A little rectification – Today’s entry—weighing in at nearly 8,000 words—is by far the longest journal entry I’ve ever written here. It has also probably taken me the longest to write. I started writing it at the beginning of October (on the 2nd of October, to be precise), and intended to post it before I left for the conference in California in the middle of the month. I wrote every day for over a week, and I did manage to write the bulk of it before the conference, but I wasn’t able to finish it. I resumed writing when I came back from California, but even though (I thought) it was mostly done, I had other things to take care of and so didn’t put as much time into it. For a good month I worked on it in spurts, writing a bit and then coming back to it later to write some more. Each time I did so, I wondered if it was still even relevant (since it refers to something that actually happened in September) but events continued to transpire that convinced me it was worth finishing. The attacks last Friday in Paris are just the latest evidence that this issue in question is not going to be going anywhere any time soon. For as much as I may want to talk about the Paris attacks, though, and for as difficult as it is to see this entry in the same way in light of those attacks, I will not be dealing with them in any detail today. I instead want to talk about the response to something that happened over two months ago. The specific issue may be a little dated at this point, but I think the principles are timeless.
If you would, I’d like for you to cast your mind back through the mists of time to the ancient era of September. You may remember that presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson gave his opinion on whether or not a Muslim should be president. I suspect that you do not have those comments committed to memory (especially after so much time has passed—and if you do have them committed to memory, you might need to seek professional help), so I’ll help you out by pointing you to a video of the full “Meet the Press” interview during which those comments were made. I’ve even cued up the video to the segment in question. If you only heard about his comments but have not heard the actual comments, I would encourage you to go watch that segment in full—it’s only two minutes long.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that this batch of Republican hopefuls have, on the whole, said some controversial things. So why comment on this instance in particular? Why not just keep my silence, like I generally do? Well, that is probably what I would have done had I not come across a fascinating study on the relationship between religious prejudice and intended voting behavior in the beginning of October. It was directly related to the issue at the heart of Carson’s comments, and it got me thinking about them once again. In addition, I thought the study itself was worthy of comment, and so here we are. Let’s dive into the study first, and later we’ll come back to Carson’s comments. The study begins with the following statement on prejudice:
Since all societies legitimize certain forms of preferential treatment it cannot be assumed that all unfavorable attitudes toward a person or group, even if they result in discriminatory behavior, are a manifestation of prejudice. Whether an unfavorable attitude is considered prejudice or not depends in large part on the norms and values of the group or society involved. For example, to believe that Muslims have heretical views and to refuse to participate in their services is not considered a manifestation of prejudice in our society. On the other hand, to believe Muslims are disloyal citizens and hence ineligible for public office is generally considered a manifestation of prejudice.
The authors go on to draw an important distinction between what they see as two different kinds of prejudice: prejudice based on ignorance and prejudice based on conflicting values. “In the latter case, the person may be educated, psychologically healthy, knowledgeable and well-informed but he perceives an inherent conflict between his own values and beliefs and those of another person or group and because of this conflict puts the other party at what is socially defined as an unfair disadvantage.” Having established this difference, they lay out their assumptions going into the study: “We are assuming that the less informed who manifest prejudice do so out of ignorance, and that the more informed who manifest prejudice do so because of a value conflict.” Since ignorance is by definition the result (or state) of being uninformed, this assumption seems somewhat axiomatic.
The questionnaire they prepared was answered by 141 American graduate students at a single university, so it was perhaps not the most comprehensive sample (something the authors readily admit: “The sample cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered representative of the non-Muslim voting population”), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the study has nothing to teach us.
The first part of the questionnaire tested how informed the respondents were about Islam, and the second part tested their attitudes toward Islam. The attitude questions tested attitudes toward Muslims on the individual level (“It is sometimes all right to ban Muslims from certain jobs,” “Muslims tend to remain a foreign element in society, to preserve their old social standards and to resist the American way of life”), while others tested those attitudes on the institutional level (“Islam is a serious threat to the American way of life,” “The Islamic faith opposes free speech, free press, and free inquiry”).
So what did they conclude? Unsurprisingly, the authors found that negative attitudes toward Islam had a very strong influence on how respondents would vote: “The relationship between anti-Muslim attitude and intended voting behavior ... is the strongest one found among these variables, exceeding both party affiliation and self appraisal of the influence of the candidate's religion. An analysis of variance corroborated the finding that anti-Muslim attitude had more influence than party affiliation on voting intention.”
