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.