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.
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.
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.