Not all of the results were so predictable, though. One finding in particular was surprising—at least, it was surprising to the authors: “...although the informed are less likely than the uninformed to be anti-Muslim, they are more likely than the uninformed to manifest prejudice. ... This finding is the opposite of what was expected insofar as it suggests that the acting out of latent prejudice is less probable when there is ignorance than when the facts are known.” From this, the authors conclude that “the evidence suggests that not all prejudice is based on ignorance, and that our original contention that there is such a species as ¡®knowledgeable bigot’ may have some truth.”
I think this study has a lot to add to the discussion surrounding Dr. Carson’s comments, but before we get back to those comments, I have a confession to make: I may have, shall we say, bent the truth a bit in my description of the study above. OK, OK, I’ll come clean: I didn’t just bend the truth, I took it out behind the shed and beat it within an inch of its life. Firstly, there was a lie by omission. This isn’t a recent study; in fact, it was published in 1964 and based on work conducted in 1960. Secondly, the study didn’t deal with anti-Muslim attitudes... it dealt with anti-Catholic attitudes. I replaced every instance of “Catholic” with “Muslim,” every instance of “Catholicism” with “Islam,” and every instance of “the Catholic Church” with “the Islamic faith.” Other than that, though, those quotes are taken directly, word for word, from the paper. I came across this paper on the always thought-provoking JSTOR Daily, which had done a write-up of the study.
Before I return to Dr. Carson’s statements—and I will get back to them eventually—I have a few bones to pick with the study. It might seem unfair to pick on a paper that is over fifty years old now, but the bones I want to pick are matters of terminology that is still being used in the same way today. The two terms that I believe are problematic are “bigot” and “prejudice,” both in terms of the senses in which they are being used and the fact that they are being equated with each other. As I quoted above, the authors mention their “original contention that there is such a species as ¡®knowledgeable bigot.’” I scoured the (relatively short) paper several times trying to find where they had made this original contention, and I discovered that this late sentence is in fact the first time the phrase is used. I eventually came to the conclusion that they must be referring to this phrase: “the more informed who manifest prejudice.”
I find that when things get confusing, it is best to go back to square one and define terms. A quick visit to Dictionary.com turns up two definitions for “bigot”: “a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion” (Random House Dictionary), and “a person who is intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, esp on religion, politics, or race” (Collins English Dictionary). There is no substantial difference between the definitions, and they are not really that hard to parse. One thing that should be clear is that this is not a word we can necessarily apply to people who oppose a given belief system, even if that opposition takes the form of utter intolerance. For all we know, these people may be intolerant only of Catholicism or Islam but accepting of other beliefs. We cannot, of course, discount the possibility that these people might very well be bigots, but we cannot judge that on the basis of their response to one belief system alone. To put it another way (assuming that we are talking about people who are not adherents of the belief system in question), all bigots will be intolerant of a given belief system, but not all people who are intolerant of that belief system are necessarily bigots.
Why is this distinction important? Because the use of “bigot” is ultimately a tactic of trivialization. I went into this in great detail last year in my post on “butthurt,” but the basic idea is that if you can trivialize, belittle, or reduce someone to a caricature, you can easily dismiss their arguments. Opposition to a particular belief system is something that can be defended and may even be reasonable, but unconditional opposition to all belief systems other than your own is a lot harder to defend as reasonable. So when you call someone who opposes Catholicism or Islam a bigot based on that opposition alone, you are labeling them as unreasonable and not worth listening to.
The conflation of “bigot” with “prejudiced” is also problematic, but first we need to untangle the mess the study authors have made in their use of the latter term. Now, “prejudice” is one of those terms that would appear to do exactly what it says on the tin—that is, it is very easy to break the word down into its constituent parts to determine its meaning—but for the sake of completeness let’s go back to Dictionary.com. Both Random House and Collins have multiple definitions for this term; even if we trim them down to the relevant, central definitions, we’re left with three from Random House...
- an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
- any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.
- unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
..and two from Collins.
