NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday issued his strongest defense yet of a Muslim aide who has been criticized for once working in the field of Shariah compliant finance.
The Republican governor was asked after a speech to a Nashville Republican group whether he was incorporating elements of Islamic law into state government. Such criticism emerged after the Haslam administration earlier this year hired Samar Ali to work in the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Haslam said Ali, an attorney who grew up in Waverly and was student body president at Vanderbilt, has done nothing to deserve criticism.
“Samar is someone quite frankly — and I know some people in this room disagree with me — who I think has been incredibly unfairly maligned,” Haslam said.
“She is somebody who was making a whole lot more money somewhere else, loved Tennessee, wanted to come back here and be a part of it,” he said.
Before her White House fellowship, Ali worked for Hogan Lovells US LLP, where she was a founding member of the firm’s Abu Dhabi office and specialized in international business issues and Shariah compliant transactions. Shariah law forbids the giving or receiving of interest and requires deals to be based on tangible assets. Earning money from companies involved with alcohol, tobacco, gambling and pornography is also off limits.
Tennessee has also been the scene of a two-year battle over a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro.
A group of neighbors sued to try to stop construction, claiming, among other things, that local Muslims were compelled by their religion to try to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with Islamic law.
It’s not the first time the Haslam administration has sought to dispel allegations that it was furthering Islamic interests, a claim posted on a billboard near the state Capitol.
Haslam deputy Claude Ramsey in August wrote a letter to GOP leaders denying that the state was involved in the promotion of any religion.
“I want to start by clearly expressing there is no effort by the Haslam administration, the State of Tennessee, or any agency or department of the State to promote or advance Shariah law or Shariah complaint finance,” Ramsey wrote in the letter.
— Note: Samar Ali recently characterized the attacks as ‘silly’ but ‘hurtful.’ Post HERE.
Samar Ali, whose appointment as an international trade specialist in the Department of Economic and Community Development touched off a round of criticism earlier this year, has been personally silent on the situation while defended by Gov. Bill Haslam and others in the administration. (A previous story, HERE) But she was interviewed by Dave Flessner for a story in Sunday’s Chattanooga TFP. Ali, who grew up in Waverly, Tenn., and was once student president at Vanderbilt University, said such attacks were “hurtful.” But she called them “silly” and untrue. The 30-year-old lawyer said she has been pleased by the support of the Haslam administration and others across the state as she tries to expand the international reach of the state’s products and services.
She says she is focused on expanding the state’s trade offices around the globe and working to boost exports from Tennessee by 10 percent in each of the next five years.
“I really believe that adversity does introduce you to yourself,” she said during a recent visit to Chattanooga. “I joined this administration because I really love Tennessee and believe in Gov. Haslam’s vision and leadership.”
Haslam administration officials have stood by Ali and her trade efforts despite her critics.
Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, called Ali “one of the brightest leaders of her generation from this state.”
“Her extensive work experience in international business makes her eminently qualified to serve the people of the Volunteer State,” he said.
Ali earned both an undergraduate and law degree from Vanderbilt University where she was the first Arab-Muslim student president and spoke out against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
“I left Tennessee when I was 25, but no other place felt like home — it’s in my soul,” she said during the recent visit. “My family, which is very important to me, is here, and I want to be a part of something that I believe in. I had three months of some people who were upset with my background. But I decided that that wasn’t going to erase my good memories and why I came back and why I was here.”
Ali is here to boost both exports from Tennessee companies and investments in the state from foreign firms. She is working to open new state-funded trade offices in Britain, Mexico, Germany, China and India to help Tennessee businesses export around the globe.
Tennessee’s efforts are being aided by a 3-year federal grant, which rose this year to $610,000, to support the trade offices, trade missions and a new Tennessee Trade Academy.
Ali believes such programs can help businesses of all sizes to sell more of their goods around the globe and boost the state’s $30 billion-a-year of export sales.
