A Muslim Attorney General

Six months after one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in its history, India has appointed a Muslim Attorney General. Could you imagine the United States doing the same under similar circumstances?

No, not in the United States: in India.

Prime Minister Singh announced a few days ago that Goolam Vahanvati, one of the nation’s most distinguished government lawyers, will become the nation’s 13th Attorney General, for a term of 3 years. Significantly, he is the first Muslim to hold the position.

In India, the AG does not run the Justice Department (or “Law and Justice Ministry,” as it is referred to here): that is the job of the Law and Justice Minister, a Cabinet member (and thus a member of Parliament). But India’s AG is a very important post, somewhat akin to an amalgam in the United States of the Solicitor General and the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. The Attorney General’s opinions bind (or enable) the government, in much the same way that the US AG’s do (with attendant criticism about politicization), and he (or, one day, she) represents the Government in cases before the Supreme Court and other High Courts.

Vahanvati’s elevation to the position is significant not only in that he is a leading member of the Bar, but because he is a Muslim. There have literally been dozens of Muslim Solicitors General (essentially, the AG’s deputy), and despite a plethora of outstanding Muslim lawyers and advocates, none has ever been elevated to the top job. Anti-Muslim discrimination is a commonplace in this country.

I wonder how long it will be before a Muslim gets appointed in the United States.

A misleading analogy, you might say. India has the largest number of Muslims of any nation in the world, well over 150 million. (UPDATE: The blogosphere is great. Many people have pointed out that in fact Indonesia has more Muslims than India. I think the point still holds (in fact, even more so), but it’s necessary to be accurate). They have long held high government posts. And of course there is a good deal to be said for this rejoinder.

But remember also that this is a nation that just suffered a vicious terrorist attack last November 26th from Muslim extremists. A few years ago, Muslim terrorists attacked its Parliament building. It has been under perpetual assault from Muslim terrorists in Kashmir for years, perhaps even decades, now. It has fought two wars with Pakistan, a nation whose entire purpose is predicated on the notion that Muslims have no place in India, and whose intelligence service gives direct and indirect military and logistical assistance to Muslim terror groups inside India.

Put another way, India’s experience with terrorism makes 9/11 look like a speed bump. And it has a Muslim Attorney General, who has advanced to the office with general acclaim. If America had suffered as much from Muslim terrorism as India has, could you imagine a President naming a Muslim as AG?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.