- an opinion formed beforehand, esp an unfavourable one based on inadequate facts
- intolerance of or dislike for people of a specific race, religion, etc
Three out of the five—the top three—definitions contain the idea of being “formed beforehand” or “preconceived.” The other two, however, do not. Random House still qualifies these feelings as “unreasonable,” which indicates that even if the opinions are not formed beforehand, they are still not founded on any logic or reason, making them functionally indistinguishable from the opinions or feelings described in the first definition. But Collins offers that any “intolerance of or dislike for people of a specific race, religion, etc.” can be called prejudice—regardless of whether that intolerance or dislike has any foundation in reason.
Now, I can try to claim that “prejudice” necessarily contains the idea of being formed beforehand on the basis of its etymology, and that an idea that is not formed beforehand is by definition not prejudice, but then I would be committing a genetic fallacy. Language evolves, and words take on new meanings all the time. Just ask “nice.” (I mention both the genetic fallacy and the evolution of “nice”—complete with links to good sources of information, in the post on “butthurt” I mentioned above, so see that if you’re interested.) That being said, I believe it is reasonable to say that prejudice is still understood primarily as something that is formed beforehand, and that the word itself reinforces this connotation.
I think “prejudice” is being used in the same way as “bigot”: that is, as a tactic of trivialization. But it goes beyond that. I said above that the conflation of the two terms is problematic, and I had a good reason for saying that. Ultimately, both “bigotry” and “prejudice” are used to talk about the same thing—a term that appears in the definitions for both words—intolerance. They both make value judgments on intolerance and the intolerant, though: “bigot” makes intolerance a defining characteristic of the person in question, and “prejudice” (in the generally accepted sense) defines that intolerance as something that existed before the person in question could have possibly had enough information to judge whether intolerance is even justified. Both of these judgments reinforce the idea that the intolerance in question is unreasonable, illogical, and absurd.
Now, particularly with the benefit of half a century of hindsight, we may agree with the authors of the study discussed above that the intolerance of Catholicism manifested by some of the subjects is generally unreasonable, or at least overblown, but the use of the terms “bigotry” and “prejudice” only succeeds in muddying the waters. I want to return to the last quote I pulled from this study, as it perfectly illustrates how the authors’ use of terminology only adds to the confusion (whether this is deliberate is a judgment I will leave to you): “the evidence suggests that not all prejudice is based on ignorance, and that our original contention that there is such a species as ¡®knowledgeable bigot’ may have some truth.” My reply to this would be that, some modern usage to the contrary aside, if an attitude is not based on ignorance—that is, if it is an informed attitude—we might not be best served by continuing to refer to it as “prejudice.” How about if we just call it by a term that doesn’t have as much baggage, like “intolerance,” or “dislike,” or even something as dry as “negative attitude”? And of course there can be “knowledgeable bigots,” since the lack of knowledge is not a condition of bigotry. True, a high degree of knowledge may not often correlate with bigotry, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
I bring up that quote again as a way of introducing the conclusion to the study, which I believe is a master course in bending over backward to accommodate faulty reasoning rather than correct that reasoning.
One often hears that prejudice is largely a product of ignorance and could be eliminated if only one could get through the stereotype long enough to provide accurate information. Our finding suggests that such a procedure may backfire and, in some cases, merely produce more knowledgeable bigots. At least it seems clear that we are not misusing the term prejudice if we sometimes use it to apply to psychologically normal, well-informed individuals.
There is so much wrong with this that I almost don’t know where to start. Fortunately, I’ve done all the groundwork above, and everything I’ve said so far has been for the purpose of dealing with this conclusion, so now it’s just a matter of tying together the threads. For one, it seems very clear to me that the authors are, in fact, misusing the term “prejudice” by applying it to “well-informed individuals.” They refer to the common wisdom that “prejudice is largely a product of ignorance,” which indicates that they subscribe—or at least believe that most people subscribe—to the common definition. It would thus seem to me that the findings are evidence not of a misunderstanding of the concept of prejudice, but of a misapplication.
It also seems clear to me that the authors miss a golden opportunity by being content to end their paper with only an expression of surprise at the fact that, hey, maybe some people who are intolerant of certain ideas are not necessarily ignorant lunatics! OK, so I’m not being completely fair here. At the very beginning of the paper (as I quoted above), the authors do draw a distinction between reasonable intolerance and unreasonable intolerance. But they only give a single example, and it is difficult to extrapolate a principle from that, so we’re left with little more than subjective judgment to determine what is reasonable or not.
