Why the UAE is Obsessed with Targeting American Muslim Activists Like Asim Ghafoor

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By: Nihad Awad and Ismail Allison, CAIR National

On July 14, Virginia civil rights attorney and human rights activist Asim Ghafoor was arrested and detained by UAE authorities while transiting through Dubai International Airport en route to a family wedding in Istanbul. Using time tested authoritarian practices, the Emiratis had tried Ghafoor in absentia and convicted him on charges of which he had no knowledge.

The entire affair seems bizarre at first glance — a widely respected American attorney from a quiet suburb of the nation’s capital arrested on shadowy charges while traveling to what should have been a happy family gathering.

Once you understand the UAE’s history targeting American Muslims as part of its effort to spread secular authoritarianism throughout the Middle East, what the country did to Ghafoor makes perfect sense.

Ghafoor was once the attorney of murdered Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and his fiancee Hatice Cengiz. Ghafoor worked with Khashoggi to establish Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a nonprofit organization promoting democracy, rule of law and human rights for the people of the Middle East and highlighting abuses by authoritarian governments in the region.

Cengiz and DAWN are currently in litigation against Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has had a vocal American cheerleader in the UAE’s U.S. ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, a virulent opponent of human rights groups and democracy movements in the Middle East who once admitted that he wished to see more “strong” and “secular” governments in the region.

The UAE is one of the areas of focus of DAWN’s work. The organization’s website has an entire section dedicated to documenting the human rights violations and crimes of the UAE government. DAWN has repeatedly drawn attention to and advocated on behalf of Emirati activists and dissidents imprisoned or possibly killed by authorities.

The real reason the UAE targeted Ghafoor became even clearer when Emirati media outlets began publishing unhinged, Islamophobic hit-pieces slandering him as a “terrorist” for his pro-democracy work with DAWN and other groups.

This is not the first time the UAE has referred to American Muslim activists calling for justice around the world as “terrorists.” In 2014, the UAE blacklisted dozens of American Muslim organizations engaged in civil rights activism here and human rights activists abroad, including the Muslim civil rights organization we serve.

While this ridiculous, baseless announcement was widely criticized by human rights and civil society organizations, it was very well received by anti-Muslim bigots like Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes, who once held a week-long event in the UAE and praised the authoritarian state for its relations with the Israeli government.

What lies behind the UAE’s vicious enmity toward American Muslim activists and civil society organizations is the fear that our work might influence U.S. policy in the region away from the current paradigm of backing authoritarian, secular governments.

The UAE is right to be afraid. Most American Muslims believe that our government should not prop up unjust dictatorships overseas or sacrifice the freedom of its citizens to the whims of such autocracies. That’s why nearly ever major American Muslim organization has called on President Biden to demand the UAE immediately release Asim Ghafoor and desist from targeting American citizens.

Just a few months ago, President Biden gave a tacit greenlight for the UAE’S behavior when he failed to hold Israel accountable for the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces, much like his predecessor failed to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If our government continues to allow its so-called allies to get away with crimes against its citizens, they ensure that the world will become a much more dangerous place for Americans and our ideals of freedom.

The UAE will not stop targeting American citizens, especially American Muslims, until our government forcefully speaks up against its abuses. That must happen right now, starting with Asim Ghafoor.

Nihad Awad is the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ismail Allison is national communications coordinator for CAIR.