State tea partiers focus anti-Islamic sentiment on highly accomplished native Tennessean

Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 10:05pm
Samar Ali (Courtesy Vanderbilt University)


Related: What is Shariah law and is it coming to your town soon?

Related: Longtime GOP leaders decry ‘xenophobic diatribes’ against Haslam administration


How did a highly accomplished native Tennessean suddenly become the focus of anti-Islamic elements of the tea party in this state? The answer may be as simple as an ignored request from the governor, a misreading of a popular business social networking site and an unwillingness to accept any explanation from the state of Tennessee. 

It began when Samar Ali went on a trade mission to Mexico and several county chapters of the Tennessee Republican Party made her famous.

As the international director for the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, Ali accompanied executive from several Tennessee automotive companies across the border. The purpose of the trip was to attend the PAACE Automechanika auto supply show in Mexico City, the largest international trade show of its kind in Mexico and Central America.

But back home, several Republican Party organizations, including one from the county in which she was raised, were criticizing Gov. Bill Haslam for allowing her to work in his administration. At least two passed resolutions asserting a link between Ali and the funding of Islamic terrorism.

“One of the latest Executive Service Employees has included Samar Ali, an expert in Sharia Compliant Finance which is one of the many ways Islamic terrorism is funded,” reads a portion of the Stewart County GOP’s resolution, adding, “She is also a one-time Obama appointee and her family has a long history of supporting Democrats.”

The Williamson County Republican Party adopted a resolution focused solely on the governor’s apparent lack of concern for what they see as a growing threat.

“Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has elevated and/or afford [sic] preferential political status to Sharia adherents in Tennessee,” reads one clause of the document, “thereby aiding and abetting the advancement of an ideology and doctrine which is wholly incompatible with the Constitution of the United States and the Tennessee Constitution.”

The McCarthy-esque dot-connecting in Tennessee has echoes of similar paranoia in Washington, D.C. In recent weeks, former Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann has accused a top aide to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a fellow U.S. representative of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The situation reached its apex locally when the Tennessee arm of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project purchased a full-page advertisement in The Tennessean on July 20, claiming the “encouragement and support” of eight Tennessee counties. The ad was an open letter to the governor, which began, in part, by asking Haslam to explain “why you made high level, state government appointments of individuals who desire to surreptitiously advance their total-life system under the cloak of their religion.”

Haslam, they said, had let the camel’s “nose under the tent.”



So who is this apparent jihadist in waiting?

Samar Ali is a native Tennessean, born at Vanderbilt University Hospital and raised in Waverly, an hour and a half west of Nashville. She is also a Muslim.

Her father, Subhi, left the West Bank town of Ramallah when he was 17, and her mother immigrated to the United States from Syria at age 26. They are both physicians and together run the Waverly Clinic PC.

A standout student at Waverly Central High, where she excelled on their Model U.N. team, she went on to attend Vanderbilt. On September 11, 2001, when words now being hurled at her, like “jihad” and “Islamic terrorism,” were forced into the American lexicon, she was a junior, majoring in political science and serving as an officer in the Middle Eastern Students Club. On Sept. 13, she addressed those gathered at the university’s “Come Together” service.

“I was asked to speak to you all today as an Arab-American Muslim,” she said. “All I know to do is to tell you something from my heart, and my heart is filled with pride to be a student of this amazing Vanderbilt community. Look at us; we are a family. I am proud to be an American and to feel the patriotism right here, right now.”

As a Muslim, she said, she was upset and wondered how anyone could carry out such horrors in the name of her religion. She said she had received more than 40 phone calls on the day of the attacks, from “Arab Americans, Palestinians, and people in Syria and Jordan.” She concluded by looking to the future.

“We cannot let these terrorists succeed and fill our hearts with hatred,” she said. “We cannot allow them to split us apart as Americans. We must come together; we have come so far. We must not fight hate with hate.”

She continued, “The people who did this are a disgrace to mankind. While they claim to be fundamentalist Muslims, they are of no religion at all. I know of no true religion that celebrates a loss of lives. Islam condemns these acts. The people who did this do not represent any true religion or any ethnic group. These are individual attacks, and they are horrific and absolutely terrifying and must be prevented.”

