Let’s start with Ben Carson, Republican candidate for President of the United States. After his statements on Sunday saying that he would not support a Muslim as President of the United States and that Islam, as a religion, is incompatible with the US Constitution, his further explanations have compounded the problem. According to a Politico article, Carson reportedly clarified that someone with a Muslim heritage could win his support if that person is “willing to reject the tenets [of Islam] and accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place the Constitution above their religion.” In case his meaning is not perfectly clear, he continued, “Then, of course, they will be considered infidels and heretics.” His campaign manager similarly clarified that there was no problem with someone who followed “Islam-lite.”
According to these explanations, Carson accepts, perhaps unintentionally, the interpretations by al-Qaeda and ISIS that the full teachings of Islam promote violence against non-Muslims and various corporal punishments. While he acknowledges that some Muslims do not agree with that interpretation, the demand that they renounce Sharia suggests that only one understanding of Sharia exists and thus legitimizes al-Qaeda and ISIS’s interpretation of Sharia as presenting that singular meaning. The language of “Islam-lite” confirms this, as it suggsts that anyone who follows Islam fully and devoutly is a problem. Thus, according to him, ISIS and al-Qaeda are correct in their interpretation of Islam, and the hundreds of millions of Muslims who oppose them are not following a basic understanding of Islam.
Of course, it is not just Ben Carson who supports the position of al Qaeda and ISIS, many of those who present themselves as opposing Islam (like Bill Maher and Sam Harris) present a similar position. Grouping together Bill Maher, Ben Carson, and Sam Harris is an odd combination ideologically, but they all three repeat the interpretation presented by al-Qaeda and ISIS as being central to the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. All of them need a lesson in the ways people can interpret a text and a tradition to support different, even opposing ideas, as people will put greater weight on one text over another. The KKK and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were both reading from the same Bible.
So, everyone, please stop presenting one interpretation of a text or tradition that another group holds as sacred as the essential or central interpretation. Avoiding this approach is not simply trying to refrain from offending a group. Seeing the diversity of people who identify with (and disagree with each other over) any religion is vital to avoid supporting, often unintentionally, one group as the true followers of a religion and to analyze the complicated workings of society more precisely.