NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning witnessed Ben Carson jumping head. First, onto the islamophobia bandwagon when responding to host Chuck Todd’s question on whether a president’s faith should matter. Carson’s declared, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/ben-carson-does-not-believe-muslim-should-be-president-n430431 The faith issue has taken center stage after presidential candidate Donald Trump failed during a campaign rally to correct an audience member’s racist complaint, regarding President Obama supposedly being a Muslim, and then further asking when will the country “get rid of” Muslims. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/donald-trump-not-responding-mans-false-obama-claims-no-win-n430291 In the “Meet the Press” interview, Carson contextualized the answer by further stating that Islam, as a religion, is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America” which effectively introduces a religious test for holding office.
The current public controversy related to Islam and the possibility of a Muslim holding the highest office in the land, was actually debated by the founding fathers of the nation: the ratified constitution prohibited imposing any religious test. Indeed, Carson’s statement runs contrary to Article VI, clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the use of a religious test for seeking or holding government positions. During the critical debates on ratification of the U.S. Constitution 1787-1788, the question of toleration and the ability of a majority to politically impose its religious will on the minority, took center stage with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Samuel Adams, Roger Sherman and Patrick Henry, all embracing the position of State’s neutrality on this critical issue.
At the time of the constitutional debates, relations with the Muslim world were similar in nature to the present circumstances with war in the Barbary Coast, negotiations over hostages and trade, as well as, commercial rights shaping the tense discussions. However, it was domestic differences between various Christian sects that produced the sharpest division on the question toleration and having a religious test for office holders. The U.S. Constitution was framed with neutrality of the state in matters of religion This kept open the possibility that anyone regardless of religious background may hold the highest office of the land.
Interestingly enough, Ben Carson’s Sunday interview live on NBC was conducted from the Sea Islands of Georgia–the home of Bilali Muhammad, a Muslim slave who led a cohesive Muslim community in the area on the eve of the Civil War. Bilali’s Muslim community participated and fought in the Civil War. What a contrast between Carson’s statement on “Meet the Press” and Bilali Muhammad who left behind a 13 page Arabic manuscript containing Qur’anic and Islamic legal content–currently housed in the Georgia State Library. http://progler.blogspot.jp/2014/05/ben-ali-and-arabic-diary-part-one.html Islam has been part of this country from the beginning and 10-20% of all the slaves who were brought to the US were of Muslim background. http://www.sylvianediouf.com
On his part Donald Trump did not shy away from the Muslim controversy and further posted on twitter:
In two other posts, Trump attempted to deflect his own failure to respond by blaming the media and the hypothetical likelihood of Obama not coming to his defense:
In here, Donald Trump is being rather strategic by fanning the flames of xenophobia in order to ride white middle class anger into the republican nomination while using Obama as the target. A recent Public Policy Polling found that 54% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, 29% are unsure of his faith and only 14% consider him a Christian. Furthermore, only 29% believe that President Obama was born in the U.S., which partly explains Trump’s strategy in appealing to the majority while making sure not to appear weak on the issue by offering an apology. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/chris-christie-rand-paul-scraping-the-bottom-new-ppp-poll
The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest criticized Trump for not being able to summon the same kind of leadership Sen. John McCain demonstrated in 2008 when responding to a woman who said she didn’t trust Obama because he was Arab. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/254197-white-house-rips-trump-over-birther-reaction From the current republican field of candidates only South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham directly criticized Trump via Twitter, “There is a right way to handle these situations and a wrong way to handle these situations, Donald.”
The strongest condemnation came from Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who tweeted that Trump “must apologize to the President and the American people” and called for an end to “racism” and “xenophobia.”
Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Hillary Clinton said that Trump “is fueling a level of paranoia and prejudice against all kinds of people.” More critically, Clinton charged Trump of lighting “fires” while emphasizing that “you better recognize that they can get out of control and he should start dampening them down and putting them out.” http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/20/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-muslims-2016/
At present, the republican campaign is dominated by Trump who has been able to infuse a heavy dose of racism and islamophobia into the contest. The republican field of candidates is following Trump’s approach and both Carson and Cruz have opted to jump head first into the islamophobia discourse. Time will tell if this is the sound strategy in the long run and whether any one of them will be able to secure the nomination on this basis of racism. The general elections will need a different game plan and no one can win the White House without securing a large segment of minority votes in the country. The current republican xenophobic and islamophobic approach will make it impossible.