Ali eventually served as Vanderbilt’s first Arab-Muslim student body president. While still in school she was a law clerk at Stites and Harbison. She graduated with a degree in political science with honors, and three years later received a J.D. from Vanderbilt Law School. After school, she spent time clerking at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and at the South African Supreme Court of Appeal.

But it’s what comes next on her resume that has led to statewide, and indeed nationwide, awareness of the ECD’s international director.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ali spent three months in 2007 as a legal intern for the Islamic International Arab Bank. During that time, as stated on her profile, she “rotated through various banking units and gained exposure to Shariah compliant financial products and related contracts.” From there she went to work for Hogans Lovells in Washington, D.C., and was a founding member of the firm’s Abu Dhabi office.

In 2010, she was appointed a White House Fellow, which is when her name started setting off alarms at Shariah-watch blogs.

Her official White House bio (which notes that she is a three-time Southeastern Taekwondo Black Belt Champion) lists her responsibilities at Hogans Lovells: “counseling clients on mergers and acquisitions, cross-border transactions, Sharia compliant transactions, project finance, and international business matters.” It also identifies her as a founding member of the first U.S. Delegation to the World Islamic Economic Forum. 

In light of her work for the firm in the Middle East, her dealings in Shariah compliance would not seem to be out of place. Her job required her to work as an attorney and deal with businesses in a part of the world where many people wish to conduct their finances in accordance with the Islamic code. But when her White House fellowship was announced, that bit of experience coupled with her attendance at the Islamic Economic Forum made her appointment breaking news in certain corners of the Internet.

A June 23, 2010, post from a Shariah finance-focused arm of Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy alerted readers to the news, noting Ali’s trip to the economic forum where, the post says, “key leaders declared Sharia Finance to be ‘dawa’ (missionary) activity to promote Islam and Sharia.”

Even among conservatives, Gaffney, who is among those who have questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship, is controversial. He testified as part of the 2010 lawsuit aimed at halting construction on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. But he was also banned from a popular conservative conference after the board of the American Conservative Union investigated allegations he had made about other board members and found them to be baseless. (He responded by saying he was boycotting the conference because it had been infiltrated by Islamic extremists.)

Similarly, Ali’s return to Tennessee didn’t go unnoticed by elements looking for any sign of a Shariah threat. After a stint in Doha, Qatar, she was back home, having been hired by the state of Tennessee to work as the international director at the ECD.

“Now we find out that the embrace of the Sharia Finance Trojan horse extends across the aisle as well,” reads a June 7 post from Gaffney’s blog, which notes later, “Given Ms. Ali’s close associations with Sharia Finance entities and specialization in Sharia Finance, it is reasonable to expect that the financial jihadists will soon be targeting the Volunteer state for infiltration and influence operations.”

The post ends with a call to action, urging “activists in Tennessee” to start educating their elected representatives “about the threat posed by Sharia finance.” It took just over a month before some began heeding that call.



The most direct of the county resolutions, and the one that focuses solely on the supposed impending threat of imported Shariah, was adopted by the Williamson County Republican Party.

The first line states the group’s primary concerns: “In opposition to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s approval of and partnering with the Tennessee American Muslim Advisory Council and his appointment of a Sharia compliant finance specialist to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.”

What follows is a long list of “whereas” clauses, intended to serve as the groundwork for their case: that political Shariah (as opposed to religious Shariah) is a dangerous ideology; that those who adhere to it wish to implement it across the world and particularly in the West; and that Haslam’s actions represent an unsettling ignorance of the threat. The resolution cites the Quran, as well as a classic manual of Islamic jurisprudence, based on the Shafi’i school of thought, titled Reliance of the Traveler.

Williamson County GOP chairman Kevin Kookogey expressed reluctance to talk when reached by phone because, he said, he often feels his views are misconstrued or taken out of context. In a recent article, he said, among other things, that “the Muslim Brotherhood is following the blueprint of the Communists, who infiltrated the highest levels of government and society in the 1950s.”