My point here, though, is that this “conclusion” is not really a conclusion, it is the premise for further contemplation on the issue. The authors readily state that they fully expected the least informed—that is, those with genuine prejudice or, to use a more transparent term, “unreasonable intolerance”—to be most swayed by this intolerance, and they were surprised to see that those most swayed were in fact the most informed. But why stop at admitting that your fundamental assumptions were wrong? Why not question those assumptions and try to come up with a hypothesis that fits the data at hand? In other words, if it appears that providing more information may not eliminate unreasonable intolerance, might we not entertain the possibility that our assumptions are flawed and such intolerance is not always unreasonable? That it might, in fact, be perfectly normal for “psychologically normal, well-informed individuals” to be intolerant of certain ideas or views? In fairness, the authors do seem to leave this door open, but they are also very unwilling to let go of their biased language of “bigotry” and “prejudice.”
(Before I move on, I want to acknowledge once again that, yes, I am picking on language usage in a paper from half a century ago. But I think it is safe to say that very little has changed in the way people misuse terms like “prejudice” and “bigot.” One case in point is a recent—from this past Saturday—Vox article on “why it’s wrong to demand that Muslims condemn terrorism.” Here is a telling quote from this article: “This sort of thinking—blaming an entire group for the actions of a few individuals, assuming the worst about a person just because of their identity—is the very definition of bigotry.” Sigh. No, that’s the very definition of prejudice. We’re still confusing these terms today on a daily basis.)
I want to be careful here that I do not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. I am not suggesting that all intolerance accompanied by knowledge is necessarily reasonable. There are people whose world views are so twisted that they will take any incoming information and and torture it into whatever unnatural shape is required to make it fit their existing views. In this case, we are likely dealing with an original prejudice—an idea formed before sufficient information was available to make a reasonable judgment—that ended up being so strong that it destroyed any possibility of reason or logic in dealing with new information, as in the case of fanatics who are so blindly devoted to their own belief system that any and all information about other belief systems only serves to prove how wrong these beliefs are and how right the fanatic is. I have no problem with calling people like this “knowledgeable bigots.” I would go as far as saying that it is impossible to be a really successful bigot without knowledge; ignorant bigots are easy to mock and thus make powerless, but a knowledgeable bigot can be a lot harder to deal with.
So, that being said, while I recognize that there are certainly people out there who have both knowledge and unreasonable intolerance, I also recognize that some knowledgeable people are intolerant of some beliefs with very good reason. Take ISIS (or “Daesh,” if you want to piss them off... which works for me, so that’s how I’m going to be referring to them for the rest of the entry). I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this right now would consider themselves intolerant of Daesh (and, if not... um, I think you might be in the wrong place). Why? Well, without putting too fine a point on it, because they seek the destruction of our values and our way of life. They are the opposite of a truly liberal, democratic society. And the more I find out about Daesh, the more intolerant of them I grow. I think you would be hard pressed to find any reasonable individual who would call my intolerance of Daesh “prejudice” or “bigotry.”
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that, among the candidates running for president of the United States in the next election (which is still almost a year away at this point, believe it or not), there was one particular candidate who said that he wanted to do away with free speech, or voting rights for certain segments of the population, or many of the legal protections that American citizens now enjoy. Let’s say that this candidate did not believe that all men—or women—were created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, foremost of these being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Some might argue that we don’t have to pretend—that we already have such a candidate in the bronze demagogue that is Donald Trump.) Would you support this candidate? In the extremely unlikely event that this candidate won his party’s nomination, would you vote for him in the general election? I hope that most Americans would answer these questions with a resounding “No!”
Now we finally get back to Dr. Carson’s remarks, and you can probably see where I’m going with this: In a nutshell, all he really did was answer the question that I posed in the above paragraph, except that he used the specific example of a Muslim candidate. There’s no doubt that he was expressing intolerance. I don’t think Dr. Carson himself would argue with that statement. The real question, in my opinion, is whether we can apply terms like “prejudice” and “bigotry” to his views.
