamists. Arguing in public for a moderate version of Islam makes the world “unsafe” for the hardline Islamists, because speaking against them makes it harder for them to impose their intolerant version of Islam on others. And, since that would upset them, only an extremist would do it. Which makes Nawaz the extremist.
That’s how we’ve arrived at the situation where moderates who want a free and pluralistic society along with free speech, and where religion would be a choice, not something to be imposed on others, are the “extremists” in the eyes of the SPLC, who presumably still think of themselves as “liberal” and as doing good in society. Where is George Orwell when we need him?