He told The City Paper he initially became concerned in December, when he was told by people close to the Haslam administration that, as the resolution states, the governor had “established a partnership with the American Muslim Advisory Council.” Kookogey said he asked state party chairman Chris Devaney about the existence of the council, which describes its mission, in part, as seeking to “encourage and provide opportunities for the Muslim community to become more civically engaged in order to minimize isolation and misunderstanding.”

According to Kookogey, Devaney got back to him the next day to tell him there was “no truth to it.” But Kookogey said he later learned that Devaney was wrong, citing confidential sources and a letter supposedly sent by state Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons to the AMAC.

After that, to those like Kookogey on the lookout for a Shariah infiltration, Ali’s hiring seemed to reveal a troubling trend. The group went looking for answers again, he said, but was unhappy with what he called a “disingenuous” response from the Haslam administration, which Ali’s hometown and her involvement in innocuous activities like the 4-H Club. Unhappy with what they perceived as an unsatisfactory response, he said the group decided to adopt the resolutions.

Kookogey said he thinks the group has made it “abundantly clear” that their issue is not with Ali personally, but with Shariah. But that’s where Ali’s resume comes in.

“You know there’s two elements to Shariah — there’s a religious element, which we don’t have any issue with, and there’s the political element,” he said. “The political element, as we state in our resolution, is what we’re concerned with. Because the political element is totalitarian. And one of the prongs of the political element, one of the gateways, is Shariah compliant finance.”

Citing documents from the 2008 U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation trial, and more material from Gaffney’s organization, Kookogey describes Shariah compliant finance as the Muslim Brotherhood’s primary vehicle for accomplishing their goal of “causing Western civilization to fall from the inside.”

“No elected official and no official in Tennessee should have anything to do with Shariah compliant finance,” he said. “Because it is not what people think it is. It is disguised as being based on ethical considerations, but it’s true, it is a Trojan horse, and it is used to fund terrorism.”

Kookogey claimed that the Haslam administration has continually defended Ali’s experience with Shariah finance by saying that for the state to be in business with the Middle East, it needed someone familiar with Shariah compliant transactions. But the state told The City Paper her work is nothing of the sort.

Contradicting the notion that Ali would be using her experience to expedite Shariah investments coming into the state, ECD spokesman Clint Brewer said her job doesn’t even involve investments, much less ensuring they comply with Shariah law.

“Nothing that she does here has anything to do with Western finance, much less Shariah finance,” he said, adding that none of the counties that passed resolutions contacted the department about her job description before doing so.

Actually, Brewer said, Ali runs the department’s export program (which would seem to be the wrong direction, if one were trying to import Shariah law). As evidenced by the trade mission to Mexico, she works with Tennessee businesses as part of the state’s TnTrade initiative, which aims to boost exports — and in turn, commerce and sales — for small and medium-sized businesses in the state.  

Yet similar and apparently false claims about Ali’s role in the department have popped up in a state Senate race across the state in Shelby County. Woody Degan, who owns a small airport east of Memphis with his brother, is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris in the GOP primary. Degan’s name recognition got a boost recently when the Memphis Commercial-Appeal’s PolitiFact website took up claims he made about Ali and rated them “Pants on Fire” (that is, false).

Degan said he’s not accusing Ali of anything yet, but “we want to keep a watchful eye.” While Kookogey expressed doubt about Ali’s true role at the department, Degan was more direct. He asserted that Ali’s function at ECD would “draw on her legal expertise, which is Shariah compliant finance.”

Both Kookogey and Degan suggested there would be no reason to hire someone with Ali’s experience if the person wouldn’t be using that experience on the job. As for Degan’s claim that Ali would “draw on her legal expertise” in Shariah compliant finance, Brewer’s explanation of her job description could not be more clear.

“No part of her job here involves finance or even Shariah finance,” Brewer said, adding that Ali “doesn’t practice law on behalf of the department.”

Asked about the notion that Ali might implement Shariah compliance as part of an investment going in or out of the country, which would, as both Degan and Kookogey claim, result in money going to fund Islamic terrorism, Brewer said she’s just not in a position to do such a thing.

“There’s no part of her job that would require her or give her the opportunity to do that,” he said. “Our international offices are in Japan, Germany, Canada and China, where, to the best of my knowledge, the law of the land is not Shariah law, nor [is it] Shariah finance.”