I’ll come back to that question in a moment, but I want to address some of the things that were said in response to Dr. Carson’s comments, especially in the initial aftermath, when everyone just lost their minds. Fellow Republican candidates were falling over each other to chastise their wayward colleague, repeating the line that there is “no religious test” for holding public office in the United States. Irate columnists suggested that Dr. Carson might read the Constitution for a change, blasting him for suggesting something that was clearly at odds with the law of the land. I would post links, but that would be like going to the seashore and picking up a few grains of sand in an attempt to get a sense of the entire beach. If you were fortunate enough to miss it the first time around, just Google “Ben Carson religious test” and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s my personal favorite: “Carson backs religious test for presidency, despite Constitution.”
Even taking into account the click-baity nature of journalism on the internet, that headline is just absurd. And so are all of the comments by fellow Republican candidates quoting Article 6 of the Constitution. Let’s get one thing straight here: Dr. Carson never said that he wanted to implement a religious test for the presidency. I think enough time has passed now that we should be able to look at this calmly and rationally. Sure, it makes for great click-through rates to just pick and choose the most inflammatory bits of longer comments (and then just make up absolutely untrue things to boot), but that’s all it’s good for. If you watch the whole exchange (you did watch the last two minutes of that video I linked to at the top, right?), it’s pretty clear that his comments have nothing to do with a religious test for public office.
Chuck Todd: Should a president's faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?
Ben Carson: Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, than of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and [is] consistent with the Constitution, I have no problem.
Todd: So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?
Carson: No, I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.
(7:54 – 8:32)
Only the most malicious (or perhaps ignorant) reading of this exchange can lead to the conclusion that Carson is advocating for any sort of religious test here. He’s giving his personal opinion on whether he would support a Muslim candidate for president. Note that the exchange began with the question, “Should your faith matter to voters,” which implies that the dialogue that follows is related to whether voters should take faith into consideration when choosing the next president. Let’s not claim that Carson is suggesting we amend the Constitution to bar Muslims from running for the presidency. That just makes us look foolish. I would submit that anyone suggesting that Carson read the Constitution might want to first listen to what he actually says before opening their mouths (or, as is more often the case these days, pounding on their keyboards).
I said above in that parenthetical that a reading of Carson’s comments as advocating for a religious test could be ignorant as well as malicious, but I honestly don’t think that the people making those comments did so because they didn’t know what Carson actually said. They knew exactly what he said, and they knew exactly what they were doing when they attacked him—especially his Republican rivals. While there may be no religious test for office, how many successful candidates have there been in recent years who haven’t paid at least lip service to their Christian faith? How many Jewish presidents have we had? Before Kennedy, how many Roman Catholic presidents did we have? The answer to all of those questions is: “none.” In fact, not only did we not have any Roman Catholic presidents before Kennedy, we haven’t had any since, either. So let’s not kid ourselves here—of course a candidate’s faith matters to voters. Carson was just voicing what many people already think. The difference is that he is a presidential candidate, and he apparently hasn’t learned yet that presidential candidates can’t just say whatever they want. (Yes, I know that strategy appears to be working for the bronze demagogue right now, but it’s a little too early to judge whether it will ultimately be successful; I don’t think it will.) Those who attacked him know exactly what he meant. I suspect that—at least for his Republican rivals—it was a combination of spotting an opportunity to attack a non-establishment candidate and maybe a little bit of a desire to distract people from the fact that, yeah, while there may be no de jure religious test for president, there sure is a de facto test.
But let’s go back for a moment to exactly what Carson said in that interview. His last statement in that section I quoted above is pretty emphatic, but he does clarify this shortly afterward. When Todd asks him if would vote for a Muslim for Congress, Carson replies that it depends on “what their policies are.” He then goes on to say (emphasis is mine): “If there's somebody who's of any faith, but they say things, and their life has been consistent with things that will elevate this nation and make it possible for everybody to succeed and bring peace and harmony, then I'm with them” (8:48 – 9:08). In other words, Carson would (or at least he says that he would) have no problem with a Muslim candidate who is willing to uphold American values.
