Maajid Nawaz, executive director of the Quilliam Foundation. (Photo: Peter Morrison/AP)

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the advocacy organization known for exposing hate groups and fighting for civil rights, has agreed to pay $3.38 million and issue public apologies to an activist who challenged his inclusion in a 2016 SPLC publication that labeled him and several others “anti-Muslim extremists.”

The SPLC settlement heads off a potential defamation lawsuit from the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as a “counter-extremism” organization, and the think tank’s founder, British Islamic activist Maajid Nawaz. Quilliam’s website describes Nawaz as a former member of a global Islamist group who had a change of heart while imprisoned in Egypt, and is “now a leading critic of his former Islamist ideological dogma, while remaining a secular liberal Muslim.”

The settlement marks a successful outcome for Nawaz and his lawyers at Clare Locke—a litigation boutique formed in 2014 by former Kirkland & Ellis partners Thomas Clare and Elizabeth “Libby” Locke. Megan Meier, a fellow Clare Locke partner who previously worked at Kirkland as an associate, said in a statement that the firm was pleased with the result, which followed after it threatened a defamation lawsuit.

“It’s a shame that it took impending litigation for the Southern Poverty Law Center to finally set the record straight and admit it was wrong all along,” said Meier. “Quilliam and Mr. Nawaz do admirable work, and we are honored to have restored their reputations and achieved this victory on their behalf.”

Nawaz’s dispute with the SPLC started when he was among 15 people spotlighted in “A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremism.” The SPLC publication was meant as a guide for journalists and warned about figures in the public eye who, the SPLC said at the time, were known to seize on terrorist attacks and other crises to fuel anti-Islamic sentiment. In its specific section about Nawaz, the guide accused the activist of self-promotion and argued that his story of transformation from hard-line Islamist to liberal reformer was marked by reported inconsistencies.

But in a public apology issued Monday, SPLC president Richard Cohen said it was wrong to have included Nawaz in the guide, which has been removed from the group’s website. Cohen said that after further research and consulting with respected human rights advocates, his group realized its mistake and the SPLC now recognizes that Nawaz and Quilliam have meaningfully contributed to the public discourse about pluralism and anti-Muslim bigotry.

“After getting a deeper understanding of their views and after hearing from others for whom we have great respect, we realize that we were simply wrong to have included Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam in the Field Guide in the first place,” Cohen wrote in a statement posted Monday on SPLC’s website. “Although we may have our differences with some of the positions that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have taken, we recognize that they have made important contributions to efforts to promote pluralism and that they are most certainly not anti-Muslim extremists.”

As a condition of the settlement, Cohen made a similar apology in a video posted on the SPLC’s website.

Nawaz also issued a statement, saying that he and Quilliam plan to use the money from the settlement to support work that aims to counter anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism.

“We were able to fight back against the Regressive Left and show them that moderate Muslims will not be silenced,” said Nawaz. “We will continue to combat extremists by defying Muslim stereotypes, calling out fundamentalism in our own communities, and speaking out against anti-Muslim hate.”

The Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. in 1971 as a civil rights law firm. It is noted for bringing cases against white supremacists, exposing hate groups and for promoting tolerance education programs.