GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson sparked a firestorm recently after saying, in an interview, that he would not advocate for a Muslim becoming president. He said Islamic values are inconsistent with those of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is over. It is done. He is out of the race of the president,” Imam Tarek Saleh of the Oulel-Albab mosque in Bay Ridge; a Muslim-rich neighborhood in Brooklyn, said.
Saleh said Carson’s prejudicial statements would isolate him from the 2.6 million Muslims who live in America. About 400,000 to 800,000 residents in the metro NYC area identify as Muslim, according to a 2015 Journey Data Center analysis.
Political Scientist Bruce Bueno De Mesquita said Carson’s comments will hurt him come voting time. “I doubt very much that it helps him with many in the electorate and it surely hurts him with many voters,” Bueno De Mesquita said in an email.
However, Carson claims campaign donations have been pouring in since his Sept. 20 NBC interview. He raised more than $500,000 after his controversial comments, Carson’s Campaign Communications Director Doug Watts said on Sept. 28.
While there are some Americans who agree with Carson, a June Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans said they would vote for a Muslim president.
Saleh said the Muslim community is particularly shocked by Carson’s lack of empathy considering his own oppressed background being an African-American man as well as coming from Michigan, the state with the highest number of Muslims in America.
Linda Sarsour, executive director of Arab American Association of New York, feels disappointed by such anti-Muslim rhetoric. “I think what we are seeing is that in order to win elections you have to throw Muslims and Islam under the bus,” Sarsour said.
Pastor Khader El-Yateem of Salam Arab Lutheran Church said Carson’s comments were a distasteful strategic move to boost his ratings. The Bay Ridge pastor said the entire Arab community – not just Muslims – is impacted by these discriminatory comments.
“Muslims might feel more victimized but we are all the same community. We speak the same language; we share the same traditions. It really targets all of us. All of us become demonized and victimized by these comments,” El-Yateem said.
Sarsour, a Brooklyn-born American Muslim, said there is a deeper issue at play, specifically targeting Muslims: Islamophobia, which is a fear-based hatred toward Muslims.
“I think Islamophobia is getting worse and no one seems to be standing up and saying it is wrong,” she said. “We know for a fact that if this was being said about any other group we would be up in arms at this kind of treatment. For some reason when it is about Muslims and Islam, no one seems to be seeing it as a problem.”
Joyce West, a Bay Ridge resident and Christian from Wisconsin, said while terrorism is a problem in the country, the issue is not race or faith-specific. “The media propaganda leads people to believe that the Muslim faith promotes terrorism which it does not,” she said.
The consequence of anti-Muslim speech, for Sarsour, is the impact such comments has on Muslim children.
“Our children are on social media, they watch television, they are watching videos being replayed over and over again and all they hear is Islam, terrorism and that a Muslim can never be president,” Sarsour said. “It will have a psychological impact on people.”
Sarsour’s comments echo the backlash a Texas school received in September when it had a 6th grade American Muslim boy arrested for bringing a homemade clock to class, suspecting that it was a bomb.
El-Yateem said American Muslims should become more politically active to curb the discriminatory comments directed at the community. Only 51 percent of American Muslims are registered to vote, compared to 78 percent of Protestants and 65 of the U.S. general population, according to a 2011 Gallup poll.
Zaid Khaled, a business owner in Bay Ridge and an American Muslim from Lebanon agrees. Khaled said if more Muslims held positions of power in politics, officials like Carson would think twice before making discriminatory comments against Muslims.
German-born Syrian Sarah Tayeh said the heinous actions of a few Muslims have resulted in a bad reputation for all. Tayeh, a Bay Ridge resident, said she wished the Arab community participated more in politics rather than accepting their current situation. “If they want something, they should go for it and do something about it. But they are like ‘Ok, we will see what happens,’” she said.
Sarsour said this attitude has begun shifting. El-Yateem said some Muslim immigrants experienced repressive governments back home, where they were unable to vocalize their political views. He said this may deter them from political participation in American politics but El-Yateem said Muslims are increasingly becoming educated about their freedoms and rights as American citizens.
Saleh said Carson is out of touch with the American public and his prejudicial comments show his lack of political gravitas. “Leave yourself in the surgery room. This is your best place to give your experience,” Saleh said, speaking of Carson. “Because when you go out, you are a stupid man.”