If you were arrested for speaking on public streets, where would you turn for help? These days, the answer may depend on what you were saying.
Suppose you were arrested for marching through the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, protesting Israeli policies against Palestinians. Unquestionably, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would support your rights, even filing suit on your behalf.
Suppose, instead, you were arrested for preaching Christianity on the streets of Dearborn. Would you ask the ACLU for help? Would it help you? Well, maybe.
Consider the four people arrested on June 18, 2010, for proselytizing passersby at Dearborn's Arab International Festival. Certainly the ACLU agreed that the arrests had violated the missionaries' constitutional rights. The state ACLU chapter's legal director told the Michigan Messenger that "the man encouraging others to convert to Christianity was engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment." But that is all. The organization did not issue any press releases to that effect, address the matter on its website, or reference it in listserv emails.
According to Brenda Bove, paralegal for the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the defendants — members of Acts 17 Apologetics — did not ask the ACLU for help. They received assistance from another organization, the Thomas More Law Center. The trial ended on September 24 with four acquittals on charges of breaching the peace.
The ACLU touts itself as "our nation's guardian of liberty." It has pursued a strategy of assisting society's fringes, including its most offensive elements, on the theory that by protecting their civil liberties, it would necessarily safeguard the rights of all. Hence its advocacy for Nazis planning to march through Skokie, Illinois, a community with many Holocaust survivors. The ACLU explains, "We're not anti-anything. The only things we fight are attempts to take away or limit your civil liberties, like your right to practice any religion you want (or none at all) … or to speak out — for or against — anything at all."
Yet, strangely, the ACLU has said little about certain Islamist attempts to chill free speech and convert criticism of Islam into a crime, although it is outspoken about government purportedly chilling Muslims' First Amendment rights. Former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer explains:
When the U.S. State Department condemned publication of the notorious Muhammad cartoons in 2005, and newspapers in the U.S. declined to publish them, the ACLU was virtually silent. In fact, talking points issued by the press office … recommended ducking questions about the cartoons. … Three years later, in 2008, despite a new focus on international human rights, the ACLU declined to join a free speech coalition opposing a UN defamation of religion resolution that targeted criticism of Islam.
The ACLU continues to shirk the free speech fight against Islamism by refusing to sign a petition criticizing the UN's defamation of religion resolution as incipient censorship. Many groups have noted the danger that this declaration poses to free expression, but the ACLU has not.
More recently, certain state chapters have advocated for critics of Islam. Notably, after almost two months of demonstrating little interest in the case, the New Jersey chapter just filed suit on behalf of Derek Fenton, who had been fired from his public job for burning a Koran while off duty. But the ACLU's national organization seems fixated on America allegedly "persecuting Muslims," as illustrated by its numerous statements on the subject. It has issued no similar statement about persecution of Jews, for example, although the FBI's most recent (2008) hate crime statistics indicate that ten times more religiously motivated hate crimes targeted Jews than Muslims.
Like the ACLU, Amnesty International (AI) has prided itself on evenhandedness. From its Cold War beginnings, it projected an image of impartiality by focusing on prisoners of conscience from different geographical and political spheres (communist, capitalist, and developing). More recently, however, it has shown deep reluctance to criticize radical Islam. For example, Brooke Goldstein of the Children's Rights Institute found the group largely uninterested in jihadists' use of children as suicide bombers.
The group has worked with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, sponsoring him on a speaking tour advocating release of detainees, despite his support for the Taliban and widespread concerns about detainee recidivism. Upset that AI was putting the rights of al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims, Gita Sahgal, then head of the gender unit of AI's international secretariat, sharply criticized the organization for associating with Begg. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment," Sahgal said.
Sahgal went public with her criticism in February 2010, after two years of in-house warnings had been ignored. Hours later, AI suspended her from her position. On April 9, she left AI by mutual agreement due to "irreconcilable differences."
The London Times obtained an internal email from Sam Zarifi, director of AI's Asia-Pacific program, expressing similar concerns. "We should be clear that some of Amnesty's campaigning … did not always sufficiently distinguish between the rights of detainees to be free from torture and arbitrary detention, and the validity of their views," Zarifi wrote to AI staffers. AI later published a letter from Zarifi essentially confirming this statement.
Sahgal later told the Guardian, "I think the [AI] leadership is ideologically bankrupt, as has been shown in the handling of this. There have been systemic failures even before I went public. Questions need to be asked of the political and senior leadership. There is a deep misogyny in the human rights movement."
Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sometimes sacrificed advocacy for oppressed groups to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities. Scott Long, former director of HRW's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, repeatedly accused British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell of "Islamophobia" in Tatchell's campaign against Iran's execution of homosexuals. Long charged that Tatchell had misrepresented criminal rapists and heterosexuals as gay martyrs. Rather than sticking with the facts, Long's 2009 essay "Unbearable Witness" attacks Tatchell's motives as deriving from anti-Muslim prejudice. Although Long wrote this 18-page article indicting Tatchell and other gay rights advocates, he apparently never published a report on Iranian repression of homosexuals that was the subject of dozens of interviews conducted by HRW.
HRW's advocacy on the separate but related subject of Israel vis-à-vis its Muslim neighbors shows similarly skewed priorities. Last year, the organization's fundraising and personnel were criticized for anti-Israel bias. Its own founder, Robert L. Bernstein, censured HRW in a New York Times op-ed published on October 20, 2009: "The plight of their citizens [of Arab and Iranian regimes] who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch's Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel."
Between January 2009 and August 2010, HRW published seven reports on Israel (two ostensibly about rights violations by Palestinians also criticized Israel), two on Iran, none on Egypt, and two primarily on Saudi Arabia. None addressed Iran's oppression of homosexuals, Egypt's abuse of Christians, or Saudi subjugation of non-Muslims, women, and homosexuals. HRW's 2009 report Human Rights and Saudi Arabia's Counterterrorism Response focuses on detainee mistreatment without mentioning "Islamic extremism," except in reference to a New York Times Magazine article.
By shielding Islamic people, religion, ideologies, governments, and societies from the open criticism routinely applied to all others, these rights groups effectively favor oppressors over victims. Long's public abuse of Tatchell while shortchanging Iranian abuse of homosexuals illustrates the point: HRW sacrificed advocacy for homosexuals to advocacy for Islam.
In June, HRW apologized for Long's personal attacks on Tatchell, although not for alleging that Tatchell had gotten his facts wrong. Joseph Saunders, HRW's deputy program director, confirmed the apology's text. In August, Long left HRW, citing health reasons. HRW has not responded to requests to clarify whether Long resigned or was fired. His name has disappeared from the organization's website. In September, HRW published a 56-page report critical of Saudi treatment of women and religious minorities.
There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on certain groups or causes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has as its particular mission advocacy on behalf of African-Americans. The Anti-Defamation League was founded "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people." These organizations advocate for other people besides and have done much good for many. They need not fight all battles to help some, and their primary constituencies offer a lens through which they pick and choose their battles.
By contrast, the ACLU, AI, and HRW present themselves as rights groups with a general mandate. Their unwillingness to apply the same standards to critics of Islam, Islamists, and the Muslim world as to those supporting them amounts to hypocrisy and dereliction of a self-imposed duty to promote rights standards evenhandedly. In the struggle against Islamist attempts to claim special privileges at others' expense, victims are well advised to seek help from alternative sources to vindicate their rights.
Johanna Markind is an attorney specializing in criminal law and a part-time journalist specializing in religion. This article was sponsored by Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.