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A memo for Dr Ben Carson: Islam and Islamism are conjoined but distinct

29 September 2015

5:20 PM

29 September 2015

5:20 PM

Like so many of the conjoined twins Dr Ben Carson has skilfully separated, Islam the monotheism, compatible with democracy, and its impostor, Islamism, the totalitarian ideology, incompatible with democracy, while intricately conjoined, couldn’t be more distinct in personality.

Dr Carson’s assertion that American Muslims are unfit to hold the Presidency is explained only by his ignorance – not only of US constitutional history but of Islam and Islamism. His inability to conceive of an American Muslim as a pluralist liberal democrat shows the doctor’s inability – or unwillingness – to separate Islam from Islamism.

Dr Carson’s assertions are hardly new. The barring of American Muslims from the Oval office was first debated in a state-by-state ratification battle over 227 years ago. The introduction of Article VI Section 3 Clause 1 of the US Constitution was met with intense criticism: ‘No Religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States’.

Opponents at the time, much like Dr Carson, believed prohibiting religious vetting allowed ‘a Jew, Turk, or infidel’ to become president. (In contemporary times ‘Turk’ referred to the Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire). But despite this resistance, the article would indeed be ratified, because federalists recognised both the novelty and necessity of such inclusion if the United States was to guarantee the religious liberties they had so vehemently fought for in their separation from the British Empire. Prohibiting religious testing ensured the religious beliefs of a privileged majority from ever superseding liberal democratic ideals guaranteed to all, including the most vulnerable minority.

Dr Carson’s ignorance aside, he merely reflects – and exploits – the wider public discourse surrounding Muslims and how we impact the collective US political consciousness. Such angst is reminiscent of our nation’s fears concerning Muslims at the time of America’s extraordinary birth.


Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, while himself a harsh critic of all monotheisms (including Islam), explored the 18th century perceptions of the Muslim American. In her treatise, ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Quran’, Professor Denise Spellberg examined his journeys in religious liberty through the lens of Islam. Jefferson not only had a Quran in his library (now safeguarded in the Library of Congress) and referred to it, but studied the beliefs held by Muslims in order to help realise the New World’s religious freedom.  By considering what would be, in Jefferson’s mind, the imaginary Muslim American, he was inspired to preserve the rights of this imaginary Muslim – a person so foreign that, should the constitution guarantee such a person’s freedom, it could truly afford freedoms to every citizen.

While Dr Carson has shown a shaky foundation in US history, his political science is no better. In declaring a Muslim unfit to hold the Presidency because ‘Islam is incompatible’, Carson demonstrates he is ill equipped for separating Islam from Islamism. Certainly an Islamist – a Muslim who subscribes to a totalitarian imposter of Islam – is ideologically unfit to hold either the most powerful public office in the United States or indeed any political office of any rank just as any other totalitarian might be so unfit. But a practicing Muslim who is not an Islamist, who believes in the pluralistic spirit intrinsic to Islam, is perfectly capable of engaging in private faith while leading secular US democracy, just as much as any practicing Catholic, Protestant, Hindu or Jew.

Carson’s inability to separate complex, interwoven issues doesn’t end here. He also specifically condemns Muslims’ belief in Sharia, but without explaining what Sharia might be. Judging by his sweeping assertions, he lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of Sharia and Sharia law.

‘Sharia’ appears only a handful of times in the Quran. Literally translating as ‘the path’, it refers to codes of personal conduct best leading a Muslim closer to their Maker. In contrast, in contemporary Muslim society, Sharia law is a complicated body of legal code accumulated over centuries. While Sharia laws may claim basis in Islam, first appearing hundreds of years after the lifetime of the Prophet, they are in fact man-made constructs based on case law. The laws are usually without precedent, often authored at the whim of a judge, and today contested across multiple divergent schools of Islamic law.

In his authoritative treatise ‘Heaven on Earth’, the academic lawyer Sadakat Kadri documents the complexity of Sharia law in the 20th century. Sparked by the Iranian Revolution that brought Islamist Shiites to power, the Muslim world has seen a revival of harsh Sharia law interpretation over the past 35 years.

In countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, this law has been used by governments in response to perceived and real threats to absolute power. Draconian Sharia laws are imposed as a means to shore political power and appease fundamentalist clergy. Yet these interpretations bear almost no relation to the five hundred years of Sharia law in the Ottoman Empire, which was notable for its very rare execution of harsh practices. All too often, what passes as Sharia law today is a frank departure from Islam itself.

Sharia law, which Carson’s brandished as reason to exclude any Muslim from holding the highest political office, is far from a monolithic matter. To most Muslims, including myself – a British Muslim about to take the Oath of Allegiance as a US citizen –  Sharia forms a personal code for my spiritual conduct. Yet for millions of powerless Muslims around the world, Sharia law is the manifestation of legal codes in the harshest Muslim majority states. These laws deny the forgiveness, mercy and compassion Islam originally revealed. Were an American Muslim ever to achieve the mantle of the US Presidency, it is precisely these deviations of Islam that could be so authoritatively challenged, in the name not only of liberal democracy, but pluralistic Islam.

Dr. Qanta Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

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