Gov. Bill Haslam defended his administration Tuesday against critics from within his own party, saying those who want him to rid state government of Democrats, gays and a Muslim don’t represent the views of most Tennessee Republicans.
From Michael Collins: “Recent polls show that people who self-identify as conservative Republicans – 80 percent supported us,” Haslam said, referring to a Vanderbilt University poll released in May. “So I think you have to put it in that context.”
Asked what might be motivating his GOP critics, Haslam said, “I certainly can’t get inside their heads to understand.”
But he suggested the criticism is unfair and said his administration continues “to focus on the things that I think people elected us to do – bring jobs to Tennessee, keep improving our education system, run the government as effectively and as efficiently as we can.”
Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor who is in his second year as governor, has come under attack in recent weeks from a dozen or so self-described “Republican activists” who are urging county party organizations to adopt resolutions condemning his hiring decisions. At least eight county party groups have adopted such resolutions.
Haslam’s critics also are urging the Republican State Executive Committee to take some action against the governor.
The crux of the critics’ complaint is that Haslam has failed to rid state government of Democrats and gays in key positions, such as those working in the Department of Children’s Services. The groups also have blasted the governor for hiring Samar Ali as director of international marketing with the Department of Economic and Community Development.
A resolution passed by the Stewart County Republican Party called Ali “an expert in Shariah Compliant Finance, which is one of the many ways Islamic terrorism is funded.” It also noted that she is a one-time appointee of President Barack Obama — she served in a White House fellowship program — and that her family has a long history of supporting the Democratic Party.
Speaking after his appearance before a congressional panel in Washington on Tuesday, Haslam said Ali is highly qualified for the state job and “we’re lucky to have her in Tennessee.”
“She is somebody who could literally have jobs a whole lot of places, and she chose to come to her home state and serve,” he said.
Haslam noted that Ali was the class president of her high school in Dickson, Tenn.; student council president at Vanderbilt University; and a member of the 4-H Club while growing up. “She is as Tennessee as they come,” he said, “and I just think (the criticism) is unfair, quite frankly.”
The county GOP critics also have complained that Haslam has kept 85 percent of former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s appointees to executive jobs. But Haslam said incoming governors have historically held over people in those jobs from the previous administration.
“In the end, I think it is about how do we get the very best people to work for the state of Tennessee,” he said.
— UPDATE: The Nashville City Paper has a profile of sorts on Ali, including her comments on being an Arab-American after 9/11. An excerpt is below.
Stewart County Republican Party Chairman Kyle Mallory says Gov. Bill Haslam’s greatest failing is that “he hasn’t cleaned house” by ridding state government of Democrats and homosexuals in key positions and by hiring a Muslim.
Mallory is one what he described as “10 or 12 Republican activists” urging county party organizations to adopt resolutions condemning Haslam and urging the Republican State Executive Committee to take some action against the governor.
His home county party has done so, including a concern over homosexuals working in the Department of Children’s Services.
At least seven other county GOP organizations have also adopted resolutions criticizing Haslam, though at least two restrict their criticism to the hiring of Samar Ali as director of international marketing with the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Tea party and anti-Muslim activists are taking aim at a recent hire by the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam, targeting one of its top economic development officers based on her religion and past work experience, reports Chas Sisk. The Center for Security Policy, a Washington, D.C., organization that has frequently attacked Muslims for perceived ties to Islamist groups, and the 8th District Tea Party Coalition, an umbrella organization of West Tennessee tea party groups, have urged their members to pressure Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty to dump Samar Ali, an attorney appointed last month as the department’s new international director.
The groups depict Ali as an Islamic fundamentalist with close ties to President Barack Obama.
The claims are spurious and ECD has no intention of firing Ali, said Clint Brewer, a department spokesman.
“She’s eminently qualified to do the job,” Brewer said. “We are lucky to be able to have her.”
The pressure campaign, which began last Thursday with a posting on a Center for Security Policy blog, does not appear to have been effective.