Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ben Carson, Islam, and Democracy

Ben Carson is getting a lot of flack for saying that he thinks a Muslim should not be President of the United States, because Islam is not compatible with the Constitution. In the sort of news outlets I read this is treated as a gross bit of bigotry, but I think I agree with him. Islam has a very strong tradition of theocracy. Many Muslims believe that the only just political power is an explicitly religious one, and that the only true law is Sharia, the law of God as interpreted by the mullahs. Theocracy, even in a soft form, is anathema to me and absolutely incompatible with the American system.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that many Muslims don't take the Islamic legal tradition any more seriously than most American Catholics take their own. But Islam as practiced and taught in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran is absolutely incompatible with democracy, and indeed with any sort of secular society. Islam has a vast body of traditional law -- Sharia -- built up by centuries of interpreting the Koran and other early Islamic texts. The Islamic tradition teaches that all law should be developed in this way, by judges interpreting religious texts. The system has only a very limited place for a legislature, because the general view is that law is a divine thing, not a human creation; it is our job to find God's law in the relevant texts, not reason our for ourselves what would be best.

Over the past decade I have seen many surveys of Arab and Iranian opinion, and a majority in every poll wants their society and government to be explicitly Islamic. Right there you have a major conflict with the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the "establishment" of religion. Whatever most Americans say about it, we do not live in a Christian country, and this is very, very important to me. You can see from the recent experiences of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt that working out how to have a state that is both Islamic and democratic is very hard. Judaism has some of the same problems, and even in Israel (a state founded by secular socialists) the government assigns a large official role to the Orthodox rabbinate; among other things they decide who is a Jew. Catholicism used to create similar problems; until the 1980s Ireland assigned the church a very large role in education, health care, and other parts of the state, and on matters like marriage and divorce Ireland let the pope dictate their law. But Islam has the biggest and most fully developed system of traditional law, and the most prestigious, and so in general this is a bigger problem in Islam than for the rest of us. In Iran or Saudi Arabia a judge faced with a thorny problem turns to religious texts for the answer and frames his ruling in terms of the Sharia tradition; in the U.S., we forbid our judges from relying on religious texts. There is a real, fundamental, important divide here, the divide created by the Enlightenment. For religious leaders to dictate the law is abhorrent to me, and that is the Islamic tradition.

I know there are Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, where Sharia has limited influence on the law. But I'm sure a mullah from Saudi Arabia or Iran would be quick to tell the Indonesian government that they are bad Muslims. I also suspect that any American Muslim in a position to run for Congress would be a very liberal one, and he or she would have to swear off any interest in Sharia. So an American who is a Muslim in the same sense that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama is a Christian would probably be ok with me. But an orthodox Muslim would have a very hard time convincing me that his or her beliefs can be made to fit with the Constitution or the American political tradition.

To get back to Ben Carson, he is too much of a fundamentalist Christian for me to want him as my president; I don't think I could ever vote for a doctor who doesn't believe in evolution. But to me this only proves that the question he raised is a perfectly legitimate one. The sort of religion a candidate espouses is absolutely relevant to his or her fitness to be President, and the main tradition of Islam creates particular problems.


G. Verloren said...


This is nonsense.

First off, essentially every major religion has "a very strong tradition of theocracy". It is absurd and hypocritical to single out Islam alone among all the rest.

Would you bar a Buddhist from being president, given that not that long ago there were major Buddhist Theocracies still extant halfway through the 20th century? Moreover, depending on how strict your definition of a Theocracy is, it could easily be argued that a number of extant Buddhist Monarchies qualify as Theocratic in nature - should we therefor disbar any and all Buddhists from the office of President?

And how about Christianity? Huge numbers of Americans are Catholics, who ostensibly owe their allegiance to the Pope, who is absolutely, undeniably a Theocratic leader in every regard. Protestants are little better, with their history chock full of kings who elevated themselves to positions of spiritual leadership in addition to temporal rule. Does a national church directly intertwined with the government of the nation not qualify as a Theocracy?

