Ben Carson seems to have kicked off a pretty contentious debate this week with his comments about Islam and whether it is compatible with political leadership in the country. Such a subject probably deserves a more informed discussion than the knee-jerk responses that some on either side of this have been willing to offer, and those offering nothing but pablum on this, for whatever reason, rightly deserve some intellectual confrontations. Such a subject is too important to let sit unresolved because some involved in the debate aren’t willing to treat the rest of us like we’re capable of any intellectual reasoning.
CHUCK TODD, HOST: “Does president’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?”
BEN CARSON: “I suppose it depends on what that faith is. If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.”
HOST: “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?”
CARSON: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Atif Quarni, a Democrat candidate for State Senate who lost his primary bid this year lost no time in firing back, and plenty of his political allies are cheering him on:
During my Junior year in high school I went to a retreat where I met Dr. Ben Carson. I was impressed with this man who was accomplished and he came from humble means. Today I lost all respect for him. On Meet the Press Dr. Carson stated that he thinks Islam is not in line with Constitution and that a Muslim should not be President. I hate to say this but this is not the way just some Republicans think. I have come across several Democrats that think this way as well. We need to take back our country from all these close minded people.
Let’s leave aside the question of who the “we” in all this might be, along with all the other emotionally-charged baggage that attends either side of this. This is not about whether some Muslims do bad things or whether we’re on the brink of enforcing religious tests on political candidates. Carson’s opinion here can be quite easily and calmly evaluated without the hyperbole and hysteria, and frankly folks, that sort of evaluation is the only way we could ever finalize a question like this. Emotions, like fear, make for terribly bad policy and we deserve better than this.
Carson’s detractors point to the First Amendment, and that’s a decent place to start. We shouldn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion no more than we should prohibit the exercise of any of our other Constitutional liberties absent a rationale that would survive “strict scrutiny” review by the courts. Would holding an opinion that the practice of Islam is not consistent with the Constitution violate the First Amendment? Of course not. The First Amendment is a proscription of action by the federal government, and by extension of the 14th Amendment on the states. It is not a limit on the exercise of liberty by individuals. Similarly, Article VI paragraph 3 of the Constitution, while prohibiting “religious tests” on federal or state-level officeholders does not prohibit a voter from coming to his own conclusion that a member of any particular religious affiliation is not fit for office and refusing to vote for them. Such an opinion may be wise or foolish, but there’s nothing legally wrong with holding such an opinion.
Those on the left however still assert that such an opinion is morally wrong. I’d believe that they are correct in many respects, and that if someone holds an opinion that Presbyterians are unfit for elected office because of their religious beliefs and cannot logically explain with specificity why they have arrived at that opinion, I would tend to agree with them. If their specifics are highly speculative and lack basis, such as the belief held by some not all that long ago that Catholics cannot be trusted with high political office because they’d inescapably take commands from the Pope and turn the country over to the Vatican’s control, I’d say their reasoning is entirely faulty, their facts are not at all facts, and their conclusion is inescapably flawed. Debates like those tend to get ’settled’ based on facts and solid reasoning, and once we’ve dispensed with that argument we move on. In the end, the debate ends up being worthwhile, even if it sounded awfully stupid for a while.
While I don’t have any particular insight into Ben Carson’s specific reasoning here, I am aware of some of the reasoning that I expect has informed him, and that reasoning deserves to be vetted and the conclusions confirmed or solidly refuted. Crying “bigot” or “racist” doesn’t settle anything, it just lowers the debate to the point that noting ever gets settled and the contention lives on indefinitely by some portion of the people who increasingly feel embattled and upset. So assuming that Carson’s reasoning is what I’ve heard mentioned, let’s at least evaluate those potential arguments.
The argument that I am aware of, and the only one that seems worthy of logical consideration, is that the text of the Qur’an, the Hadith (a record of the sayings of Mohammed) and the Sunna (the record of Mohammed’s sayings and living habits) require anyone who is a believer to actively foster the establishment and maintenance of theocratic, Islamic government where the state is completely subordinate to Islam, something we refer to as ’shariah’. The argument goes that any true believer must, under penalty of the certainty of eternal damnation, do whatever it takes to subordinate all public and political life, whether it concerns believers or nonbelievers, to Allah. If that is what the text actually says and how it is understood, anyone who declares that they are a Muslim should reasonably be questioned as to whether their religious beliefs are compatible with our Constitution. There’s really nothing unreasonable about this, as uncomfortable as it may be to contemplate.