I suspect that when Carson talks about Islam being “inconsistent with the values and principles of America,” he might be referring to Sharia law. Now this is where I start treading on shaky ground, because I have to admit that I don’t really have a firm grasp of what exactly Sharia is. I know roughly what it is, but in all my research I have not seen two separate sources with identical interpretations. That being said, I have seen things that have been done in the name of Sharia around the world, and they have rarely been consistent with the principles of democracy. I’m talking about things like a girl being stoned for being raped. Islamic scholars condemned the stoning as barbaric, and I think it is fair to say that this incident was a very extreme interpretation of Sharia, but the fact is that it happened, and Sharia was offered as justification.
I don’t want to be accused of cherry picking extreme examples, though. If you look around on the internet, you can find plenty of uncharitable interpretations of Sharia, but these come primarily from sources with an anti-Muslim bias. If you’re relying on sources with an anti-Muslim bias, it will obviously be very easy to build a case against a Muslim president. So I tried to find the most charitable interpretation of Sharia and then see how consistent that interpretation would be with the values of a democratic society.
The Islamic Supreme Council of America has a very thorough page entitled “Understanding Islamic Law,” which I would recommend reading if you have the time. According to the ISCA, “Shari¡®ah’s primary objective is mercy.” Since I mentioned above the case of a girl stoned for adultery when in fact she was raped, the section here on adultery proves particularly interesting. It quotes Shaykh Abudllah al-Alaili, who writes that actually proving adultery was nearly impossible in practice without a confession (four witnesses who saw the act with their own eyes were required for prosecution). He goes on to discuss the essence of Islamic law as follows.
This demonstrates the essence of Islamic law, with the intent to raise the highest standard of morality for human beings, while in reality the law is almost impossible to legitimately enforce. Therefore, we see legal and social intent is to prevent an act from occurring by highlighting its enormity and emphasizing the threatened punishment, while not expecting it to be applied.
Incidentally, he also argues that the original punishment for adultery was not stoning, but lashing. All of this presents a much different picture of Sharia than what we see being presented as Sharia in many places. The page acknowledges this with a paragraph near the top.
Now a great problem today is that a new movement within Islam, the Islamist movement, has innovated a non-traditional approach to Shariah which vitiates all of the past approaches and establishes a rigid, hardline and non-pragmatic approach which vitiates all semblance of humaneness, sanity, moderation and decorum which constituted Islamic Law’s traditional implementation over the past 14 centuries of history.
If Sharia were indeed consistently practiced as described above in the section on adultery, it might not be as problematic. But even this sympathetic source admits that there is a new “non-traditional approach to Shariah” that is on the rise. My friend Kevin, who actually has a degree in religious studies, likes to say that “religions are as they are practiced” (he attributes this to one of his professors, I believe, but I don’t remember that professor’s name). In other words, you can talk all you want about what your religion is supposed to be, but what your religion actually ends up being is the form in which it is practiced. Even recognizing that most Muslims do not interpret Sharia in such extreme fashion as often makes the news, we cannot deny that there is a tradition within Islam that does cleave to this extreme interpretation.
Still, this doesn’t really address the question of whether Sharia is compatible with a democratic society. It is true that we do have laws that are “almost impossible to legitimately enforce” (digital and other forms of copyright violation, RIAA efforts aside, are one example). But even in its idealized form, relying on eyewitness testimony to prosecute rape cases seems to be a rather antiquated approach. I could look at other areas of Sharia law, but I think we would reach a similar conclusion. We do not, after all, attempt to apply Old Testament justice in the US, despite the heavy Christian influence that has always been present. And I think that touches on the most obvious argument against Sharia, which would be that a system of laws based on a single religious tradition is only possible in a theocracy, which the US is not.
On that note, the BBC has an archived page on Sharia that is quite interesting. At the bottom is an interview with Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, a prolific British Muslim author (who was born Rosalyn Rushbrook). Her interpretation of Sharia is extremely charitable, but toward the end of the interview, when she is asked if Muslims in Britain would be in favor of Sharia law, she replies: “I think many Muslims in the UK would be in favour of Sharia law being implemented here, but true Sharia law is only really possible in a Muslim society, not in a non-Muslim or mixed society.” If a Muslim who views Sharia in a favorable light feels that an implementation of Sharia in a society not entirely Muslim is impossible, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable for non-Muslims to adopt a similar view. I believe this is what Ben Carson was doing in that interview. And when he says that he would be fine with someone whose words and deeds were “consistent with things that will elevate this nation and make it possible for everybody to succeed and bring peace and harmony,” what he was saying was that he would be fine with a Muslim if they were willing to put American values first.
