Top Religious Freedom Advocate Refutes Claims of Anti-Muslim Bias

By Patrick Goodenough | June 12, 2012 | 4:46am EDT

USCIRF commissioner Nina Shea testifies before a congressional hearing on January 20, 2011 on Christian minorities under attack in Iraq and Egypt. (Photo: Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission)

( – A prominent religious freedom advocate, accused of anti-Muslim bias while serving on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), hit back Monday with an open letter outlining her work “with and on behalf of Muslims in the area of religious freedom.”

Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Religious Freedom, recently ended a 12-year stint as one of nine appointed commissioners on the USCIRF, an independent statutory body that advises Congress and the executive branch.

A Muslim who was employed by the USCIRF as a policy analyst for a short period in 2009, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, is bringing a federal lawsuit against the commission, alleging discrimination.

The suit claims the USCIRF rescinded a permanent job offer made to Ghori-Ahmad “because she is a Muslim and of South Asian heritage,” offered her a temporary post instead, and then failed to extend it, “because she dared to report USCIRF’s discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

Among other allegations, the suit claims that “Commissioner Shea, a particularly influential voice with long tenure on the Commission, wrote that hiring a Muslim like Ms. Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious freedom in Pakistan would be like ‘hiring an IRA activist to research the UK twenty years ago.’ ”

Safiya Ghori-Ahmad is suing the USCIRF, claiming discrimination. (Photo: Muslim Public Affairs Council)

The Washington Post published a report Friday on the lawsuit, but erroneously attributed to Shea the words “hiring a Muslim like Ms. Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious freedom in Pakistan.”  Moreover, the Post article said the lawsuit quoted Shea as having written those specific words – which it does not.

Shea wrote Monday to the Washington Post’s letters editor and ombudsman about the article.

“I am insisting on a Washington Post correction on both points,” she said late Monday afternoon.

“What is especially problematic are the words ‘hiring a Muslim,’ which imply that I am a religious bigot,” Shea explained. “I did not write those words nor did the complaint attribute that quote to me – rather, that phrase was the plaintiff’s characterization of what I allegedly had written.”

Shea said that her opposition to giving Ghori-Ahmad a permanent contract was not because she was a Muslim, but based on bias evident in some of her writings. She cited an article by Ghori-Ahmad on the 2008 Mumbai bombings which, Shea said, “included blaming the attacks of the terrorist group Lashkar i Taiba on America for failing to resolve the Kashmir crisis.”

Before taking the position at the USCIRF, Ghori-Ahmad was a lobbyist for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), an advocacy group.

Shea recounted having written – in July 2009, before the lawsuit was brought – that Ghori-Ahmad’s “writings reflect MPAC activism and bias, not scholarship, which would not serve us well on the research staff.”

Speaking up for persecuted Muslims

Confronting the allegations of anti-Muslim bias, Shea listed examples of what she said was “a long record of working with and on behalf of Muslims in the area of religious freedom” – both as a USCIRF commissioner and at the Hudson Institute:

--She had testified in Congress repeatedly and over many years about the plight of persecuted Muslims, including “Uighur Muslims in China, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and heterodox Muslims in several countries.”

--As USCIRF commissioner, Shea said, she had successfully pressed the commission to take up Muslim cases and provide platforms to Muslim speakers; supported and worked well with another Muslim on the staff; referred several Muslim candidates for USCIRF positions; co-authored an article on Saudi Arabia with Muslim fellow commissioner Imam Talal Eid; and supported the granting of USCIRF fellowships to two prominent Muslim reformers (Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, and Suby Mansour, a former professor at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.)

--As head of the Center for Religious Freedom, Shea said, she organized and sponsored briefings providing Muslim speakers with a platform in Washington; directed the production of a book on radical Islam, half of whose chapters were written by Muslims; and authored several studies on Saudi textbooks in conjunction with the Institute for Gulf Affairs’ Al-Ahmed. The Center for Religious Freedom’s advisory board includes prominent Uighur Muslim activist Rebiya Kadeer and American Islamic Congress director Zainab al Suwaij, she pointed out.

--Last July, Shea was given a humanitarian award by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. (Ahmadiyya Muslims follow a non-orthodox form of Islam, declared heretical by some scholars. The movement claims millions of adherents in 190 countries, mostly in South Asia and Africa, and has long faced persecution. In one May 2010 incident alone, 87 worshippers were killed when two Ahmadiyya mosques were attacked in Lahore, Pakistan.)

--Most recently, Shea co-authored a book on apostasy and blasphemy laws, published last October. Shea noted that the foreword was written by the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, with a claimed membership of 40 million. Two Muslim scholars had contributed essays to the book, which Shea said also “champions hundreds of Muslim cases.”

Muslim activists wary

Sensitive to criticism of abuses linked to their faith, Islamic advocacy groups have for years alleged the existence of an “anti-Muslim”  slant in the USCIRF’s work.

As reported last December, the USCIRF has advocated for many groups under threat worldwide, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah‘s Witnesses, Yazidis and Baha’i. Claims that the USCIRF has been disproportionately focused on Christians come despite the fact that Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group worldwide.

American Islamic Forum for Democracy founder and president M. Zuhdi Jasser has been appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. (Photo: AIFD)

The USCIRF’s unpaid commissioners are appointed by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the administration (Shea was a House Republican appointee.) Recent months have seen all the commissioners’ posts change hands, as a result of a retroactive term-limitation requirement in reauthorization legislation last December.

One of the newcomers is M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the “anti-Islamist” American Islamic Forum for Democracy, who was appointed in March by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Following the announcement Muslim groups, including MPAC and the Council on American-Islamic Relations), solicited protests, and dozens of Islamic groups and individuals subsequently signed a letter to Senate leaders urging them to rescind Jasser’s appointment.

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