Muslim Congressman Andre Carson on the Bible Belt, equal marriage, madrassas and an LGBT President

Representing Indiana’s 7th district, Andre Carson is only the second Muslim to be elected to serve in the United States Congress following Minnesotan Keith Ellison, who was elected in 2006.

Carson won a special election in early 2008 to succeed his late grandmother, Congresswoman Julia Carson. He then retained his seat at the general election later that year, and won re-election in 2010 against Republican candidate Marvin Scott, a man roundly criticised during the campaign for, as the Indianapolis Star put it, “resorting to attacks on Carson’s Muslim religion“. Carson was again re-elected in the recent midterm elections, beating Republican and libertarian candidates.

Born to a Baptist family in 1974, Carson converted to Islam when he was “16 or 17-years-old “having been “greatly impacted” by the Muslims in his community who were “pushing back on crime and protecting the neighborhood”. He also found within the Quran and the teachings of the faith answers to theological questions that had been “stirring his intellectual curiosity”during his teenage years.

His childhood was initially difficult, with his mother suffering from mental illness, a condition that led her and her young son to be briefly homeless. His grandmother, a “liberal woman” who benefited from an “appreciation and fondness for Islam”, raised Carson, providing him “space to grow and study”.

Having graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a Master in business management, Carson became a police officer, transferring to a counter terrorism unit in Homeland Security after nine years working the beat, a posting that taught him the futility of trying to “fight the threat of global terror without Muslims”.

Before his election to Congress, Carson served in local politics on a Democratic Party Committee in Indianapolis. After winning the special election, he continued his work on the national stage, becoming a vocal advocate for improving education and health care reform. He has been critical of the US role in Iraq but supportive of US military efforts in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Carson courted controversy by suggesting US public schools should be modeled after Madrassas, or Islamic schools that are built on the foundations of the Quran, words he said were “taken out of context.”

HuffPost UK spoke to the 40-year-old Congressman about his faith, the role it plays in his politics and the wider role of religion in American society.

How did your difficult childhood shape your life and politics?

My mother suffered from schizophrenia so my grandmother raised me. My mother was a brilliant woman – she had a doctorate degree and was a devout Christian – but of course the illness impacted her judgment. But going through that difficult experience deepened my sensitivity to the less fortunate, to those who don’t have home or shelter. Later on this complimented my Islamic belief in relation to almsgiving and helping the poor. That kind of experience should only shape a person to become a better humanitarian. It made me want to give back and make the world a better place.

Was there any kind of pushback from your Baptist family after you revealed you were converting to Islam?

Absolutely. There were some relatives who were told not to associate with me. However, my grandmother had a fondness and an appreciation for the religion, and she was wise enough to give me the space to grow and study, even though I was living under her roof. It’s easy to be revolutionary when you don’t have a mortgage.

Your grandmother encouraged your move towards the faith?

She definitely encouraged me because she knew for me as a young African American male that as long as I was in the faith I was not getting in trouble, the kind of trouble that would have left me incarcerated.

Still, some relatives were deeply disappointed. We laugh about it now but at the time where they were spiritually did not compliment my spiritual journey. It was good preparation though; rejection from loved ones hurts, especially as a teenager but I fell in love with the faith; it just answered questions for me.

Who inspired you to go into public office?

My grandmother again was a cheerleader but the late Congressman Andy Jacobs [a Democrat from Indiana who served in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years] also influenced me. He was like a dad to me, my Obi-wan-Kenobi. He was very liberally minded and encouraged my religious exploration. Judge David Shaheed, who is now my father-in-law and was the first elected Muslim judge in the United States, also influenced me.

Islam is often associated with helping the oppressed or giving to the poor. How do these religious tenets carry over into your support for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), or your work trying to improve standards of education?

It was the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who stated explicitly in the Hadith that a man who educates his daughters is granted paradise. I think that has figurative implications and political implications. In the prophet’s last sermon he said there is no superiority – white over black, Arab over non-Arab – words that were quite visionary and also applicable to our times today.

On the Affordable Care Act, one of the Islamic tenets is charity and giving to the less fortunate. The United States is arguably the wealthiest nation in recorded history, a country whose healthcare is a large part its GDP. Solving the problem of healthcare relieves a lot of those budgetary issues, but also sees the less fortunate in my community get help. Though it was complicated, people now – Republicans and Democrats – are appreciating the fact we were bold enough to take on the issue in 2010.