Are we to specially exempt Christians on the basis of their having had fewer Theocracies overall historically, or for moving away from Theocracy as a governmental form earlier in their history? Isn't such a measure of merit completely arbitrary and meaningless?

"Many Muslims believe that the only just political power is an explicitly religious one, and that the only true law is Sharia, the law of God as interpreted by the mullahs."

One could level the exact same complaint against Christians, simply by substituting certain nouns as appropriate. "Many Christians believe that the only just political power is an explicitly religious one, and that the only true law is Gospel, the law of God as interpreted by the clergy." Ought we not them bar Christians from the office of president?

"Theocracy, even in a soft form, is anathema to me and absolutely incompatible with the American system."

And yet Christianity is full of "soft form" Theocracy, and American history in particular is positively bursting at the seams with the influences of Christian doctrines and beliefs. We put statues of the Ten Commandments in front of our government buildings! Our law courts ask people to "swear to God" and place their hands on the Bible, for crying out loud!

Could you imagine the uproar if we asked people in court to "swear to Allah" and place their hands on the Quran? Even if, as currently is the case, they were still offered an alternate option on the side? We may not strictly enforce our religious bias, but it does exist and we do promote a decidedly Christian culture in our courtroom proceedings.

Or what if someone wanted a statue of the Quran erected outside a courthouse? You don't even have to imagine that scenario - we've already seen the outcry from similar proposals, such as the Satanic Temple's quest to have a statue to Baphomet erected outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. And while that campaign ultimately resulted in the Christian iconography at that site being removed, we quite clearly have a long history and a deeply ingrained culture of making special allowances for Christian influences within our system, all the while denying those of other religions and creeds.

G. Verloren said...


"Islam as practiced and taught in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran is absolutely incompatible with democracy, and indeed with any sort of secular society."

This is utterly untrue.

Egypt just recently underwent a massive democratic revolution which led to a secular overthrow of the previous corrupt administration headed chiefly by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the crisis, Egyptian Muslims repeatedly took measures to protect and shelter their Christian brethren, and there was massive backlash against reactionary extremist Muslim individuals and organizations.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are somewhat different beasts, currently governed by hardline zealots with strong Theocratic tendencies, and yet many citizens within these countries are discontented and subversive. Women in particular reject the draconian rule they suffer under, and passive resistance and civil disobedience are not uncommon, if still largely overwhelmed by the extant patriarchy. These countries are also contending with an increasingly globalized youth culture hungry for Western technology and media, much like the Soviet Union once did. And of course, intellectuals and academics throughout the region have long waged a campaign of quiet resistance and dissent.

And these dissenters are almost entirely Muslims, many of them quite faithful and passionate believers, even if they do not share the hardline doctrines and beliefs of those who claim to spead for them.

"Islam has a vast body of traditional law -- Sharia -- built up by centuries of interpreting the Koran and other early Islamic texts. The Islamic tradition teaches that all law should be developed in this way, by judges interpreting religious texts."

Christianity is just as guilty of this. We may not have quite as unified a body of traditional law, but historically Christian nations have all been inescapibly shaped and influenced by Christian views and beliefs. I mean, for goodness' sake, what do you think the whole US issue over homosexual marriage is about? It certainly isn't an argument over practical concerns! Our legal system still actively denies equal rights to an entire segment of our population based entirely on Christian dogma! And we're wringing our hands in fear of a Muslim president, when we already have rightwing Christian zealots actively in the running?

"Right there you have a major conflict with the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the "establishment" of religion."

As if there wasn't already a Christian "establishment" all throughout the entire history of American governance! For all the florid language of the Constitution, that didn't stop us from making many laws mostly or entirely based on religious grounds. Obscenity laws, slavery laws, race laws, marital laws, penal laws, restrictions on suffrage, the constant and utter bias at all levels of our government toward Christian culture and beliefs - the list goes on. You practically trip over references to God and Christianity at every turn throughout our governmental history until only very, very recently in our history.

