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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is being sued for religious discrimination. And for good reason. The government watchdog agency was created in 1998 to officially promote and protect religious freedom abroad, but it actually suppresses religious freedom, rather than supporting it. It should be shut down.
In 2009 Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, an American lawyer from Arkansas, fluent in Urdu and Hindi with a master’s degree in international development, accepted a USCIRF position as a South Asia policy analyst. The Commission hired her to conduct research on South Asia’s human rights and religious freedoms. According to the complaint, four weeks after she’d been offered the job, and after she had already left her previous job at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the offer was rescinded. Instead, she was given a temporary 90-day position that began in late July 2009.
The suit alleges that the Commission withdrew its job offer because Ghori-Ahmad is Muslim. She was told, she says, that the job couldn’t start because of a hiring freeze—but she saw others hired during that same period. Once on the job, according to the suit, her supervisor told her that Commissioner Nina Shea “would be upset that USCIRF had hired her because she was Muslim and had been affiliated with a Muslim organization,” and then “suggested ways that Ms. Ghori-Ahmad could limit the negative impression her beliefs and background would create with members of the Commission.” The suit claims that the supervisor recommended that she push back her start date to avoid certain commissioners and “call in sick” on days when certain commissioners might be in the office, to avoid running into them. This supervisor also allegedly told her to “downplay her religious affiliation,” and “emphasize that she was a mainstream and moderate Muslim” who “didn’t even cover her hair.” Legal briefs also claim: “Internal USCIRF email and discussions make clear that Ms. Ghori-Ahmad’s national origin and religion drove USCIRF’s ultimate decision to rescind its job offer. For example, Shea 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 U.K. twenty years ago.’”
In an open letter to the Washington Post in June 2012, Ms. Shea claimed that she did not use the words “hiring a Muslim.” She countered that “the first 13 words of this quote—as is clear in the legal complaint—are not mine . . . What is especially problematic are the words ‘hiring a Muslim,’ which imply that I am a religious bigot . . . I voiced opposition to Ms. Ghori-Ahmad because of the bias evident in some of her writings.”
And yet such a comment would be consistent with Shea’s record. The suit describes Shea as “a long-time vocal critic of Islam as a religion, majority-Muslim countries, and Muslims generally.” She vehemently opposed the Cordoba House/Park51 project (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”), as did the USCIRF’s prominent former commissioner Leonard Leo. She is a prominent advocate for persecuted Christians who stated in a 2001 interview, “I believe that religious freedom is universal . . . but at the same time I find that religious freedom is only fully understood in this country—not even in the west, but in this country.” Despite such stances, Shea felt it appropriate to ask whether Ghori-Ahmad’s writings and advocacy betrayed a bias.
This is part of a pattern at USCIRF of questioning the motives and patriotism of American Muslims. Most recently, Mitch McConnell appointed M. Zuhdi Jasser as a USCIRF Commissioner. Jasser, a practicing Muslim, is an Arizona cardiologist who founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a conservative lobbying group that promotes “the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state.” He also served as the narrator in the controversial film The Third Jihad, which alleges a conspiracy of radical Muslims to undermine the United States from within.
Why would an agency dedicated to promoting religious freedom abroad discriminate against religious minorities within the United States?
This is not religious freedom. This is a toxic combination of Christian supremacy and flagrant bias against Islam.
For Shea and her sympathizers, since religious freedom can only be understood by Americans with “mainstream” beliefs, it can only be extended to Americans with those same beliefs. Even American Muslims who present themselves as moderates should have their motives questioned and their records examined. According to the suit, Ms. Shea wrote in an email that Ms. Ghori-Ahmad’s profession of tolerance could be dismissed as a sham because it would have been “really stupid” for her to have revealed what Shea believed must be her real views. Islam, in Shea’s mind, equals intolerance, and she was personally committed to exposing this alleged Muslim hypocrisy abroad.
This is not religious freedom. This is a toxic combination of Christian supremacy and flagrant bias against Islam. In this view, “religious freedom” is anything but a pluralist mission to make the world safe for different ways to be religious; it means, rather, a mission to protect American majority religious interests from perceived threats from minority religious traditions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finished its investigation of Ghori-Ahmad’s case in March 2010, and in May 2010 issued an Acknowledgement and Order according to which both Ghori-Ahmad and USCIRF were allowed to “obtain certain discovery from each other.” But according to the complaint USCIRF refused to produce documents and denied access to the commissioners involved in rescinding Ghori-Ahman’s offer for a permanent job. She then requested a hearing before an administrative judge, who dismissed the case. According to the suit, “USCIRF—an entity created by Congress to promote religious freedom—argued that it could discriminate against employees without sanction because it was not subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The judge agreed. But subsequent legal reforms sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (H.R. 2867) made USCIRF subject to the Civil Rights Act. In June 2012 Ghori-Ahmad filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, alleging that USCIRF had illegally discriminated in hiring on the basis of religion. The suit has been wending its way through complex procedural hurdles; at this moment, it appears that the suit will proceed to trial.
Some within USCIRF have been appalled by the treatment of Ahmad. Bridget Kustin, a former USCIRF researcher, resigned in protest. Knox Thames, the commission’s policy and research director, is quoted in the suit as admitting that Ghori-Ahmad’s offer had been retracted because “certain Commissioners objected to her Muslim faith and affiliation . . . He said he was sorry this had happened.” Tom Carter, former communications director for the Commission, told The Daily Beast that, “the Durbin reforms give USCIRF a do-over. Hopefully, the new commissioners will take the opportunity to get it right this time.”
But will they? And, more fundamentally, what would it mean to “get it right?” The USCIRF needs more than an overhaul. Simply broadening the commission’s mandate to clarify that it must protect Muslims or other disfavored minority religions isn’t sufficient. Government promotion of religious freedom is, by its very nature, a flawed enterprise because the government inevitably becomes involved in deciding which religions, and which forms of which religions, are deserving of protection. Any government position on which religions to protect is necessarily tangled in that government’s political commitments, interests, and biases.
Some will counter that the USCIRF can be fixed by appointing “better” commissioners. After all, none of the commissioners identified in the lawsuit is still serving. Perhaps future Muslim-American job candidates will not be required to write an essay to prove that they are “objective and unbiased,” as was asked of Ahmad. But who will determine who the “right” person is, politically and religiously? Simply asking the question reveals the project’s fatal flaw: no commissioner selected by politicians can possibly stand above religious politics. No governmental officer—no government, period—should be taking on the role of religious arbiter, at home or abroad. A commission that promotes “religious freedom” may be nearly impossible to oppose—and yet it is an inevitably Orwellian project.
Ghori-Ahmad and USCIRF may reach a settlement. If not, this trial will surely become, as Christianity Today describes it, “one of the most ironic in American history, with the congressional commission charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world defending its own employment practices in court.”
Meanwhile, the rest of us must not lose sight of the bigger questions. A Department of Religious Freedom inevitably takes an official position on religion—and is therefore a contradiction in terms. It’s time to decommission the commission.
Editor’s Note: Katrina Lantos Swett, the current chair of the USCIRF, has responded to this article.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd teaches and writes on the politics of religion, U.S. foreign relations, and the global politics of the Middle East at Northwestern University, where she is professor of politics. Her most recent book is Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, 2015).
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