Do American Muslims need to become more entrenched in American society, particularly civil society and law enforcement? How do you encourage that?

It was a challenge for me. At 17, after I had started studying the religion, I was arrested because police officers tried to go into a mosque without probable cause. That arrest fuelled me into wanting to become a police officer, which I did. I managed to do that and I was assigned to homeland security, terrorism and counter-intelligence. What I learned is that in the US, as in the UK, it is impossible to fight the threat of global terror without help from Muslims.

But there is a problem with institutional bigotry. We have a tradition of COINTELPRO [an acronym for the controversial counter intelligence program started in the 1950s by the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover that targeted civil rights groups, black nationalists and equality movements], which had a horrible impact, sowing deep levels of suspicion that have solidified over the years.

Also, xenophobia has become exacerbated because of extremist elements [within Islam], but I still say that Muslims have to take control of our own destiny and to reclaim our destiny we have to engage in a political process. Is it corrupt? Yes, in many aspects. Can we help remedy some of the corruption that’s pervasive, or correct some of the misconceptions about Muslims locally and internationally? Yes.

The question becomes how do we leverage our voting blocks to become precinct committee persons, become ward chairs, members of school boards, or members of zoning boards? Every time we try and build a school or a mosque there are impediments because of local zoning boards [these provide planning permission for buildings, similar to local planning authorities in the UK]. If we increase our presence we can change that.

There are numerous Muslim men and women who are not only starting businesses but they are running successful businesses. They are putting Americans back to work. We should have that same type of management in the governmental space in governor’s offices and in mayoral races. It’s time to have Muslim mayors of major cities.

Are you seeing more engagement from Muslims in local politics, where all the decision tends to get made?

Yes, and not only in my own state. As I travel the country I’m speaking to large Muslim groups telling them we can no longer have a mistress relationship with politicians.

They [politicians] come to our communities under the cover of darkness because they don’t want to be seen with us in public. That is unacceptable for a community that is highly educated, and has a large amount of capital that can be leveraged to create our own super PACs [these are organisations that pool campaign contributions and donate those funds to candidates]. But unless we see our own value we will not see significant changes in regards to the treatment we are receiving.

You and Keith Ellison are both from the Midwest. Observers would have probably predicted the first elected Muslims would have come from the more cosmopolitan areas, cities such as New York or LA?

I’m in the Bible Belt but what you’ll find about Midwesterners is that they’re less concerned about what religion a person is and more concerned with their value system and whether they’ll deliver. What you are seeing from Representative Ellison and myself are Muslims that come from the African American experience. we are more concerned with civil and human rights, with education, with the global economy, creating jobs and how to repair broken infrastructure. These are issues Midwesterners relate to.

So Indiana constituents in 2008 didn’t see a Muslim man, or they did but first they saw a former police officer, and then a man that had served in local government?

During the campaign there were a number of YouTube videos posted that tried to discredit me because of my religion. But the polling data we received stated that most people only really cared that I was a police officer and a former city councilor. It speaks to Midwestern sensibilities that folks are not be so wrapped up in a person’s faith. They just want someone they can trust to represent them well in the halls of Congress.

Do you think it would be harder for an American Muslim to win a seat in Congress with a more Middle Eastern name?

This is a debate I often have with my Arab friends, and a very serious one. This is why it’s important to get involved in local races and local communities. It’s about Muslims becoming entrenched in the community over time, then people will see that their local councilor happens to be Muslim and realise it’s not so bad.

But we can take cues from our friends in the Irish community, the Jewish community and the Italian community. Just looks at the years of investment they have made. Many Americans from the Middle East have been focused on becoming doctors or lawyers and that’s fantastic, but if we see significant investment in our local communities we’ll see change within a decade.

Is religion still important in American politics?

We are seeing that people are no longer wedded to organised religion, the kind of religiosity that is burdensome, that is guilt obsessed, that is ritual obsessed. Folks are concerned with a personal relationship with God, a relationship with their family and a relationship with their community, and an intermediary cannot regulate that.

When we remove intermediaries from our connection with God, it frees us from the burden of serving a human being and allows us to serve the Creator. People are becoming more entrenched in faith because it gives us a sense of comfort in our tumultuous times, but folks don’t want to become affiliated with organised religion.