But Kookogey and Degan simply don’t believe him.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Degan, when asked if he believed the ECD’s description of Ali’s role at the department. “It’s a matter of what happens down the road. Do I trust them? No, I don’t. I don’t trust this administration.”

Kookogey said he had not heard that explanation until told of it by The City Paper. He said people would have to decide for themselves whether it settled their nerves, adding that it doesn’t settle his.

For his part, Degan’s opponent Norris seemed saddened to even be discussing the matter, calling Degan “misguided” and “confused.”

Norris said he has not met Ali, but he knows her father and considers them to be a fine family. He also makes note of a 2010 law, passed by the legislature, which addressed the application of foreign codes in Tennessee. Degan was aware of it as well, but is apparently unconvinced of its effectiveness.

“The issue of application of foreign law in Tennessee courts, whether it’s Shariah or otherwise, is something we actually addressed a couple of years ago,” Norris said, referring to a bill which affirmed the supremacy of state and federal law above any foreign ruling. “That’s a legitimate debate, and we’ve had that on the floor of the Senate. These people don’t have enough sense to realize that we’ve dealt with the substantive issues in constructive ways. They just go out and try to scare people, by picking on somebody whose last name is different than theirs. And that’s inappropriate.”

25 Comments on this post:

By: gdiafante on 7/30/12 at 5:23

They really are trying to make it the 1950's all over again...

By: pam harrison on 7/30/12 at 5:26

The ignorance and bigotry of this state amazes me!

By: HamBoneHamBone on 7/30/12 at 6:35

Moved here from another state a few years ago and have no intention of leaving. That said, Pam Harrison, you have hit the nail on the head. I never thought I would live in a provincial, cultural backwater when I arrived, but sure enough that is what my family and I have found. Tennessee has a lot of the stupid-crazy flowing through it, that is for sure.

There's also another element to it -- the news cycle. The Bubbas in the Tea Party make for reliable headlines if you are trying to sell papers or get click-throughs on the web page presence for your advertisers. They are like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and it is virtually impossible to avert one's eyes from their tragicomic behavior. So their buffoonery sells. The only comfort is that, contrary to their claims, they will always be a fringe element. When they stuck to their fiscal objectives, they were worthy of consideration. However, they have proven unable to suppress the ethnocentric elements of their collective personality, and their hatred of all things Obama paints them as a political rabid dog.

These "patriotic Americans" are ignorant of our nation's history, and their intolerance and paranoia are a disgrace, harkening back to the worst chapters of the American past. They should crawl back under their rocks.

By: govskeptic on 7/30/12 at 6:42

2010 White House fellow? Who was the appointing authority for that position
and sources for recommendation? The job of International Director doesn't
seem to fit with the past experience of Law and Finance, so one then must
ask: Was this lady brought to the department through a search firm or
a political appointment by the Commissioner or Deputy?

By: Rocket99 on 7/30/12 at 6:51

It's really the ignorance and bigotry of the Republican party, not the state as a whole. All you have to do is go back and see what they have done since Haslam has become governor.

Haslam obviously wants some good people in his administration and they can't always be found in the party of choice.

By: on 7/30/12 at 6:58

I hope that eventually people can see what a disgrace the "fundamentalist Republicans" are to this state and the country. They seem to almost be proud of their profound ignorance.

This seems like a highly qualified woman for the job, and her religion is not relevant to being hired by state government. I have not heard anything questioning her job performance, so this is simple bigotry.

I am a lifelong Tennessean, sometimes to my embarassment. With several of the more rational members of the Tennessee General Assembly leaving, heaven help us during the next legislative session.

By: HamBoneHamBone on 7/30/12 at 6:59

Are you serious, govskeptic? She has a BA and JD from Vanderbilt and was a federal law clerk, which (as any attorney would tell you) is one of the most prestigious honors a law school graduate can receive. You can bet her sources for recommendation were sterling.

Your comment "The job of International Director doesn't seem to fit with the past experience of Law and Finance..." reveals a poor understanding of the integrated components of economics and finance -- and business in general. Additionally, the legal-institutional environment is a critical area to be able to navigate for any director of business / economic development, and most directors have to rely on outside attorneys. The fact that she is the total package with her legal background makes her an ideal hire.

