Generally speaking, condemning an entire group of people doesn’t make much sense.
That’s the lesson currently being learned by neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who set the internet alight on Sunday after he told Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would not support a Muslim candidate for the White House.
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” Carson said. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”
The statement triggered a heated response online and among fellow presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and Rand Paul, all six of whom rejected Carson’s comments as inappropriate. This is partly because Carson’s answer appeared to contradict Article VI, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, which mandates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The remarks also directly challenged Carson’s own traditionally inclusive stance on religious issues, as well as his own writings: In his 2012 book, America the Beautiful, he wrote, “As a Christian, I am not the least bit offended by the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons and so forth. In fact, I am delighted to know that they believe in something that is more likely to make them into a reasonable human being, as long as they don’t allow the religion to be distorted by those seeking power and wealth.”
Carson seems to have abandoned this conciliatory perspective (although he maintains, perplexingly, that Muslims can serve in Congress and the Supreme Court), and is now parroting Islamophobic rhetoric seemingly designed to scare up votes. Many of his critics say his position clumsily labels all followers of Islam unfit for the Oval office. On top of that, the purported theological and legal logic shoring up his claims is muddled at best, and completely nonsensical at worst.
Take Carson’s attempt to defend his remarks to The Hill later that Sunday. Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, focused on the issue of Sharia law, implying that all Muslims ascribe to one version of the Islamic religious legal system he believes to be inconsistent “with the Constitution of this country.” He then explained that even if a hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate renounced such beliefs, he wouldn’t trust them, claiming that Muslims would simply make use of taqiya, a practice he said “is a component of Shia [Islam] that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals.”
Excusing for a moment that this exact same logic was levied at American Catholics seeking public office during the early 20th century (people believed “papists” could never be president because they would answer to the pope), Carson is seemingly unaware as to the actual purpose of taqiya. According to Hussein Rashid, a professor of religious studies at Hofstra University who sits on the editorial board of the Islamic Monthly, the practice does allow Muslims leeway to obscure their beliefs — but only when faced with the threat of persecution or death.
“Taqiya is not carte blanche to lie,” Rashid told ThinkProgress. “It is a belief within the Shia tradition where you are allowed to say you are not Muslim if you think people will kill you if you do.”
In addition, Carson told The Hill that a president should be “sworn in on a stack of Bibles, not a Quran.” But presidents, like all elected officials, are not required swear in on a Bible, as evidenced by the inauguration of President John Quincy Adams, who was sworn in using a law book.
The controversy is only getting worse — and more illogical — as time wears on. On Monday, Carson’s business manager and campaign representative Armstrong Williams appeared on CNN’s “At This Hour” to discuss Carson’s views on Islam. In the midst of the lengthy interview, the news network cut away to a press conference convened by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the largest Islamic civil rights groups in the country. Speakers at the conference addressed Carson’s statements, pointing to how they conflicted with the Constitution.
But when the network cut back to Williams for comment, he refused to address CAIR’s arguments. Instead, he simply attacked the credibility of the organization — and seemingly Muslims at large.
“Where was CAIR [during the September 11th attacks]?” Williams shouted at the camera defiantly. “Where was CAIR during what happened at Fort Hood, when someone in the name of Islam killed our innocent men and women? Where is CAIR now when our journalists overseas … who are being held by Iran, and Daniel Pearl who was beheaded? Did they have a press conference condemning those actions and that kind of behavior? Where were they?”
In fact, CAIR, along with numerous other Islamic organizations, was quick to speak out against extremism in virtually all of these instances. CAIR rebuked the September 11th attacks mere hours after they occurred, saying, “American Muslims utterly condemn what are apparently vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians.” The group also unequivocally denounced “in the strongest terms possible” the tragic shootings at Fort Hood, saying, “No religious or political ideology could ever justify or excuse such wanton and indiscriminate violence.” And CAIR has not only demanded that the Iranian government release American journalists such as Roxana Saberi, but also fielded its own delegation to help secure her release. The group sent a similar delegation to Iraq in 2006 to assist with efforts to free American journalist Jill Carroll, and has hosted screenings of a film meant to commemorate the life of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered by extremists in 2002.
But like many who condone blanket condemnations of entire groups of people (including fellow candidate Donald Trump), neither Carson nor Williams appeared to be aware of these simple truths. This is perhaps why the rationale for their Islamophobia crumbled under a barrage of questions during the CNN interview: When asked whether Carson could learn anything from CAIR or further study of the Quran, Williams dodged the question, pivoting to the (false) claim that Christians and Jews can no longer build churches or synagogues anywhere in the Middle East. He repeated this tactic several times, until CNN reporters pressed him to clarify whether it is appropriate for a presidential candidate to defame 2.7 million American Muslims by opposing their ability to become president. The anchor noted that Carson would likely not want the same kind of generalization lobbed against him, something that has arguably already happened: Carson was forced to cancel an event with evangelical Christians earlier this year when several participants claimed that his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs were incompatible with evangelicalism.
Williams, however, offered no clarification or rebuttal.
“That is their right not to vote for Dr. Carson,” he said, speaking of those who disagree with his views. “That is a small price he is willing to pay.”
That price may end up being higher than Carson would like. Although Islamophobia is good for attracting attention, candidates who use it during campaigns usually fall short on Election Day. Such is the tragic, repeated pattern of American political history, where a group is demonized and scrutinized one minute only to be accepted and embraced the next: Whereas Americans once challenged whether Catholics could even be Americans citizens, Catholics have since become members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and yes, even President of the United States. In fact, this week the nation is welcoming the pope himself with open arms, inviting him into the White House and to address a joint session of Congress.
Today, we look back at such anti-Catholicism for the nonsensical hatred that it was. One wonders how quickly Americans will dismiss the Islamophobia of Carson and others.