What to do when someone tells you your faith makes you less of an American

Dos and don’ts.
Dos and don’ts.
Image: Reuters/Chris Keane
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I’m now old enough to run for president of the United States. A few days ago, however, Ben Carson told me I wasn’t qualified. I hadn’t been planning on running, but it would have been nice to know my options were still open.

Carson, a devout Christian, explained to America that my religion compels me to obey Shariah law over the US Constitution. This means, he said, that I, and in fact all Muslims, are not fit to hold the highest office in the land. (Oddly he did allow we might be able to serve in Congress, but following his logic—that Islam and America are mutually opposed—I’m not sure why.)

Carson essentially pronounced us Muslims a “fifth column.” Not Americans by right and by conviction, but mere guests, whose rights and privileges could at any time be reevaluated. Realizing what he’d done, or perhaps the damage that was being done to his campaign, Carson has since tried to soften the hardness of his words, claiming he only meant Americans weren’t ready for a Muslim president and that he might be able to support a Muslim who accepts ”the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion.” (So, essentially renounce his religion?)

But given that Carson isn’t the first candidate to stoke—or at the very least casually endorse—anti-Muslim bigotry, and won’t be the last, how are we supposed to respond?

What not to do

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, an American Muslim advocacy organization, has reportedly sent Carson a Quran, even while asking him to terminate his campaign. I presume the idea is that he will read the Muslim holy book, and suddenly change his mind. I disagree with both positions, but I’ll focus on the first of these.

Ben Carson doesn’t need to read the Quran. He, like anti-Muslim bigots and Islamic extremists alike, needs to learn how to read the Quran.

As Mohamed Ghilan, a Canadian scholar of Islam, tells Quartz: “The first rule of Quranic interpretation is that any given verse must be read in light of other verses,” and thereafter, “the Prophet Mohammed’s life and actions. The idea that one can just go directly into the Quran and take isolated verses as proof for any action has never been accepted by any mainstream Sunni or Shia scholars.”

Ghilan continues: “The only people to have ever done and continue to do this are militant groups and, in today’s case, Islamophobes.”

Islamic extremists approach the Quran not as a book of ethics, guidance and inspiration, but as if it were a political how-to manual. They seem to think the whole reason God ever spoke to Mohammed was because He really wanted the Prophet’s followers to go forth and set up authoritarian and sectarian governments. What extremists end up doing—cherry-picking the Quran’s verses to boost their radical ideology—was in fact condemned way back in the seventh century by none other than Ali ibn Abi Talib, a master teacher of Islamic law whose credentials include being one of the first converts to Islam, the first Shi’a Imam, the fourth Sunni Caliph, and the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.

But this is what Carson thinks Islam is, sadly. Based on his ignorance, it seems clear that Carson’s Islamic information is coming from anti-Muslim bigots and the grossly uninformed. Who do Islamophobes look to for their knowledge? Well, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of terrorist organization the Islamic State. (I’m not making this up; read Glenn Beck’s book.) Giving Carson a Qur’an would not help things in the least because he’d just approach the Qur’an like he’s been taught to.

In fact, if you gave me a copy of another religion’s primary text, would I really be qualified to make any sense of it? Would I be able to understand it without an expert to help translate? It’s more likely that I’d interpret the book in a way that makes the most sense to me, based on the facts—and biases—I’ve already internalized.

Religious texts aren’t textbooks. They aren’t idiot’s guides to God. They are complex, difficult reads that must be studied to be fully understood.

The way forward

So what can Muslims do to try to counteract this kind of bigotry? The only way Carson will ever actually know how Muslims live out their religion, struggle with it and understand it, is by meeting Muslims. Religions aren’t abstractions, and texts are embedded in communities.

That’s actually the approach Muslims should take more generally: We have to engage until we’re blue in the face. I know persons of color, and minorities generally, are tired of apologizing, explaining and defending. It is unfair that we are judged collectively. But as a minority, and a small one at that, we cannot afford to be isolated. It is in our self-interest to make sure we are not to written out of the national story.

Of course, other people have self-interests, too. Even today, barely 72 hours since Carson’s initial comment, the candidate is backpedaling, saying his criticism had nothing to do with Islam. “Anyone of any religious faith whatsoever, if they place the constitution above their religious beliefs” he said in his latest press conference, can be president. Clearly, even Ben Carson knows when to dial it down.

The GOP’s reputation among minorities has nearly vanished; given demographic trends, minority support is increasingly important for get any candidate into the office Carson said Muslims should be excluded from. Sometimes Electoral College calculations concentrate the mind in a way no religious text can.

The Republican Party often presents itself as America’s best option for a country committed to maintaining personal freedoms. Does Ben Carson, himself a racial minority, really want to claim that certain kinds of people shouldn’t hold high office? Does a religious Christian and member of a party that has elevated Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis into a kind of hero for her religious piety, really want to argue that Muslims should keep their religion out of the public square?

Ben Carson might think he was boldly speaking truth to power. He’s not only wrong, he might be his own worst enemy.