By: Rasputin72 on 7/30/12 at 8:03

HamBone,HamBone,where have you been,up yonder and around the bend? You are being critical of a culture that is just another culture in this mongrel country of different cultures. What you really mean is that your culture is in conflict with the culture of the "Tea Partiers."

I think that your bias is consistent with the conflicting bias of 35 or 40 other culture shocks in this country,

I would love to be an Australian looking down on this country 50 years from now to see how all this turns out.

By: Moonglow1 on 7/30/12 at 8:04

Moonglow1: What the Tea Nuts should really be afraid of is backing their candidate, Mitt Romney, a bishop in the Mormon Church.

Why would we elect a Mormon Bishop to the highest office of the land. Mormonism, a cult religion. Read all about how mormons want to take over the world.

All this idiocy about Sharia Law is being drummed up by the shadow PAC donors like Sheldon Adelson and The Koch's that run the Tea Nuts. These billionaires say "jump" and the Tea Nuts say "how high" -my master's. We will do anything for you.

The Tea Nuts are going after "Muslim's" because they want the public afraid of Obama who is not Muslim but they want the public scared. Bauchmann went after Abedin, a loyal aide for Hillary Clinton. The smear against Ali is being planned on a national scale by these billionaires.

What a scam against the American people and our government institutions.

Wake up!! Notice how Sheldon Adelson, an extreme right wing Israeli is "running the Mormon (Romney). Because Adelson wants war with Syria, so goes Romney. It's so easy to tie it all together; so blatant, but the American people have been blinded. It's all about fear and right now the focus is on Sharia when the real threat are the billionaires like Adelson.

By: frodo on 7/30/12 at 10:04

Congrats to the reporter on what appears to be a well-researched story. As a conservative, and as a nearly-always-Republican voter, I have to say that some who vote the way I do take too far their enthusiasm for rooting out even the rumor of Shariah Law. I decry their precipitous actions, just as Samar Ali did the actions of terrorists after 9/11/01.

There are several models for government that I don't want in America. Some that I take very strong exception to, like replacing a Constitutional Republic with Communism or Shariah Law. I don't trash Mr. Obama because he makes nice to Communist Dictators and bows and scrapes to promoters of Shariah Law, but personally I think it makes him look stupid. No, I take strong exception and make my strong stand when his administration actually DOES things that take us those directions. And for real action, this president has provided much to oppose.

The problem with Samar Ali? As they say on the cop shows...move along folks, there is nothing to see here. I encourage my fellow conservative voters to go all breathless over real threats, not simply imagined threats in the form of Ms. Ali. May she continue to serve and to serve our state and nation well. And I hope some will even find it in themselves to one day soon offer her an apology.

By: budlight on 7/30/12 at 10:23

Rasputin72 on 7/30/12 at 9:03
HamBone,HamBone,where have you been,up yonder and around the bend? You are being critical of a culture that is just another culture in this mongrel country of different cultures. What you really mean is that your culture is in conflict with the culture of the "Tea Partiers."

I think that your bias is consistent with the conflicting bias of 35 or 40 other culture shocks in this country,

I would love to be an Australian looking down on this country 50 years from now to see how all this turns out.

Rasp, Australia has said that if you come to Australia, you must acclamate to our country - not change it to what you want it to be - but accept it for what it is - speak the language, learn the customs - honor the traditions, etc. I applaud the leadership in Australia for not turning their backs on their founders and honorable citizens. If I could afford to move there, I would.

By: Peskyone on 7/30/12 at 10:55

Lou Ann Zelenik and her followers are the face of fascism (defined as--Totalitarianism marked by right-wing dictatorship and bellicose nationalism. Sinclair Lewis saw this when he said "Fascism will come to America wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."

By: localboy on 7/30/12 at 11:00

budlight: "If I could afford to move there, I would."
You forgot to include the p.o. box # and address - checks made out to Australia ok? ;)

By: Kelliente on 7/30/12 at 11:13

The hobbit has the right of it. Good article.

