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.”