On Tuesday, President Obama announced the appointment of this year’s “White House Fellows,” a prestigious program in which outstanding Americans are chosen to work in the White House and receive “first hand, high-level experience with the workings of the Federal government.” According to a White House Press release, one of this year’s Fellows is a young lawyer named Samar Ali:
Samar Ali is an Associate with the firm Hogan Lovells US LLP. She is responsible for counseling clients on mergers & acquisitions, cross-border transactions, Shari’a compliant transactions, project finance, and international business matters.
Left out of the press release is that she also previously worked as an intern and received training at the Islamic International Arab Bank; according to her staff bio at the Hogan Lovells law firm,
Samar’s experience includes advising a Middle Eastern university in the potential establishment of a Foreign Aid Conventional and Shari’ah Compliant Student Loan Program. … Before joining Hogan & Hartson, Samar worked as a summer associate for the firm and as a legal intern for the Islamic International Arab Bank.
For those who have never heard of it, the Islamic International Arab Bank “commenced its banking operations in accordance with Islamic Sharia rules on the twelfth day of Shawal 1418 AH, corresponding to 9 February 1998, to meet the growing demand for Islamic banking services and products.”
What exactly is “shariah-compliant finance”? Essentially, it’s the practice of conducting all monetary matters to be in full compliance with all aspects of Islamic law. This entails such trivial details as not banking on the Muslim sabbath and holy days, but more importantly forbids paying or receiving interest of any kind (something which is the bedrock of “western” finance); modern interpretations of Islamic law prohibit “making money from money” and thus the payment of “interest” on deposits, so Shariah-compliant banks must devise all sorts of convoluted ways to redefine interest as something else altogether — such as “profits,” “dividends,” and so on. Shariah-compliance also means only investing in or loaning to companies which themselves adhere to Islamic law, or which at least don’t generate profits from any activities forbidden by the Qur’an — such as drinking alcohol, gambling, or anything involving sexuality. And (one of the little-discussed rules you’re not supposed to know about) most shariah-complaint banks refuse on principle to invest in any company doing business in Israel — which, obviously, could not be specifically stipulated in the Qur’an, but the excuse is that companies doing business in Israel must be assumed to violate Islamic law somehow.
(Many analysts also claim, such as in the comprehensive pdf report visible here, that shariah finance is simply one aspect in a global multi-pronged assault on the West, and is essentially a euphemism for the economic side of jihad. Hmmmmm….)
Now, I have no problem with people investing their own money in whatever manner and following whatever guidelines they so choose. Many Americans engage in what are essentially non-religious equivalents of shariah-compliant finance, in which credit card companies (for example) promise to only invest your money in “ethical” businesses or “green” projects. Fine by me — your money, do what you want with it. And that includes members of any religion who manage their money according to any religious laws of their choosing.
But the matter becomes much more problematic when such guidelines start creeping into government policy. Obviously, the United States government has not dabbled in anything resembling shariah-compliant finance — yet. But just as shariah finance has begun to creep into other Western nations such as Canada and Britain, it may soon begin to appear in the U.S. as well. Is this selection by Obama of Ms. Ali for a White House position a signal of what could be coming soon?
I also have no problem with Ms. Ali pursuing whatever legal specialty she chooses, and wish her a successful career. She sounds like a bright young woman.
But being bright and successful does not automatically qualify one for working in the White House. There are thousands upon thousands of bright and successful people in this country, and only a tiny handful get chosen for this position. The question comes down to the specifics of one’s personal career path, and whether that merits “high-level” training in real-time at the top echelons of the American government.
Being a White House Fellow means having unparalleled access to the inner circles of power: “White House Fellows typically spend a year working as full-time, paid special assistants to senior White House Staff, the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials.”
Hogan Lovells, where she works, is one of the few law firms in the country to specialize in Islamic finance, and Ms. Ali is one of their rising stars in this field. According to the company Web site, Hogan Lovells represents Mashreqbank al Islami bank, Al Baraka, Islamic Development Bank Group, and many other leading shariah-promoting financial institutions in the Middle East; the firm has also won many shariah-finance awards, including “Best Mudarabah Deal of the Year,” “Best Sukuk Deal of the Year,” and many others
According to the White House press release, Ms. Ali “is a founding member of the first U.S. Delegation to the World Islamic Economic Forum.” But, as observers pointed out at the time, “it was at the World Islamic Economic Forum where key leaders declared Shariah Finance to be ‘dawa’ (missionary) activity to promote Islam and Shariah.”
Of all the promising young people in the country, why choose this specific one for a paid position in the White House?
The tradition of appointing “White House Fellows” dates back to the Johnson administration and has never before attracted any controversy. And if one looks at the other 12 Fellows named this year, none of them are controversial in the slightest, nor have any Fellows picked by earlier presidents ever caused a stir. So: Why now? Why, in the midst of the worst financial crisis our country has faced in 70 years, does the president choose an expert in Islamic finance to get training in the White House?