A Muslim woman has filed a lawsuit against the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) alleging that she was sacked by the commission because of her religion. Ironically, the commission is assigned to advocate religious freedom globally.
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad filed the lawsuit on June 7, 2012 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia saying that USCIRF rescinded a job offer after learning that she was Muslim and worked for a group promoting Muslims' civil rights in the United States.
Ghori-Ahmad was hired to work as an analyst and immediately was asked to produce a report on religious freedom in Pakistan to test if she could write "objectively." Ghori-Ahmad said a commissioner detected no sign of bias in her report but still objected to hiring her. "Passing these tests (which she did) made no difference to the commissioners who opposed working with a Muslim," said the lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial.
The suit quotes Commissioner Nina Shea as writing 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.'"
Ghori-Ahmad, a 26-year-old American born and educated in Arkansas, is seeking damages for distress as well as back pay, saying she was unemployed after the job offer was rescinded. She was later hired by the State Department.
According to a Washington Post report the commission's six researchers signed a letter unsuccessfully urging their bosses to keep Ghori-Ahmad because of what they described as her strong re'sume' and the need for an analyst to cover the key region of South Asia. One researcher, Bridget Kustin, quit in protest, saying in her resignation letter that she would not "remain part of an organization that would be willing to engage in such discrimination.
The incident took place in 2009. Three commissioners whose actions were questioned in the lawsuit have since left after a shakeup last year led by Senator Dick Durbin, the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate. Speaking in December, Durbin said he "strongly" supported the group's work but added: "I have been deeply troubled by allegations of misconduct, misuse of funds and discrimination at the Commission."
Durbin spearheaded an amendment that limited terms of commissioners and subjected them to federal regulations on discrimination and expenses, amid charges that some had flown first class and stayed in expensive hotels.
The commission was set up under a 1998 law to advise the US government on religious freedom. It has strongly advocated for the rights of minorities around the world.
Its statements on the Islamic world have sometimes been controversial. In its latest annual report, it called for the State Department to put Turkey -- a secular state and US ally -- on a blacklist over religious freedom that includes countries such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Rejecting the USCIRF's 2012 annual report Turkey said on April 5: "The report, which is prepared by politicians representing some interest groups, contradicts the findings of U.S. State Department's annual reports so far." In a written statement the Turkish Foreign Ministry also criticized the report for failing to address incidents in Europe based on Islamophobia, with many mosques having been attacked and religious leaders being appointed by the state. The statement thus said that "the report [had been] prepared for political reasons."
Shea and several other commissioners have long been accused of criticizing aspects of the Islamic faith in a way that unfairly stigmatizes all Muslims.
The allegations in the suit are the most explicit in a years-long series of allegations that commission leaders are biased against Muslims, specifically people associated with groups critical of U.S. foreign policy and who work for groups that fight anti-Muslim discrimination. Questions about the Ghori-Ahmad EEOC complaint -- which commission lawyers had argued the body was exempt from -- and how the commission uses its resources led some lawmakers last year to almost let USCIRF close for lack of reauthorization. Its budget was ultimately cut by a quarter and long-serving commissioners were forced out by retroactive term limits.
The anti-bias of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is also reflected in the recent appointment of its commissioners. Last March Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appointed well-known anti-Islam activist Dr. Zuhdi Jasser as a commissioner.
A broad national coalition of more than 60 civil advocacy organizations and individuals have sent a joint letter to Senators Inouye, McConnell and Durbin expressing "deep concern" at the controversial appointment of Zuhdi Jasser. The coalition asked that Jasser's appointment be rescinded because he has been a vocal opponent of religious freedom for American Muslims.