Recent statements by Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson offer another glimpse of Islamophobia in America. Coming within several days of the wrongful arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed and Muslim bashing at a Trump presidential rally, Carson’s words only make tough times tougher for Muslims in the United States, which also translates into tougher times for African Americans.
Labeling Carson an “Islamophobe Extraordinaire” is no slur, since by his own admissions he harbors fears about Muslims; extraordinary that a wealthy African American, barely decades away from his race having gained the right to vote, would dare utter these words aloud.
That Carson can even run for president was a joke for blacks not too long ago. In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes a grade-school teacher who told him that being president was “not realistic for a nigger.” Today, Carson reiterates that ugly message, only now “Muslim” is the new “n” word and kids like Ahmed, the audience.
According to Carson, the U.S. Constitution and Islam are incompatible, and therefore a Muslim could not garner his support for president. Here, Carson’s view sits at odds with the Constitution itself since, as Yale Professor Akhil Reed Amar has noted, the Constitution goes out of its way to insist that the federal government is open to persons of all faiths or no faith in particular.
This is an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. Carson points an accusing finger at Muslims for disloyalty to the Constitution without so much as blushing at his disregard for its very words: “But no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
In light of Carson’s disavowal of Muslims, his decision to run for president leads to two distinct considerations. On one hand, he implies that his Christian beliefs would not interfere with his duties as president or his understanding of the law, whereas for a Muslim it would; on the other, and perhaps more sinisterly, it propels a civil religious ideology that views Christianity and the U.S.A. as one.
Yet conflating America and Christianity tends to overlook Christianity’s foreignness. Many forget that Jesus and his disciples spoke in a language that is much closer to Arabic than English; many also forget that Christianity originated in the Middle East, just like Islam. Somehow these realities have been lost on Christians, including that the holy land has been torn by war and strife, yet few seem preoccupied. The same indifference might lead some to assume that Yeshua bin Yusef is the name of an al-Qaida leader rather than the traditional name of Jesus, son of Joseph.
More intriguing in Carson’s case is the fact that his own DNA testing has revealed that he descends from the Makua people in Africa. Here it is significant to note that Sunni Islam is among the religions practiced by these people, which, of course, leads to the shocking conclusion that despite his rhetoric, Carson himself might be of Muslim descent.
Despite the uncertainties about Carson’s religious pedigree, it is without doubt that many African slaves brought to America were Muslim, and some could read and write in Arabic. Although the bulk of Muslims arrived in America via the Atlantic slave trade, one can’t help but speculate on the pure irony of Carson tracing to Muslim roots.
Whether Carson’s words are a failure to comprehend his own ancestry or, more menacingly, a means of garnering Islamophobic votes, they do nothing but damage. Such reckless verbiage only opens the door to discrimination in turn. His ignorance-based fears are particularly unfortunate since race relations between African American and immigrant Muslims have been less than robust. It also sends a covert signal to blacks that they now finally have a doormat to call their own: After centuries of oppression, they have “moved on up.” The problem is that many African Americans are Muslim.
Because of this fact, his words are likely to be discounted by African Americans. Muslims are no strangers in black communities; historically, African Americans have comprised the largest segment of the Muslim population in the United States. Communities know about the Nation of Islam, about the outreach of Muslims in American jails and prisons, not to mention the many hip-hop icons who express admiration for Louis Farrakhan. This history suggests that Carson’s words will gain little traction among blacks.
That Carson could seriously be considered as a presidential candidate is an anathema to conservative principles. His blatant disregard for the Constitution is an attack on the bedrock principle of religious freedom. At its outermost extreme, it sends the message that equality has once again given way to invidious discrimination in America.
That Carson himself could be a Muslim descendant turns a historical fact into something laughable — which is exactly how his candidacy should be viewed. Whether one cherishes the right to religion or to no religion at all, his radical vision stands as a potential threat to everyone. Although his invective is directed at Muslims, far more is at stake. Americans must therefore not support a fanatic like Carson, who embodies the very extremism that he fears so much.