Debate over sharia, or Islamic law, has suddenly seized California in the midst of an election year. In Beverly Hills, Hollywood A-listers are boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel to rebuke the owner, the Sultan of Brunei, for harsh anti-gay laws passed recently in his country. And in the race for governor, Tim Donnelly has called out rival Neel Kashkari for his alleged support for Islamic banking during his tenure at the U.S. Treasury.
Donnelly’s assertion that Kashkari performed “submission to Islamic law” while he was overseeing the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) is incorrect, and Donnelly withdrew the claim and apologized on Thursday. Yet the Kashkari campaign’s claim that Kashkari addressed a joint U.S. Treasury-Harvard University seminar on Islamic finance to educate Islamic bankers on “free market” principles is also incorrect, and misleading.
Kashkari told Breitbart News’ Jon Fleischman that the only reason he addressed the “Islamic Finance 101” conference was that he “happened to be scheduled to be in the office that day.” That may, in fact, be true, as there is no evidence that Kashkari had any particular expertise on the subject. Previous, similar conferences were addressed by Treasury officials who handled international finance, which was not Kashkari’s bailiwick.
The Treasury appears not to have released a transcript of Kashkari’s opening remarks to the conference that day. However, it did release the remarks of Under Secretary for International Affairs John B. Taylor in 2002 at a very similar conference. Taylor emphasized the need for U.S. officials both to understand Islamic financial institutions and to help them prevent abuse by terrorist organizations that could use them to launder money.
He added that a major purpose of the seminar was “to ‘demystify’ Islamic banking for our colleagues in Washington who may not have exposure to this topic.” There was nothing in Taylor’s published remarks that had anything to do with encouraging free markets in the Islamic world, and it is unlikely, given the audience of regulators and legislators at Kashkari’s event 6 years later, that he said anything to that effect, either.
So the truth of Kashkari’s participation in the Islamic finance conference is likely rather benign, although perhaps relevant given Californians’ sudden interest in sharia law more generally. Donnelly exaggerated his initial claims about Kashkari’s role. Yet the attempt by Kashkari’s campaign to paint his interest as some kind of stand for free markets does not pass the laugh test. One wonders why the truth would not have been enough.