A controversial comment made by a politician – what else is new? On September 20, Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and a Republican candidate for the American 2016 presidential election, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press – a program dedicated to interviewing leaders on subjects of politics, economics, and foreign affairs. Dr. Carson was asked whether the general public ought to take their candidates’ faith into consideration when voting, to which he responded, “If [his or her faith is] inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter.” When pressed further and asked whether he would support a Muslim president, Dr. Carson responded, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Before we can go any further, it is important to decipher what exactly these American “values and principles” are. I’m not an American, so I reached out to one. Maya Kotwal, a Marketing student at Boston University, explains, “‘American’ values are […] working hard, having integrity, [and] doing your best. The United States was founded on the principle of giving everyone a fair shot in life.” In short, American values and principles are essentially what make up the constantly sought after “American Dream” – no matter who you are and where you come from, if you work hard enough, you will be able to achieve great things. Let us not forget that this has been something presidential candidates have constantly referred to during their campaigns (Barack Obama, “Yes We Can”; Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again”; Mitt Romney, “Believe in America”). So if the primary American belief is prioritizing hard work and integrity then don’t Dr. Carson’s comments, in fact, epitomize the antithesis of American principles? By casting American-Muslims aside does he not only violate the American Dream, but also the American Constitution, which states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office”?
Islam is the fourth largest religion in America, and as a 2009 Gallup poll illustrates, it consists of one of the most racially diverse groups in the country. How can Dr. Carson a) lump such a vast and diverse group into one? And b) brand them as the very antithesis of American values? But the problem is not simply that politicians do such things – the problem is that such things occur in everyday situations and harm the everyday people. Take Ahmed Mohamed, for instance. The 14-year-old boy brought a homemade clock to school to impress his teachers, but instead was handcuffed and interrogated by police offers for the fear that the clock was a bomb. Mohamed later recounted to Washington Post that police officers constantly referenced his last name during his questioning – an evident fact of his Muslim name raising suspicions. Or take Hamdan Azhar, a writer and Facebook data scientist, who participated in a Huffington Post project, entitled “Muslims in America”. Azhar relays his story, explaining that he was told he could take pictures around Temple Square in Utah as long as he “didn’t blow [anyone] up.” Or take Sana Muttalib, a lawyer and another participant of the Huffington Post project. While heading to a conference on the roles of Muslims in America, she was bombarded by hateful protesters, one of whom held a sign that read, “America is for Americans. Go home.” She explains that for her, “the main challenge is…getting people to stop seeing [her] just as a Muslim, but a fellow American and person of faith.” If the leaders of America – if the educated, intelligent, and capable individuals – are unable to push past harmful and fallacious stereotypes, and instead continue to perpetuate them, then will people like Muttalib ever be thought of simply as an American with a different faith – an American who simply enriches the diversity and culture of the country?
As chaos ensued in the following days, Dr. Carson clarified himself by explaining that he meant that he would only oppose the leadership of a Muslim president if the president did not reject “the tenets” of Sharia Law and would “swear to place [the] Constitution above [his or her] religion.” I have several problems with this statement. The first being that this appears to be a quick “save myself” sort of comment. During Meet the Press when Dr. Carson was first questioned about the relevance of faith, there was no mentioning of Sharia Law. The reporter had not asked Dr. Carson what he thought of a Muslim president, if he or she were to implement the Sharia Law in the United States. The reporter had asked whether a Muslim president’s faith bore relevance to his or her presidency and leadership. The fact that Dr. Carson jumped to the most extreme form of Islam to defend himself is a great testament to how little he knows about the faith and consequently how little qualified he is to make such sweeping statements. The groups that implement extremities make up a terribly small percentage of the Muslim population. In other words, the vast majority of individuals practicing Islam do not believe in such extremities. Secondly, the American government is structured, as all democratic governments are, with a checks and balance system. If, let’s say, the future president does wish to implement Sharia Law – a law that many Americans appear to oppose – then he or she simply is unable to do so. The democratic government is built to work for the people, meaning that enough voice from the people can influence the decisions of those in power. Dr. Carson’s concerns with a Sharia Law supporter running for President truly hold no validity. It then appears that his comments are engrained more in prejudice and ignorance than in true concern for his country.
When such prejudice grows and spreads and wraps its arms around whoever and whatever it encounters, people like Ahmed Mohamed, Hamdan Azhar, and Sana Muttalib are unable to experience America’s true values of integrity and hard work – certainly not without being casted aside as outsiders. And yes, this may sound idealistic, but if the American Dream is what the American people want, then this constant and deeply engrained prejudice must first be removed. Then only, and I’ll hate myself for referencing Trump, will America be great again.