Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dr. Ben Carson and America's Chronic Case of Islamophobia

On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, when asked if he thought Islam was "consistent with the Constitution," answered, "No, no I do not." This declaration has inspired outrage and applause in various precincts of the electorate and the commentariat. Carson's defenders protest that this was a "gotcha" question and that his answer is being taken out of context. His subsequent clarifications, however, belie such protests:

"We don't put people at the head of our country whose faith might interfere with them carrying out the duties of the Constitution," the retired neurosurgeon told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "If you're a Christian and you're running for president and you want to make this [country] into a theocracy, I'm not going to support you. I'm not going to advocate you being the president."

"Now, if someone has a Muslim background, and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have, and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then of course they will be considered infidels and heretics, but at least I would then be quite willing to support them," Carson added.

Carson no doubt thought he was being very fair in granting that even a Christian who desires theocracy should be opposed. But his following comments make clear that this is, from his perspective, a purely abstract hypothetical: Christianity does not compel its followers to desire theocracy, so any Christian candidate that held such a view would be a rare anomaly. By contrast, Carson is confident that professing faith in Islam inevitably places a person in opposition to the U.S. Constitution. To be a Muslim is, in Carson's view, to necessarily desire the imposition of Islamic religious law on all. Thus the only way a Muslim could legitimately become president is if they commit apostasy. They would then be damned and outcast by their community of faith, but could console themselves with having earned Carson's support.

Carson is of course wrong, about both Islam and Christianity. While the U.S. is constrained by the First Amendment against any "establishment of religion," many nations with Christian majorities are not. Thus the Queen of England could not remain so if she renounced her Anglican faith (or refused to swear to preserve the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Conversely, tens of millions of Muslims live in nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India constitutionally committed to ideals of secular pluralism and tolerance. Thus if being a faithful Muslim precludes anyone from leading a non-theocratic government someone should get on the phone to President Joko Widodo of Indonesia right away.

 What is most distressing is not that Carson would air such erroneous views, but that they have so much traction in the larger electorate. In a recent Pew Research Group poll, 40% of respondents reported that they would never vote for a Muslim candidate for president. The fact that this falls so short of a majority might seem reassuring, until one thinks of this ratio from the perspective of the three million Muslim-American citizens here in the US. What should they feel, knowing that as many as one-hundred and twenty million of their compatriots think that their faith disqualifies them from the highest office in the land?

Ben Carson's remarks and the media resonance they have achieved is a measure of the ignorance and complacency that still hamper our national discourse. The election of President Obama in 2008 briefly created the impression of the dawn of a "post-racial, post-ethnic" age, but subsequent events have demonstrated that antiquated notions of "us" versus "them" still shape the self-image of much of the public. Thus Carson's defenders protest that he has only stated the bald truth that "they" hate "us," ignoring the fact that when terrorists target Americans, "they" are often white Christian males such as Wade Michael Page or Dylann Roof, and "we" are the worshipers at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Michigan or the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The same obtuseness that applies to questions of American identity is embodied in popular attitudes about Islam, where the adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" finds profound confirmation. When fellow GOP contender Carly Fiorina had the temerity to suggest that Carson was wrong, she was castigated on social media. A meme circulated of Fiorina's picture, with the caption "If a Muslim was President, You Couldn't Drive a Car." While it is true that Saudi Arabia bans women from driving cars, this is the only Islamic nation (indeed, the only nation on earth) that does so. Moreover, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the three largest Muslim nations in the world, have all elected female heads of state, as have Turkey, Senegal, Mali, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Mauritius. As this is a feat yet to be achieved here in the U.S., the inverse relationship between Islamic culture and female empowerment is not nearly as obvious as Fiorina's detractors assume.

 Ben Carson's ride near the top of the polls may prove short-lived. But the appeal of his message nonetheless speaks to a chronic problem in American society. The US will only be able to exert the kind of international leadership to which we feel entitled, and achieve the degree of domestic coherence to which we aspire, when we have outgrown the influence of such demagoguery.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Putin in Damascus

Though there is scant recognition of this fact in Washington, the recent deployment of Russian marines and combat aircraft to Syria is one of the greatest foreign policy setbacks for the Obama administration, one that could tarnish the President's legacy more than Benghazi, the Crimean crisis, or the failure of his peace initiative in Israel/Palestine. As tens of thousands of refugees pour into Europe, driven in large part by the crisis in Syria, the magnitude of the international failure to contain that conflict has become increasingly evident. Persistent chaos in Syria portends strife for the entire Middle East and North Africa and an exacerbation of the factors that have strengthened groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim world. The insertion of Russian military forces into this maelstrom does not herald a cure, but rather an intensification of the ailment.

