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Ben Carson is a genius. No doubt about it. The retired pediatric neurosurgeon has—by the grace of God—successfully performed hundreds of complex surgeries and taught other doctors to do the same, saving many young lives.
But Dr. Carson also represents living proof that brilliance in one field does not imply brilliance in other fields. After all, the mechanic who could rebuild my car engine within an eight-hour workday is a genius. So is the math teacher who could explain E = mc 2 to me just as easily as 2+2=4.
Yet a talent for medicine, mechanics or mathematics would not necessarily translate into a talent for politics, much less governing a country.
Exhibit A: Dr. Carson, the most gaffe-prone candidate for president since Rick "Oops" Perry and Herman "Usbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" Cain.
Dr. Carson's first problem is that he lacks the filter that most successful politicians possess, hence ill-timed comments like, “I would not just stand there and let [a rampaging gunman] shoot me,” after an Oregon college student shot 18 people, including a Marine who confronted said gunman.
Carson’s second problem is that he actually believes the ridiculous claims he makes, including this classic: "Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery."
Really? Tell that to the victims of segregation, the Great Depression, Vietnam, 9/11 and the Iraq War.
I dare say that Dr. Carson's biggest political problem might be the fact that he looks confused when he says confusing things—eyes squinting, words halting, randomly chuckling. Hardly presidential. If he spoke to his patients that way, they wouldn't have trusted him to put a Band-Aid on a paper cut.
Some of those weaknesses converged during Carson’s Sep. 20 interview on Meet the Press, when he sparked outrage by declaring that Muslims should not serve as President.
As a Muslim, an American and a lawyer, I found Carson’s statement just as fascinating as his follow-up explanation.
“I do not believe Sharia is consistent with the Constitution of this country,” Carson told The Hill amid mounting criticism of his original remarks. “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution.”
Carson added that he would not, however, object to a Muslim presidential candidate who had “publicly rejected all the tenets of Sharia” and “lived a life consistent with that.”
Before I explain why this isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds, please note that Ben Carson probably knows as much about Shariah law as he does about constitutional law—which is to say, not much.
Also, irony alert: Dr. Carson says that Muslims cannot uphold the Constitution yet he previously defended Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis for elevating her belief in the biblical definition of marriage above her oath to uphold the Constitution and its (newly contrary) definition of marriage.
So does paranoia, for the notion that Muslims cannot serve as President feeds the broader Islamophobic narrative that Muslims cannot even be loyal American citizens because of “Shariah.”
As Carson’s campaign spokesman later said, there is “a huge gulf between the faith and the practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.”
Shariah, the Islamic equivalent of canon law for Catholics and halaqah for Jews, teaches Muslims to seek five objectives—protecting life, religion, family, property and intellect—by worshiping God and God alone, praying five times a day, giving regular charity, and doing good and avoiding wrong, among other practices.
The U.S. Constitution does not prevent Muslims from engaging in these private acts of worship nor does the Constitution require Muslims to engage in acts that violate their religious beliefs.
Similarly, most Islamic scholars agree that Shariah does not prevent Muslims from fulfilling their duties as Americans or require Muslims to do anything that violates their duties as private citizens.
In fact, many scholars teach that Shariah actually requires Muslims to obey the laws of the country in which they happen to reside. If an irresolvable conflict between the two arises, Muslims can simply move elsewhere.
So here’s hoping that a President Ben Carson wouldn’t have the First Amendment rescinded and sign a law requiring Muslims to prove their loyalty by publicly eating ham sandwiches.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
In all seriousness, what about the specific issue that Dr. Carson raised: can Muslims serve as public officials? Doing so requires American Muslims to not only live under the law but to enforce the law.
Well, take a look around. You’ll find American Muslim police officers, lawyers, judges and congressmen sworn to uphold the law. They do so without problem.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Rep. Keith Ellison (MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, with an American Muslim soldier at 2012 Ramadan dinner in the Pentagon.
Granted, other religious Americans might avoid certain government roles out of fear that they would need to sacrifice their personal morals to fulfill their public duties.
As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign. I could not be a part of a system that imposes it."
Indeed, some Catholic Americans would never serve as judges because of their personal opposition to abortion.
Some Buddhist Americans would never join the military because of their personal opposition to violence.
And yes, some Muslim Americans would never want to serve as President of the United States because of their personal opposition to things a President does.
For example, in order to win election, every presidential candidate must say that he or she is willing to use nuclear weapons if the circumstances arose. That’s a threshold commander-in-chief test in American politics.
But many Muslims firmly believe that the use of nuclear weapons is always and inherently un-Islamic, for such weapons would certainly kill innocent people, which Shariah forbids as a war crime (contrary to the claims of terrorists).
Another example: every American president oversees the Treasury Department, which must make interest payments on America’s outstanding debt. But Muslims shun such dealings in interest-based debt because the Qur’an forbids all forms of usury in the starkest terms imaginable.
Of course, not all Muslims would struggle to separate such secular public duties from their private religious beliefs. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, hold different views about what their faith requires as well as how to reconcile those requirements with secular responsibilities. Some see no conflict. Others might.
The fact that some religious Americans might not be willing to serve in certain public roles does not make them any less American, nor does the fact that other religious people are willing to serve in those public roles necessarily make them any less religious.
Bottom line: Ben Carson wasn’t completely wrong when he said that a Muslim who strictly follows Islamic law might not be able to serve as President. But Carson—a Seventh Day Adventist whose religious views just happen to perfectly match his views about public policy—shouldn’t have hypocritically singled out American Muslims.
He was no doubt inspired by the same Islamophobic paranoia, ignorance and bigotry that has seized the Republican Party in recent years.
Ben Carson should be smart enough to recognize and admit his mistake.
Then again, he’s only a doctor.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell is an Atlanta attorney who serves as Copy Editor of AtlantaMuslim.com and previously worked as a freelance reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta, and recently joined the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. Edward received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and his graduate degree from Georgetown University Law Center, where he served as president of the law school's Muslim Students Association. Follow him on Twitter @edmovie.
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