Blatant Islamophobia at US Commission on Religious Freedom


     When Safiya Ghori-Ahmad applied for a job with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, it rather quickly became clear that she was the most qualified of 300 applicants. USCRF needed a policy analyst for India, and Safiya spoke Urdu and Hindi, had a JD, an MA in International Development, as well as a BA in political science. Furthermore she had traveled extensively in South Asia and written often on policy there, and although she was raised in Arkansas was the descendant of Indian immigrants. On June 1, 2009, Executive Director James Standish offered Ghori-Ahmad the policy analyst job. She accepted, and proceeded to quit her job at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, where she’d been working as a government relations director.

     A success story, right? Not quite. Director Standish informed her that there were things about her “background” that might anger certain people at USCRF. Shortly afterwards Knox Thames, who replaced Standish as Executive Director, rather mysteriously asked Ghori-Ahmad to meet him at the Au Bon Pain café at Union Station for a private discussion. Thames explained that although the professional staff was uniformly in favor of Ghori-Ahmad’s hiring, there was a problem with USCIFR Commissioners, unpaid volunteers who were supposed to support the work of the agency. 

       According to the lawsuit Ghori-Ahmad later filed, Thames told her that two of the Commissioners, Nina Shea and Felice Gaer, were opposed to having Muslims on the Commission, especially Shea. Thames suggested that they push back Ghori-Ahmad’s starting date until July 17, which would minimize the chance of her running into Nina Shea. Ms. Ghori-Ahmad was advised to “play down” the fact that she was a Muslim, and Thames also suggested that Ghori-Ahmad “call in sick” on days that Shea and Gaer were in the office. At no time did Thames explain why he was so afraid of Shea or why she should be involved in hiring at all, since she was an unpaid volunteer. Nor did he find it odd that Shea was promoting religious bigotry at an agency supposedly fighting bigotry.  

      When Shea found out the new hire was Muslim, she launched into an Islamophobic rant, insinuating the Ghori-Ahmad was a “plant” for a Muslim organization. Under pressure from Shea, Knox Thames wrote to Safiya Ghori-Ahmad on Saturday, June 27, asking her to write a paper on issues of religious liberty in Pakistan—informing her that she was to submit it by midnight the next day! Despite the blatant unfairness of such an odd weekend request, Ghori-Ahmad proceeded to write a highly-nuanced paper on persecution of minorities in Pakistan, including Hindus, Christians, Shi’a and Ahmadis. 

      But to Nina Shea, the high quality of the paper, and the fact that Ghori-Ahmad wrote it in only 24 hours, was simply more evidence of her malicious and subversive intent. Ghori-Ahmad was just faking it, Shea insisted—since Ghori-Ahmad was Muslim, she would by definition be unable to do good or unbiased work on Pakistan! The high quality of her paper was just a clever attempt to fool them into thinking differently.    

       Despite the fact that she was only an unpaid Commissioner with no authority regarding hiring, Shea now launched a full-bore campaign against Ghori-Ahmad, in the Commission and evidently in Washington at large. She allegedly wrote that allowing Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious liberty issues would be like “hiring an IRA activist to research the UK twenty years ago.” After several days, three Commissioners—Leonard Leo, Felice Gaer, and Nina Shea—announced that the Commission needed to rescind the job offer to Ghori-Ahmad, and told Knox Thames to do so. But he was also instructed to lie to Ms. Ghori-Ahmad about the real reason for the retraction.

      Thames dutifully set up another meeting at the Au Bon Pain café, at which time Ms. Ghori-Ahmad demanded to know the real reason for the job retraction. Thames admitted it was because she was Muslim. The next day Ghori-Ahmad called Thames and requested a formal letter of retraction. She also began to correspond with others in the Commission requesting clarification of the situation. All requests were ignored—but Thames, perhaps uneasy that she made requests at all, fell back on the time-honored gambit of hiring Ghori-Ahmad in a temp position for 90 days. It would be easy enough for Thames to let her go after 90 days, since the temp job had nothing to do with the original hiring. The Commission posted a brief bio of Ghori-Ahmad during the 90 days, but Nina Shea demanded that it be taken down—and Thames dutifully did so. 

      Ghori-Ahmad wisely decided that it was time for a chat with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When this was discovered, the reaction bordered on hysteria. One Commissioner suggested that Ghori-Ahmad be “immediately escorted from the building.” Nina Shea wrote emails to several people advocating the Safiya Ghori-Ahmad “be isolated since she has taken an adversarial position against us.” Despite a last-minute effort by some staff to save her job, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad was let go on October 27, 2009.