Russia's motives are murky, but its actions circumvent any need for parsing through Moscow's intent. By stationing its planes, helicopters and troops in terrain held by the Assad regime, Russia has ordained that its military assets will operate to the tactical benefit of Damascus. All talk of Moscow's willingness to see a negotiated end to the Assad regime is thus meaningless, as negotiations will ever and always be driven by facts on the ground, and the security of Russian forces will be dependent on the integrity of the Damascus government and its strategic position.

This means that the last, slight chance for the U.S. and its allies to intervene meaningfully in the Syrian civil war is now lost. The only way to enlist significant Syrian forces in the struggle against ISIS was to take sides against the Assad regime, as ISIS's fund of human capital flowed from its opposition to Damascus. As long as ISIS constituted the strongest opposition to Assad, the U.S. stood no chance of enlisting local allies to fight that threat. If the U.S. had weighed in against Assad, not with ground troops, but with an air campaign to ground Damascus's air force, there was a chance that other opposition groups and defecting government units would turn on ISIS once the Damascus regime had stepped down or fallen. This would obviously have been a risky strategy, but it was the best hope of eliminating ISIS and restoring a semblance of order and security to the region.

Now that hope is gone. Declaring a no-fly zone for Assad's aircraft would now have to apply to the Russian jets and helicopters deployed to Latakia. If the Russians defied such an order, it could result in violence, destruction, and world war. By deploying its forces Moscow has thus raised the stakes on any tactical opposition to the Damascus regime ultimately high, ensuring that Assad is here to stay for as long as the Russian position holds.

I will not pretend to guess what this means for the long-term strategic "balance of power," and I am not overly concerned how this will affect American or Russian prestige. The new Russian firepower may actually advance the tactical fight against ISIS, though if it does so it would almost certainly be at a shockingly high human cost, given how entrenched the political opposition to the Assad regime has been. On the other hand, as the Syrian civil war churns on the Russians may encounter nothing but lost blood and treasure for their pains. However the situation plays out, one thing seems certain: this move by Russia does not bode well for the Syrian people, or the world. Moreover, for whatever does come to pass the U.S. will, because of its inaction, share in the blame.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11

As a resident of Middletown, New Jersey, September 11th is always an emotionally fraught day. My family and I moved back here in 2005, but before then I lived here in Middletown, and was here when 37 of my neighbors were murdered, the most of any single township in the U.S. to fall victim that day. A short walk from my house is a memorial garden for the fallen where ceremonies are held every year. Today my daughter and her classmates were asked to wear red, white and blue to school as a show of patriotism to commemorate this sad anniversary.

Such displays are of course appropriate. Along with sorrow, 9/11 does and should inspire us with pride. Pride for the courage of those who responded to the events of that day, many of whom are numbered among the fallen. Pride for the resilience and endurance shown by so many in the face of tragedy. While it is true that the moment occasioned fear, and that fear naturally inspired some ugliness, our values and institutions have proven remarkably strong in the wake of a trauma that would have destroyed or irreparably damaged a less robust society.

Still, the passage of 9/11 also always brings, for me, regret. The events that day were a call to action, and though there has been action, it is difficult to believe that there has been much in the way of progress toward a resolution of the problems that 9/11 cast into stark relief. If you had told me fourteen years ago about ISIS and Boko Haram I might not have been surprised. There have always been and there will always be political fanatics, and imagining that we can live free of such challenges is unrealistic. But if you told me that we would have made so little progress on the issues that are exploited by the purveyors of jihadist terror, I would have been sorely dejected.

The fact that we still consume so much fossil fuel is distressing. Every petrodollar we spend puts money into the pockets of jihadists. Every exacerbation of climate change creates economic and social strife that generates new recruits for extremist groups. Every year that passes without a resolution of the conflict in Israel/Palestine intensifies the rancor that jihadists exploit for political gain. The fact that we have made tactical blunders in the fight against jihadists is no surprise, as the tactical problem was bound to be very difficult. But the fact that we never woke up to or made headway on what should have been clear and pressing strategic goals is deeply disheartening.

Our country is resilient, and our resilience fills me with optimism. It is fitting today that we remember the past, but it is also proper to think of the future. The relative equanimity that the U.S. has shown in coping with the trauma of 9/11 gives me hope that we will eventually summon the political will and energy to overcome the dangers that manifested themselves so violently on that day, and with which we are still faced. We honor those we lost best by resolving to confront the challenges that took them from us.