An evaluation of Islamic texts supports this conclusion. Muslims don’t have the authority to question what is in the Qur’an without putting themselves in grave peril of Allah’s wrath (Qur’an 3:32, Qur’an 3:132, Qur’an 4:59, Qur’an 33:36, Qur’an 33:66). The precepts of Islamic law derived from the Qur’an, the Sunna and the Hadiths are voluminous, well documented, widely accepted in the Islamic world and practiced universally in Islamic countries although there are relatively minor variations (from a Western perspective) between Sunnis and Shiites and according to local custom and tradition.
One of the more “westernized” variations of the Islamic state is Turkey, where the generally secular government established in the 1940’s has given way over the past several decades to a decidedly more Islamic state. In 1998 the Constitutional Court of Turkey dissolved a political party on the basis of it’s intent to foster democracy was not compliant with Turkey’s shariah law and a case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights. That court ruled that “shariah is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy” and violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. If shariah fails to meet even the lax European standards for individual liberty where you are considered guilty until proven innocent for example, there’s hardly any doubt that it would fail to meet the much more rigorous liberty standards guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
This does however demonstrate that not all states under Islamic leadership are the same. While Saudi Arabia has a decidedly draconian implementation of sharia, the actual government is not run by religious leaders, but by the royal family who made a deal with the religious hard-liners long ago that they’d be free to run amok among the general population as long as they left the Royal family alone and didn’t try to gain political control. In Iran, the religious authorities absolutely control all aspects of the government which employs a rather pure form of shariah and permits no religious activity apart from Islam. Egypt, if one takes the brief reign of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as an aberration, is a considerably more secular state, but one that does impose shariah-compliant special taxes on non-Muslims called the ‘jjizya.’ Since Islam isn’t a unified religion with centralized authority that enforces consistent practice, what you get under Muslim leadership does tend to vary.
Despite these variations, the basic notion that the role of government must be subordinate to Islam just as everyone in the world must submit to Islam remains. Muslims aren’t permitted to even question this fundamental quranic principle as questioning any fundamentals of the Qur’an is an act of questioning the prophethood and divinity of Mohammed himself, an act of apostasy which in some places is punishable by execution. What that subordination of the state to Allah actually looks like tends to vary a bit, but state submission to Islam (the primacy of religion) and the western notion of individual rights (the primacy of the individual) simply aren’t compatible.
Ultimately, the question of whether Carson has some rational and reasonable basis for his opinion seems rather obvious: he does. That is not an argument that we should limit the religious freedom of anyone in any way, or consider anyone participating in religious practices or holding beliefs that are different than the mainstream a bad person. There is a rational basis however, backed by substantial evidence that the principles regarding the proper role of government that a Muslim is required to believe are substantially different from the beliefs held by non-Muslims, and that non-Muslims may legitimately consider these beliefs a disqualifying factor when considering who to vote for. At the same time, any legal proscription prohibiting a Muslim from seeking or holding elected office should rightly be considered a blatant affront to Constitutionally-protected liberties.
Is there some sort of clear and present danger in this regard? There’s no evidence to support that, at least at this time. A President by himself doesn’t have the power to suspend Constitutional rights and impose shariah law on America even if that’s a secret or not-so-secret design. A like-minded Congress or Supreme Court in concert with a president who wished to do so possibly could, even though we don’t have anything even approaching such a situation. Would a Muslim president or individual office-holder pose a danger to us and the Constitution given current conditions? Probably not, although anything that could potentially move us in such a direction is reasonably ill-advised, but that should be tempered by the understanding that as a constitutional republic with representative governance allowing a representative voice for religious minorities is actually beneficial and arguably productive.
I’m not a cheerleader for Ben Carson, as there are many policy issues that I strongly disagree with him on and I am extremely reluctant to support anyone seeking to be President of the United States who hasn’t demonstrated a track record as an elected official. I’ve been disappointed too many times by someone who promises they’ll act in a certain way when they get into office and then do something vastly different once they get there, so I’m not taking this up because I’m a Ben Carson guy. I’m not. I just strongly believe that rational, reasoned but politically-incorrect opinions shouldn’t be shouted down with the all too frequent tired cries of racism and bigotry used by some to stifle intellectual discussion when some fear that the end result might not be politically advantageous to their aims.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
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