A Muslim Fighting Antisemitism at the UN

Ahmed Shaheed

Ahmed Shaheed knew no Jews growing up in the predominantly Muslim South Asian islands of the Maldives. But he knew books and newspapers and read voraciously. One particular book, given to him by his mother when he was still a child, shaped his views on antisemitism: Titled The Bad Man, it told the story of how Adolf Hitler had perpetrated the Holocaust

“At a very early age I was very open to learning about European history and global history,” says Shaheed, who has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief since 2017. “That contributed to my being immune from the kind of language and discourse that is so deeply pervasive in my country.”

In 2019, Shaheed led the charge on the United Nations’ first-ever stand-alone human rights report dedicated solely to antisemitism. Since then, he has pushed with limited success for statements condemning violence and conspiracies against Jews around the globe. Now as the UN prepares this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which sought to delegitimize Israel and distort the meaning of the term antisemitism, Shaheed faces another challenge. 

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, President Biden’s nominee to serve as the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, who advised Shaheed on the historic UN antisemitism report, said during a presentation of its results that placing antisemitism in the wider context of human rights abuses is a constant struggle. “The fact of the matter is that, in so much of the world, [antisemitism] is really not taken seriously unless there is a tragedy,” she says. 

Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI), calls the monitoring and reporting by UN special rapporteurs one of the “crown jewels” of the UN in advancing human rights, adding that Shaheed has gone above and beyond expectations for the role. “In the case of working on antisemitism, he recognizes the need to examine it as a distinctive phenomenon, not to compare it to or suggest it is somehow just the same as what happens to persons associated with any and all religions everywhere,” she says. “He understands that the Jewish community has suffered and continues to be uniquely victimized.”

Shaheed was no stranger to the fight against antisemitism when he accepted the mandate in 2017 to serve as an independent expert monitoring freedom of religion around the world. Between 2011 and 2016, he served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. “Iran is possibly the clearest example of how a country with great promise can be ruined by religious intolerance and disregard for human rights,” Shaheed says.

Shaheed has watched his own country struggle with corruption and intolerance. In addition to his mother, he credits his father, uncle, and friends of the family, all judges, for raising him with a healthy respect for right and wrong, always with a basis in fact. He also credits his unfettered access to news media and an open education that encouraged critical thinking. “Growing up with judges, you’re fed a diet of justice and a high regard for fairness, equality and rule of law,” he says. “You’re raised looking for the truth.

But that balanced approach is difficult to explain to anyone growing up in the Maldives today, he explains. In the 1980s, negative attitudes and conspiracies about the Jewish people began to infiltrate the nation’s predominantly Muslim society, colored by the Middle East conflict, even though the Maldives played no part in that conflict. Antisemitism became deeply embedded in the society, both culturally and linguistically, he says. I found this very disturbing. Without learning about people, it was outright prejudice.”

By that time, Shaheed had begun to pursue a career in diplomacy, serving as a young intern for the Maldives UN delegation. In the fall of 1983, other Maldives diplomats joined those who were boycotting speeches by the Israeli delegation. Shaheed stayed and listened. “You’ve got to hear them at least,” he says. “You’ve got to listen to what they’re saying.” 

Two decades later, Shaheed became the key driver of democratic reform within the government, and he was quickly offered the post of Foreign Minister. He led the Maldives to embrace universal human rights standards, including announcing a moratorium on the death penalty. In his first week in office, the U.S. Embassy asked Shaheed to support the UN’s creation of an International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He did so without hesitation. 

However, when the government began to backtrack on reforms, Shaheed resigned from the Cabinet and demanded the first multiparty elections be held as had been previously announced.

In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed became the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives and re-appointed Shaheed as Foreign Minister. Announcing a policy of friendship towards all UN members, Shaheed renewed ties with Israel, originally established with the Maldives in 1967. This move infuriated certain politicians who painted him as a Zionist, “which is equated in the Maldives to being the enemy,” he says. 

He was keenly aware of a shadowy specter—the long arm of Iran interfering with democracies around the globe. In 2011, he accepted the mandate to monitor human rights abuses there. 

In that rapporteur role, Shaheed set himself apart by seeking to obtain information on what was happening in the region from numerous sources, including targeted communities, says Gaer of JBI. He was particularly concerned about the systematic persecution of Baha’is, Iran’s largest minority. He also has seen this intolerance extended to other countries where Iran has influence. 