      Astonishingly, the USCIRF defended itself by saying that it had the right to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion since that wasn’t covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Partly as a result of this shocking acknowledgement of its own bigotry, reforms were initiated by Sen. Dick Durbin, who sponsored legislation making it illegal for USCIRF to discriminate—and the penalties for discrimination are retroactive. Commissioners were limited to two years service, causing Nina Shea to lose her position. (But as soon as she left, Republicans appointed “Anti-Islamist” neo-con Zuhdi Jasser to the USCIRF.)

      On June 7, 2012, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad filed a lawsuit against the USCIRF, demanding a jury trial, back pay, compensatory damages and any relief found to be “just and proper.”  (Those who wish to read the lawsuit will find it online.)

      The biggest mystery in this horrific series of events is why and how a very aggressive bigot—and an unpaid volunteer at that—ended up virtually running the USCIRF. She certainly could not have done so without some behind-the-scenes political assistance. Nina Shea managed to wangle her way into the agency as a Commissioner in 1998, the year the agency was chartered, and simply never left. She was extremely well-connected inside the beltway with neo-cons, the Religious Right and ultra-conservative Republicans, her relationships to neo-con foundations going back at least 30 years. By 2006, she was the Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the wildly Islamophobic Hudson Institute, and held that position through the last six years of her USCIRF tenure. In some manner she managed to leverage her connections among neo-cons in an ongoing campaign to transform the USCIRF into an outpost of the Hudson Institute, in order to promote her personal Islamophobia as well as the Institute’s extremist message of worldwide religious war against Islam. 

       Where was the political oversight during these years (and where were Standish and Thames?) when this extremely aggressive individual was establishing her power, and why didn’t more whistle-blowers go public about what was going on? During her illicit reign at the USCIRF, Nina Shea regularly discredited the US by supporting virtually every attempt to limit the rights of Muslims in the West. Among other things, she supported the Swiss ban against minarets and the ban against headscarves in France, and defended Dutch neo-fascist and Islamophobe Geert Wilders. She opposed the Park51 interfaith center in New York (which she insisted on calling the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’), which was in fact the most important religious liberty issue in modern American history. That USCIRF allowed her to use the good offices of the American government to embarrass America in this manner—and to personally and viciously devastate the life of an idealistic young American solely because of her religion—represents a violation of the public’s trust of unprecedented and historic proportions.


      InFocus News is a Muslim newspaper in California.

      Lawrence Swaim writes a regular column on religious liberty, and also comments on religion, politics and the culture wars. The column is written from a Christian or Interfaith point of view. Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, which defends the rights of religious minorities and advocates religious liberty for all. The Foundation exists solely on grants and donations, which may be sent to Box 6862, Napa CA 94581.







Christian Denominations Challenge Israel Lobby


     The showdown started earlier this year when two mainstream Protestant denominations, Presbyterian and Methodist, discussed but ultimately rejected the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel. Few doubted that strong condemnation of Israeli behavior would again be raised—and that day arrived on October 5, when fifteen Christian denominations delivered a strongly-worded letter to Congress on Israeli human rights violations. Because of these violations, the letter pointed out, Israel was probably in violation of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits sale of arms to human rights violators.

The letter-writers appended a well-documented account of Israeli human rights violations, and made it clear what they wanted: “We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance [with the laws], and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.” In other words, the denominations—which included the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church and the United Methodists—want Israel to follow the same laws as everybody else, and wants the US to document any refusal to comply. If Israel continues to violate Palestinian human rights, military aid would be ended.

The American Jewish Committee declared itself “outraged” at this modest proposal; and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman predictably declared in classic Foxman-ese that the letter had done “serious damage to mutual respect.” (Foxman’s definition of respect evidently applies only to those who agree with him.) But the faux outrage comes a little late, because there hasn’t been any real interfaith dialogue between Christian and Jewish leaders for some time now. How can you have dialogue when one party declares that the most important issue is permanently off the table?

Much of the blame for this unseemly situation can be summed up in the single word, “impunity.” The so-called ‘international community’ has sat on its collective backsides while the IDF has continued slow ethnic cleansing in the Territories, using settler theft and violence, torture and indefinite detention. Similarly, the US Israel Lobby has been able to get away with tactics that lowered the level of civil discourse and ruined a fair number of lives and careers. This impunity from normal standards is caused mainly by the West’s guilt about the Holocaust; but the West—in a spectacular demonstration of its patented imperial hypocrisy—has managed to compound its own worst crime.

