Earlier this summer, a handful of Republican Party county committees in Tennessee passed resolutions criticizing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for hiring Samar Ali, an accomplished young Muslim-American native of Waverly, Tenn., and honors graduate of Vanderbilt University and its law school. Now, at least two new websites are attempting to perpetuate the idea that Tennessee’s governor is somehow involved in a massive conspiracy to "promote the interests" of "Islamist radical ideology," including "Shariah compliant finance."
For the purposes of this item, we are going to examine a statement from billhislam.com: "The Governor of the great state of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, has made it clear by his repeated actions that he will pursue a policy that promotes the interest of Islamist (sic) and their radical ideology as long as he is governor."
We’re feeling déjà vu. PolitiFact Tennessee addressed an associated claim in July when GOP state Senate candidate Woody Degan of Shelby County charged the Haslam administration was "making our Economic Development Department Sharia compliant," in part by hiring Ali as international director earlier this year. The governor and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) rejected the contention that Ali or the department was doing anything relating to Sharia. We gave it our Pants On Fire ruling as not just false, but ridiculous.
At its simplest, Sharia law is the moral code and religious law of the Islamic faith, addressing a variety of personal and secular topics. Aspects of Sharia law do govern business dealings, and some Muslims conduct business only under Sharia-compliant conditions. For example, Sharia may prohibit interest on loans, considering it usury, but may allow other lending fees in lieu of interest. But most people, constitutional scholars and others, agree that attempting to install Sharia as U.S. or Tennessee law would be unconstitutional and there’s been no bills at the state level to attempt it.
The voters of Senate District 32 gave Degan a drubbing. He got 10 percent of the vote against state Sen Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in their Aug. 2 primary. Despite that, the shadowy movement that Degan connected with during his campaign has not been deterred.
In addition to billhislam.com, there’s another anonymous blog calling itself the "tn Council 4 political justice," which has posted 39 "newsletters" on its site since April 9, focused on the purported threat of Islam on Tennessee and the Haslam administration’s role in it. The latest of these, posted Aug. 23, attempts to link Samar Ali’s father, noted Waverly, Tenn., physician Subhi Ali, to The Jerusalem Fund. The anonymous bloggers write that the Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian non-profit’s policies "reflect overtly pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas/anti-Israel positions." The bloggers also claim that "in addition to making grants for social services in the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories,’" a branch of the Fund also "supports the Palestine Diabetes Institute" and that Samar Ali served as the transatlantic liaison during the development of that project.
From diabetes to terrorism?
Those behind billhislam.com make that leap: they titled their Aug. 23 link to the tn Council 4 political justice "newsletter" on Dr. Ali and the Jerusalem Fund as "Dr. Jihad." They go even further, with one post trying to connect the dots between "Sharia compliant finance investments" that the Haslam administration strongly denies going after to the potential maiming of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Dave Vance of Big Rock, Tenn., writes on billhislam.com that "Apparently, Governor Haslam is comfortable with the distinct possibility ... that at least some of the SCF (Sharia compliant finance) investments on which he intends to spend taxpayer funds will go to provide funds to the very people who are killing American troops in Afghanistan."
It would be one thing if all this had stayed buried in the cyber netherworld but it worked its way into Degan’s campaigns and aforementioned resolutions passed by a few county GOP organizations (notably including the state’s most affluent county, Williamson). Even the governor feels compelled to spend time addressing it occasionally. Last week, his top assistant, Deputy to the Governor Claude Ramsey, wrote the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Chris Devaney, a letter disputing the allegations so Devaney could assure the GOP faithful that their standard-bearer is not a radical Islamist.
We will note that Haslam is an elder at Knoxville’s Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The blog and the website cite voluminous "research" in "connecting the dots," as one section of billhislam.com is labeled. But none of it that we’ve waded through has a shred of evidence to support the central claim.
We received no response to inquiries to the site’s administrator, listed as Steven Curtis of Dover, Tenn., nor the contact email listed on the website.
The inflammatory rhetoric, based upon no credible evidence we could discover, gets a ruling of Pants On Fire!
UPDATE (Aug. 28, 2012): billhislim.com responded to our inquiry with an email after 11 p.m. on Aug. 27. The email address contained the name William Vance. It mostly reiterated points made on the website and urged media organizations to fact-check Gov. Haslam and his administration. The email can be viewed by clicking this link.