In this light, I don’t think what Carson said was all that outrageous. I also don’t think it was a form of either bigotry (being unwilling to accept any views but one’s own) or prejudice as it is commonly understood (a belief formed in without adequate understanding or knowledge). It is, of course, a form of intolerance, but as I mentioned above I think that we can all—with perhaps the exception of complete relativists—agree that there are certain things that should not be tolerated. That is, there are certain standards of behavior and action that we can reasonably expect should be met. It seems, for example, reasonable to expect that an elected official will honor the oath that he or she takes upon accepting office to uphold the law of the land regardless of his or her own personal convictions. For the president of the United States, the oath of office is quite simple: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” If Sharia is not in line with the Constitution (and, from what I have read, I do not believe that it is—although I will readily admit that I am not an expert), then a Muslim president’s duty would be clear.
This principle goes all the way down the line, of course. A Muslim working at the DMV can’t refuse to issue licenses to women simply because he or she thinks that women shouldn’t drive, just like a Christian county clerk can’t refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she doesn’t think gays should be allowed to marry. Oh, uh... right. I am a Christian myself, and I think Davis was dead wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you don’t think Davis was wrong, then technically you should also be fine with a Muslim president attempting to impose Sharia on the nation. That would be the logical conclusion of this kind of thinking, at any rate.
“But that’s totally different!” you splutter apoplectically. “The law is wrong and she was standing up for true American values! When the law is unjust, it is the citizen’s duty to stand up against it!” Now, this is not an entry on gay marriage, so I’m not going to argue either for or against it right now. I will just say this: At one point or another, the Constitution of the United States 1) did not provide women with the right to vote, 2) prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, 3) allowed slavery, and 4) did not guarantee the right to keep and bear arms (the second amendment—along with the rest of the “Bill of Rights”—wasn’t ratified until over two years after the Constitution went into effect). What if I believe that women should not be allowed to vote, or that people should be allowed to keep slaves? Those ideas may seem crazy now, but they weren’t back when those amendments were passed. Just imagine how discrimination against people based on sexual identity will look in fifty or a hundred years. Things don’t seem quite as clear cut now, do they? I realize that this isn’t really a direct refutation of the argument put forth by the fictional militiaman at the top of this paragraph, but hopefully it will at least be food for thought.
Before I conclude, I’d like to return to the JSTOR Daily article that got this unwieldy ball rolling. The author concludes with a hopeful statement: “The fact that bigotry was more common among the uninformed—not to mention the decline in anti-Catholic prejudice in the 50 years since this paper was published—should give us some reason to think that anti-Muslim bias may decline as well.” I have a number of problems with this sentiment. Firstly and most obviously, the author uses “bigotry,” “prejudice,” and “bias” more or less interchangeably. I’ve already discussed this at length, though, so I’ll just leave this first point at that. Secondly, the statement that “bigotry was more common among the uninformed,” while technically true (barring of course the misuse of the term “bigotry”), is somewhat misleading here. The study specifically said that, while “the informed are less likely than the uninformed to be anti-Catholic, they are more likely than the uninformed to manifest prejudice.” That is, the people most likely to act on their negative feelings are, in fact, the informed. If you read the JSTOR Daily article closely, you’ll see that it does touch on this point, but there seems to be a deliberate effort to ignore the implications and fall back on the same assumption that the study authors began with.
My third problem with this conclusion, though, is that I think it is a mistake to equate Catholicism from a half-century ago with radical Islamism (“Islamism” is often used on its own to describe groups—like Daesh—that believe society should follow Islamic law, but I’m adding “radical” as a form of emphasis and clarification, even if it is not strictly necessary) today. More importantly, the JSTOR Daily author puts the onus on those who hold the negative perceptions, assuming that they are in the wrong and must be cured of their incorrect thoughts. Then again, I am working from a different assumption—as a whole, I don’t see Carson’s statements as being anti-Muslim but as being anti-radical Islamist. Now, it is true that Carson initially equates “Muslim” with “Islamist,” but he then clarifies that it is not Muslims as a whole that he would not advocate for the presidency, but only those who do not support American values. In this context, it’s pretty clear that he is talking specifically about radical Islamism.