By not holding Israel to the same standards as everybody else, it has created a situation that empowered the most demagogic and rightwing elements, both in Israel and in the US. Netahyahu’s far-right Likud party is now merging with the venomously racist Israel Beiteinu party, consolidating the power of proto-fascist ideology in the Israeli political class. These toxic ideas have percolated down to its proxies in the American Israel Lobby, which accounts in part for its undemocratic behavior, semi-hysterical tone and irrational demands. It is both defined and driven by Likud demagoguery.

The rightwing Israeli leaders have carefully kept the excruciating trauma of the Holocaust alive in Israel by constantly referring to it. They have managed to create the idea among both US and Israeli Jews that every objection to Israeli behavior is based on a desire to destroy the Jewish people. Thus both Israelis and their proxies in the US Israel Lobby have come to feel that any contradiction of their wishes is based on a subtle plan to engineer a new Holocaust. Furthermore, there has been a crisis of faith among Jews. Where was God when six million innocent Jews perished in Hitler’s gas chambers? There is a widespread feeling among Jews, even those that don’t like to talk about it, that God is in a kind of eclipse. Thus the state of Israel comes easily to fill the space left by an absent God, and the feeling of God’s closeness has been replaced by religious nationalism and the collective emotional experience of newfound national power.

Considering what happened to Jews in the past, there is nothing wrong with Jews wanting power—they need it to protect themselves. The problem is that power in Israel/Palestine is based on a form of systemic evil, in which the democratic privilege of Israeli Jews is denied to Palestinians. Furthermore, with the growth of a proto-fascist state ideology, there are increasing religious attacks accompanied by an unwillingness to allow Muslims to administer their own sacred sites, typified by the shameful Israeli disinterment of Muslim remains in Jerusalem’s Mamilla Cemetery. It is Israel’s misfortune that the proto-fascist ideology of its political class causes them to egregiously violate religious sites that should be the pride of all three Abrahmic faiths—worse, it seems to demonstrate clearly that its current leaders have no desire to integrate their nation into the Middle East, but seek rather to insult and dominate it.

We’ve seen this movie earlier in the 20th century, but with a political plot and a different cast of characters. In 1918 many intellectuals saw the Russian Revolution as the hope of the world—but over time they came slowly to see that their dream was becoming a nightmare. Something similar has happened with Israel. The difference is that followers of Marxism-Leninism never had much power in the US, whereas the pressure groups than constitute the US Israel Lobby have enormous economic and political resources. And underlying their frequently irrational allegations is a tragic and unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust, which is often acted out in highly aggressive and self-destructive ways.

It is natural for some people to be obsessively devoted to events in other countries, of course. Irish-Americans have long done it; the Bangladeshis and Filipinos in my extended families do the same. On the other hand, there would be a real danger if they began to form political “factions” in the US, as Alexander Hamilton warned us. Even George Washington warned his listeners in his Farewell Address about “[s]ympathy for a favorite nation facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest where no interest exists.”  I’ve never heard a better description of the Israel Lobby.

First, the Lobby doesn’t represent a government that is admirable and democratic, but a government that continues to subject racial and religious minorities to a brutal and unremitting repression. Secondly, there is a sovereignty problem. By giving money to a majority of our elected Congresspersons through its proxies to vote as Netanyahu tells them to, Israel interferes in American politics and violates our nation’s sovereignty.

It a 2006 essay in Commentary magazine, from which I take the Washington quote above, Gabriel Schoenfeld argued that dual loyalties might be permissible if a group’s foreign loyalties were acted out “in terms of standards that had universal currency among all their fellow citizens—the spread of democracy through the world, the self-determination of nations, international action for peace, the desirability of aiding small peoples against great oppressors.” And that is precisely the argument against the Israel Lobby: the current Israeli government violates those standards on a daily basis. It is wrong for interfering in our political process, but it is also wrong because its rampant immorality violates and offends the consensus values of most Americans.

Lawrence Swaim writes a regular column on religion, politics and the culture wars for InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper in California. The column is written from a Christian or Interfaith point of view. Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, which defends the rights of religious minorities and advocates religious liberty for all. If you liked this column, read Swaim’s latest book, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, published by Circle Books.