Nina Shea is a senior fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute. A former member of the government-appointed U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIFR), Shea directs Hudson's Center for Religious Freedom, which was previously known as the Puebla Institute and housed at Freedom House. Although she focuses broadly on human rights, Shea's work has primarily centered on the persecution of Christians, whom she once claimed were the most persecuted religious group in the world. Observers have accused Shea of having Islamophobic beliefs and criticized her work for often being simplistic and inaccurate.
During her tenure at the Commission for International Religious Freedom, which was once led by the Elliott Abrams and has roots in the U.S. evangelical movement, Shea was the target of criticism for her efforts, according to one observer, to wage a "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." Shea's alleged opposition to hiring Muslim employees—which came to a head when a Muslim employee ousted by Shea filed a civil rights complaint—led to legislative reforms to prohibit discrimination at the commission and impose term limits on its commissioners, which brought Shea's decade-plus tenure there to an end.
Shea has vociferously criticized the Obama administration for what she regards as its indifference—even hostility—to the plight of the world's Christians. She claims that the administration has exhibited "willful blindness … about the religious implications" of Muslim attacks on Christians in Africa and the Middle East. Regarding Syria's civil war, which she has described as "at its core a civil war within Islam," Shea wrote in September 2013 that Christians in that country "can forget about the White House priority of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) as it applies to them."
Shea has vocally opposed laws aimed at restricting religious hate speech and efforts by political leaders to discourage it. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared at an anti-Islamophobia conference convened by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011, Shea accused the Obama administration of collaborating with the "world's most repressive and intolerant regimes" to "prosecute American Islamophobes," warning that the effort "may soon result in the delegitimization of freedom of expression as a human right." Similarly, during the 2010 hate speech trial of the Dutch anti-Islamic firebrand Geert Wilders, Shea warned that Europeans' "fundamental freedoms of speech and religion are being steadily undermined."
Shea has endorsed a number of laws aimed at curbing the religious expression of Muslims. "During her illicit reign at the USCIRF," wrote interfaith activist Lawrence Swaim in 2012, "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 … represents a violation of the public's trust of unprecedented and historic proportions."
Shea has a long track record of using human rights concerns to promote various foreign interventions favored by neoconservatives. In the 1980s, the Puebla Institute, whose associates included the neoconservative Catholic theologian George Weigel, was repeatedly accused of collaborating with the Nicaraguan Contras and the CIA, which reportedly recommended that the rebels exploit religious sentiments in their fight against the Sandinistas. (For more info, see Right Web's archived GroupWatch profile of the Puebla Institute.)
Shea wrote a series of articles in the 1980s arguing that the policies of Nicaragua's Sandinista government amounted to religious persecution. She accused the Nicaraguan government of torturing religious opponents, although she acknowledged that it did not employee the death squad killings and disappearances common to right-wing paramilitaries in El Salvador and Guatemala. Shea contended that the Sandinista government's stance toward Christians was one of manipulation of revolutionary sympathizers and restriction of opponents.
Shea has also worked on the conflict in Sudan, which according to the rightist WorldNetDaily, she views as "part of the Khartoum regime's effort to Arabize and Islamicize the entire country." After then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before a Senate panel that the conflict in Darfur was a genocide in mid-2004, Shea told WorldNetDaily that she was "thrilled."
While many analysts on both the left and the right regard the Darfur crisis as genocide, some observers see Shea's efforts as politically driven. In a 2003 report about Sudan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the efforts of CIRF—which the HRW pointed out was led by individuals who were "conservative rather than liberal in outlook"—to get congressional support in the form of food aid for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA). The move was opposed by many human rights groups. According to HRW: "Several U.S.-based NGOs operating in Sudan, as well as Human Rights Watch, lobbied against the U.S. giving food aid to the SPLA, citing SPLA abuses, concern about NGO staff safety, and the need to preserve NGO neutrality. The SPLA denounced these NGOs. On February 10, 2000, President [Bill] Clinton wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress as required by the legislation, informing that 'at this time' he would not exercise his discretion to allow U.S. food aid to the SPLA." As part of her efforts in support of the SPLA, Shea lambasted the State Department in testimony before Congress for failing to recognize "the basic fact that religious persecution is at the core of the conflict."
In a 2001 article for the Washington Monthly, Joshua Green related how in the mid-1990s Shea teamed up with Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official, in an effort "to put the issue of Christian persecution on the map." Green reported: "Horowitz, a Jewish neoconservative and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, detailed the plight of persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East. He concluded by calling for intervention. 'For American Jews, who owe our very lives to the open door of the blessed land,' he wrote, 'silence should not be an option in the face of persecutions eerily parallel to those committed by Adolf Hitler.'" According to Green, a favorite Horowitz sound bite at the time was that "Christians are the Jews of the 21st century."
In 1996, Shea and Horowitz organized a conference titled the "Global Persecution of Christians." While earlier efforts to mobilize public opinion and elected officials around the issue had fallen flat, according to Green this conference was a watershed event, helping to bridge the divide between a number of U.S. political and religious groups. "To the surprise of many," wrote Green, "the issue of persecuted Christians captured the concern of evangelical Protestants. For churches like Grace Bible Church, which became active in the Christian solidarity movement five years ago, it complemented their own efforts to evangelize overseas ... As it spread among evangelicals, the movement also came to include conservative Jews and Catholics, Southern Baptists, and some of the more open-minded liberal activists like Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But the issue seemed particularly appealing to evangelicals for whom Reagan conservatism was primarily a moral—rather than an economic—political movement. It was the involvement of this group, whose foot soldiers had turned abortion and school choice into national political issues, that helped popularize the issue of Christian persecution."