That being said, I have to admit that it would be disingenuous to claim that Carson’s comments do not indicate an anti-Muslim bias in any way. While I do think he had radical Islamism in mind, there’s no denying that his very first reaction was to associate “Muslim” with “someone who does not support American values.” In other words, while I can’t read Carson’s mind, it is possible that he sees little qualitative difference between radical Islamism and Islam as a whole. I have my own thoughts and opinions on this, especially in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, but I’m not sure I can articulate them fully in a brief coda to a very long entry. I was putting the finishing touches on this entry when the Paris attacks took place, and I felt compelled to address them in my closing. After the initial shock of the attacks wore off, I sat down and wrote a coda. Then, the next day, I deleted it and wrote a slightly different one. Every day last week, I sat down, erased what I had written the previous day, and tried again. By the end of the week I realized that it wasn’t working. I may put down those thoughts here on a future date, but I can’t work them into this entry.
I originally set out—over a month-and-a-half ago now—to write this entry not as a defense of Carson’s comments, but as a criticism of his critics. It bothers me when people misuse terms, especially when there is a political agenda behind the misuse. I don’t think it is helpful to label someone a bigot or prejudiced when they are not, thus dismissing their words and ideas out of hand. I think it is more helpful to examine those words and ideas and see if they are worth listening to. And I did indeed examine the idea of radical Islamism being incompatible with American values above. Now, as I prepare to wrap things up, I have to admit that I can’t shake the feeling that this argument is a bit of a straw man. Those who most vocally criticized Carson created their own straw man, of course: the idea that he was proposing a religious test for the presidency. But it also doesn’t seem quite fair to focus only on what Carson intended to say and not on the bias betrayed by his initial, emphatic (by Carson standards, at least) reply.
So the question we should really be asking is not whether radical Islamism is a threat to the American way of life—I think it’s pretty obvious that it is—but whether Islam as a whole is compatible with American values. Interestingly enough, the Public Religion Research Institute asked this question in their 2015 American Values Survey, the findings of which were published last Tuesday (link leads to PDF). To be precise, they asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.” The results for this section of the survey, entitled “The Compatibility of American Culture and Islam,” appear on pages 27 and 28 of the report. I would encourage you to read it in detail, but the important figure is the percentage of Americans overall that agreed. In 2011, this figure was 47%, with 48% disagreeing and 5% answering that they did not know or refusing to answer. The 2015 figures were: 56% agree, 41% disagree, and 3% N/A. That is a 16-percentage-point shift in opinion over the last four years. And, if you take political affiliation into account, the pendulum swings even farther: Among Republican respondents, 76% agreed with the statement.
The interviews for the survey were conducted beginning on 11 September and ending on 4 October, which means that Carson’s comments came smack dab in the middle of the survey period. This could explain why, despite all the criticism Carson received in the media (and from some of his more opportunistic Republican competitors), his numbers continued to climb—he was expressing what the overwhelming majority of Republicans believe, not to mention what the majority of Americans now believe. I think it’s important to emphasize this: If you are an American and you believe that Islam is compatible with American values and the American way of life, you are in the minority.
At this point, you probably want to know what I believe. The truth is that I don’t know. I have personally known a number of Muslims, and I have gotten along fine with every single one of them despite the cultural differences that existed between us. It may sound trite, but they have all been kind, thoughtful people. But I don’t know enough about Islam as a belief system to say whether it is compatible with American values. I want to believe that it is—that is, I want to believe that peoples of all creeds can coexist peacefully despite our differences. But I am loathe to write, either positively or negatively, from ignorance. I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but it is at least an honest one. I will say that I do intend to try to learn more about Islam.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, it is hard to separate the ideas I’ve discussed here from the horrific acts we see being perpetrated around the world on what has unfortunately become a regular basis. But the truth is that I started writing this entry in the spirit of the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names—that is, the idea that the language we use must be correct in order for us to address the reality of things. Misrepresenting people and their arguments will not lead us to the truth. In fact, it will not lead us anywhere but in pointless circles. This is what I wanted to address, and I believe I have done that, if perhaps a little too verbosely. So, although this somehow feels like the beginning of a conversation rather than the end, I think it’s finally time to conclude this long entry—and even longer journey.