G. Verloren said...


You do go on to talk about how America is not "a Christian country", and you do at least touch upon the problematic nature of Catholicism that I mention above. But the fact remains that for all our secular values, ours is still indisputeably a Christian nation, controlled throughout its history by Christians, unavoidably influenced by Christian culture, and with a distinct and incontrovertible bias in favor of its Christian citizenry. Although de jure a non-religious nation, de facto our Secularism has chiefly been secondary to our Christianity.

This has of course been challenged throughout or history. There have always been secular elements working to preserve the foundational values of the constitution. But they have always been at odds with our more zealous and fervent segments of the population, and they have often failed to properly speak out and effectively stand up for the non-Christian segments of the country.

Of course, the great irony in this discussion is that Secularism is being invoked as justification for suggesting we deny the office of presidency to individuals based solely on religious affiliation - a notion that is both flagrantly illegal and completely unconstitutional.

Moreover, the absurdity of the fear on display here is laughable. As if a Muslim presidential candidate who actually had enough support to win an election could conceivably be even remotely radical in their religious views! Or if even were we to suggest a radical Muslim somehow did manage to become elected, that they would then be in any sort of position to substantially change the nature of the nation!

We have a governmental system of checks and balances in place expressly to prevent such things. You could elect a complete sociopath to the office of President, and yet without substantial support from both the legislative and judicial branches, their effective power would be essentially zilch. (Which is precisely why Adolf Hitler would be a far less troubling choice for president than Donald Trump - he wouldn't have the support of Congress or the courts.)

And of course, let us not forget that in order to even be eligible to run for the presidency, you need to be an American born citizen. Is anyone in their right mind honestly suggesting that a potential American Muslim candidate who lived their entire life in this country would in any way be comparable in their religious views to hardline extremists from the world's most Theocratic cultures?

That's as cartoonishly absurd as expecting an American born Christian child of Italian ancestry to be a fanatical devotee of the Pope. It smacks of prejudice and xenophobia of the highest order, and is painfully divorced from any reality or rational logic.

Judging a particular presidential candidate on their own personal qualities and the platform they choose to run on is, of course, perfectly fine. But judging them soley on their religious affiliation, full stop, with no regard for anything else? That's ignorant at best, and insane at worst.

If a Muslim runs for president on a platform of establishing Sharia law and with a reputation as a hardline extremist, by all means condemn them for it. But if you're condemning a candidate as "unsuitable" solely because they happen to be Muslim, regardless of their own personal and political views? That is irrational, hypocritical, and in my mind flat out immoral.

John said...

Are you arguing that all religions are the same? Because if so, I disagree.

Unknown said...

Leaving aside the distracting issue of whether all religions are the same--I would agree with John, they are not--it seems to me the issue is straightforward. There is nothing in our system that prevents a Muslim from becoming president, if they meet the qualifications and are elected.

The problem lies in the ambiguous phrasing of the question, should a Muslim be president? I seems to lie somewhere between asking "would you ever vote for a Muslim for president?" and "should our system allow a Muslim to become president?" The answer to the second question is, it does and it should, if we want our system to continue to be the one we have (and I do).

Our system relies on the voters to ensure that a religious fanatic does not become president, and it relies on the law and the system of checks and balances to restrict what a religious fanatic could do if one were elected.

Would I vote for a Muslim if they were a Muslim in the same way that Clinton or Obama are Christians? Sure, and there are plenty of Muslims like that, and have been since the seventh century. Would that mean that I was voting for someone that many serious, devout Muslims would not regard as a true Muslim? Probably, but why should that matter?

Would I vote for anyone who was a true believer type about their religion, or who in any way said some aspect of their identity (gender, ethnicity, etc.), rather than the requirements of the Constitution, would predetermine their decisions as president? No.

Unknown said...

By the way, there is virtually no "florid language" in the Constitution. Its language is remarkably spare and stark.