By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
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.
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.
Brewer said ECD has received fewer than two dozen emails and phone calls. David Smith, a spokesman for Haslam, said his office had received 18 emails and 13 calls, all of them before Tuesday.
Smith said only one of those calls came from a state lawmaker - Rep. Mark Pody, who called to advise the administration of the campaign. Pody could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Center for Security Policy has frequently involved itself in Tennessee politics in recent years.
Its head, Frank Gaffney, testified in litigation seeking to stop construction of a Rutherford County mosque. An attorney associated with the organization drafted legislation that would have let Tennessee officials label as terrorist any organization that follows Shariah, a loosely defined set of rules and religious laws.
The 8th District Tea Party Coalition is co-leading an effort to unseat state Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair.
Tea party and anti-Muslim activists have zeroed in on one aspect of Ali's resume: experience as a corporate lawyer in helping Muslim-owned companies structure deals so they fit Islam's ban on collecting interest and comply with other religious rules.
In their calls to action, opponents portray her as working, now and in the past, with "financial jihadists" who "seek to embed Shariah law into America's financial system."
Ali's duties have nothing to do with Shariah law - or even finance - Brewer said.
As international director, Ali oversees the department's TNTrade program, an effort to boost the state's exports. She also supervises the department's four branch offices, in Canada, China, Germany and Japan.
Activists appear to be upset at Ali's connection to Obama's administration. In 2010, she was named one of 13 White House fellows.
Ali, who wasn't available for an interview because of scheduling difficulties, was assigned to the Department of Homeland Security, where she worked in counterterrorism, Brewer said.
Ali was recommended to the position by Will Alexander, the son of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander who was promoted to chief of staff of the department in May. Hagerty and Haslam signed off on the appointment, which is an executive-level position.
Before the fellowship, Ali was an associate with Hogan Lovells, a prestigious law firm based in Washington, D.C.
Ali helped open the firm's office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and she specialized in mergers and acquisition law, cross-border transactions, project finance, international business and structuring Shariah-compliant transactions, according to a biography released two years ago by the White House.
Ali also clerked for Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and Edwin Cameron, a high court judge in South Africa. She has worked with a YMCA program that encouraged dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth, the Palestine Diabetes Institute and World Islamic Economic Forum, a trade association for Muslims.
Ali also is a regional taekwondo champion, according to the White House biography.
Ali, 30, grew up in Waverly, the daughter of a local physician who once served as president of the Tennessee Medical Association. After high school, Ali attended Vanderbilt University, where she received a bachelor's degree and a law degree.
She also was the school's first Arab-Muslim student body president. Earlier this year she was elected to the Vanderbilt University Alumni Association's board of directors.
"She's as Tennessee as they come," Brewer said. "We're glad she's back in Tennessee."