In 2012, a coup forced out Maldives President Nasheed, and Islamists rose to power. Knowing his family faced danger, Shaheed sought refuge outside the country. He has lived in self-imposed exile ever since. In addition to his UN work, he serves as deputy director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. 

“This work isn’t academic for him,” says Rose Parris Richter, who has worked with Shaheed for the past 12 years, during his tenure as Foreign Minister and now as chief of staff for the external office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. “Nor is it purely an exercise in shaping international human rights law and standards. Rather, his commitment…is driven by a sincere and unwavering belief that a human rights approach is key to addressing much of the development and security challenges facing the international community today.”

“It’s not an intellectual lesson,” she adds, “but one that finely tunes the moral compass.”

Shaheed has continued to monitor the Islamic Republic as concerns about religious persecution there spill over into his current mandate. 

But his UN role covers a wide range of religious freedom concerns. The position of Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom and Belief was created during the Cold War in 1985; it was established to support the UN’s landmark 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance, and its purpose was to monitor religious repression globally. Since then, the office has generated dozens of reports about religious persecution and discrimination around the globe.  

“The special rapporteurs are the eyes and ears of the United Nations in human rights,” Gaer says. “They are independent experts who can travel to countries who don’t get cited by [the] UN Human Rights Council but where there are real problems. They can then report thoughtfully on the issues and their findings. They bring texture to the UN human rights work, as opposed to often-politicized criticism.”

For the past 15 years, the governments that are members of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council have repeatedly singled out and censured Israel. Shaheed acknowledges that “parts of the UN fan the flames of this intolerance” and that reforms are needed “to ensure Israel is not treated any differently than other member states.”

Nevertheless, Shaheed pursued the Special Rapporteur post because he recognized “the power of UN human rights mechanisms to protect victims of abuse that need it and that have few mechanisms of support,” including minorities facing abuse around the globe—in some cases because of their faith, and in others because rights abusers invoke religion as a justification. It is especially important to him that the mandate speaks for everybody. 

His research team is preparing reports on Christian minorities in the Middle East, Muslim minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and indigenous people long ignored, he says, by the mandate. He’s also diving into a study about freedom of thought and the impact of machine learning. “He’s not afraid of working with new technologies or looking at the impact of technology on the issues,” Gaer says. “He’s not afraid to tackle hate speech and at the same time protect freedom of expression. He can put these things together and come out with sensible recommendations.”

In fact, Shaheed never envisioned developing a report that focused exclusively on antisemitism. But he was stunned to discover when he took the job that since the mandate’s creation, no report had focused exclusively on expressions of hostility and hatred toward Jews. “It is very strange given the fact that one of the key features of the rise in religious hatred globally was violence against Jews,” he says. “The number of attacks targeting Jews is not only heartbreaking but is disproportionally high.”

His report, published in 2019, stands out for its treatment of antisemitism as a global phenomenon, not one largely confined to the U.S. and Europe. It recognizes that antisemitism comes from a variety of sources—from the far right, from members of radical Islamist groups, and from the political left. It is also framed as a threat to democracy. 

At Shaheed’s request, Gaer of JBI convened two expert consultations—one in Geneva with a wide range of antisemitism watchdogs and another in New York on antisemitism in the U.S. — to share insights about the state of antisemitism. 

JBI also introduced Shaheed and his team to Jews and to monitors from Myanmar, Morocco, Egypt and Venezuela who gave him additional perspectives from places he would otherwise have difficulty accessing. “He knew how to listen, and he knew how to interpret it to advise others,” Gaer says. “That’s a skill people don’t always have.”

Biden nominee Lipstadt, whose most recent book Antisemitism: Here and Now explores the problem’s multiple sources, said shortly after the report’s release: “Irrespective of what’s in the report, the existence of the report itself, as a stand-alone statement on antisemitism…a stand-alone call out to the world, to governments, to civil society, to the UN to take this seriously” makes it extraordinary.

Shaheed recalls boarding the last flight out of Geneva before the coronavirus pandemic suspended air travel. He was saddened, but not surprised, to see conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic. A few weeks later, he issued the first public statement by a UN figure raising the alarm about the rise in antisemitic hatred and calling for efforts to counter it. “Antisemitism is a light sleeper,” he says. “Whenever people have anxiety, they blame the Jews for it. It’s a reminder of how dangerous it is—a global danger.”

Manya Brachear Pashman co-hosts People of the Pod, a podcast about global affairs produced by the American Jewish Committee.

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