By: frodo on 7/30/12 at 11:31

Peskyone, your name describes Sinclair Lewis, who made a career of not believing in much of anything, and yet criticizing nearly everything. He had his place. But I wouldn't call much today upon the words of his words failed life.

By: frodo on 7/30/12 at 11:32

...words of his failed life.

By: pswindle on 7/30/12 at 11:55

Is this where TN has gone;? The wrong-wing religion has taken over in TN. We should be more concerned about Mitt than anyone else in this state. I ask that each Tennessean read the Book of Mormans. What is wrong with you people?

By: adamwood on 7/30/12 at 12:01

What frodo said.

By: dva56 on 7/30/12 at 1:23

"the advancement of an ideology and doctrine which is wholly incompatible with the Constitution of the United States"

The Tea Party is so filled with hatred and fear of that which is different that they do not even understand the meaning of their own quote. Thank God that we have the US constitution to not only protect us from Sharia law but also to protect us from the Tea Party.

By: FaceBook:Emmett... on 7/30/12 at 7:53

There is not a muslim-dominated country anywhere on the planet which is fit for a decent person to live in. No, we don't need their crap here. "Shariah compliant"? Screw that.

By: GuardianDevil01 on 7/31/12 at 5:03

Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Apparently it is also the hallucinogenic of the masses, making them exercise poor judgment and see things that are not there.

By: Pete Wilson on 7/31/12 at 1:11

I don't recall seeing anything in the article about one important aspect of "Sharia finance" which might give us some perspective on what it means.

As I understand it, Islam does not allow the charging of interest on loans (usury). Thus "Sharia finance" works fundamentally differently from Western finance, in a way that has little to do with politics (except maybe corporate politics). Understanding how it works is a valuable asset to anyone dealing in international finance, whether you're a Muslim or not.

Knowing this, Ali claimed in her LinkedIn profile, which is a sort of resume, that she "gained exposure to Shariah compliant financial products and related contracts.” I would make the claim too, if I had this knowledge, and I'm a Unitarian.

According to Wikipedia, Sharia in relation to finance also precludes "investing in businesses that provide goods or services considered contrary to Islamic principles," and you can be as worried about that as you want to be, but I don't see a red flag. And I expect the prohibition on usury and the ways Islamic finance works around it are the key aspects that Ali claims knowledge of.

I think the story would have benefited from the inclusion of this fact about "Sharia finance." If I have it wrong, I'll be glad to be corrected.

Pete Wilson

By: cookeville on 7/31/12 at 3:22

"Fascism will come to America wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."

And the people who want to bring it don't even know what fascism is nor how to spell it, I suspect. No doubt Jesus is hanging his head in sorrow over all the hate spread in his name. Fear is a powerful force, but in the end, it turns on itself and those who spread it are most often the ones who are it's victims.

By: Lynne McFarland on 8/9/12 at 12:07

Samar's hometown is Waverly TN, where her family is just the nicest, and she grew up there with a circle of cute friends of all sorts, who are all still bonded at the hip. Another person called Waverly his hometown, too--Dr. Murray Bowen, an eminent psychiatrist and the founder of Bowen Systems Theory. Dr. Bowen died in 1990. At his funeral at his family's Luff-Bowen funeral home in downtown Waverly, old buds told funny stories about childhood pranks they all pulled--I think Dr. Bowen was a good old boy in many ways. I bet he had a truck. His research was on two aspects of our humanity: each of us is part of an emotional unit (the family and other groups too), and each of us can become an individuated self. Very difficult to be both faithful and free, and yet that was his life's study and work: Being able to cope with intensified stressors without being overcome by anxiety and losing the sense of self, and still staying a part of the emotional unit without losing the ability to think about and understand that unit. When I re-read Samar's speech given at VU after 9/11, I have to think that, along with the clear creeks that feed the town, there must have been some Bowen juice in the Waverly water supply, too! And if so, I wish we could bottle it so everyone could share a drink.

By: global_citizen on 8/16/12 at 9:03

"Kookogey describes Shariah compliant finance as the Muslim Brotherhood’s primary vehicle for accomplishing their goal of “causing Western civilization to fall from the inside.”"

And as an example of a current Western society that has fallen to Islamic theocrats, Mr. Kookogey cites...?