Some Republicans, backed by campaign groups, are sincerely pushing for the US to adopt a more “Christian” worldview. Is this a concern?

I always respect a person’s religion. I had a lot of support from the Christian community when I ran. There was a small group of Christian ministers that didn’t want me to speak in their churches because they thought I was unfit due to my religion, but overwhelmingly more Christian pastors welcomed me into their pulpits and they still do.

The founders [of the United States] were very visionary when they said there should be no religious test to hold public office because there can be a danger when politicians use their public office to proselytise, and to ostracise people who don’t feel the same way as them.

In 2011, you said the American school system should be more like Islamic madrassas. What did you mean by that?

My words were taken out of context. I was speaking to a group of Muslims and talking about pride. Some of the children from our [religious] schools were leaving multi-lingual and going to Ivy League universities. I said we needed to tell that story more, and be proud of our successes.

I used the word madrassas and folks took that out of context. What I was saying is that some traditional American public schools are graduating students that are functionally illiterate. So we should look at different models, not the religious aspect because I believe in the separation of church and state, but extract some of their methodology. What can we learn from some of our religious schools, from our Jewish schools, out Christian-based schools – and take that and put it into the public school setting?

As a Muslim, do you have to watch what you say knowing the far right are ready to pounce?

Sure, but I’m a very passionate person, I get very pumped. Knowing that I’m always being watched, I have to be careful but I also have to be authentic.

You’re a vocal advocate of equal-marriage, an area most traditional religions have a problem with. Does you faith ever clash with your politics?

For me equal marriage is an issue of civil rights. If we believe we are all part of God’s creation we should be careful about making these calls. The LGBT community is making great strides and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future president coming from that community.

But how can I as an elected official just represent one constituency? We represent all people. Muslims should be mindful that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We should have equality on all fronts.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Is God the problem with American politics?

“You’re the anti-Christ, you will be destroyed,” screamed an incensed heckler during a speech by Barack Obama in June this year. It was not the first time Obama had heard this very pointed line, nor was he the first President to hear it.

Anti-Obama rallies are often decorated with signs or t-shirts carrying overtly religious messages, whether it’s likening him to the Devil, demanding that Christian prayers be returned to schools or suggesting that America has a divine mission – one the “Muslim” in the White House is currently derailing.

These remain in a minority. Populist movements such as the Tea Party are predominantly concerned with economic issues, and most signs and banners reflect that – but it is a notable difference from the UK and Western Europe that anti-government rallies include any religious motifs at all.

Despite polling showing a waning in religion’s influence in the US, the country remains one of the most devout in the Western world, an outlier amongst the secular, industrialised democracies, with more than 50% of Americans saying that religion is important to them, almost three times as many as most of Western Europe.

Centuries of bloodshed over God finally persuaded Europeans to extricate religion from political life. The US experience ran counter, with religion and politics becoming inextricably fused, pushed together during the 20th century by the preaching of Billy Graham, the “good versus evil” framing of the Cold War and the end of the self-imposed exile of the evangelical right.

As the German sociologist Hans Joas noted, “The more secularised large parts of Europe became, the more exotic the religiosity of the United States seemed to European observers.”

Which brings us to today: an America in crisis – limp, hobbled and unable to function. All but the opening act of Obama’s six-year vignette has been mired in political dysfunction, the tribes parting as Republicans retreated to an ideological hinterland formerly the redoubt of biblical literalists, economic fantasists and men with too many guns and too little life experience.

Last October, Republicans courted global economic calamity by failing to pass legislation to appropriate sufficient funds to pay America’s international debts – shutting down the government for two weeks, a bizarre act of retribution against the President, enacted by the Tea Party-wing of the GOP for his attempt to reform healthcare.

The current (113th) Congress is the least productive in modern American history. Its divided factions passing so few pieces of legislation that is has garnered a staggering public disapproval rating of 83%. Following the Republican victory in the recent midterm elections, the deadlock looks set to continue at least until the end of the Obama presidency, but very likely beyond for a generation.

Sitting at the heart of this intransigence appears to be religion, with the Republicans, once the party of business and a strong military, morphing into an entity preoccupied with so-called “Christian values.” Representing this change is a new class of politician – Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz et al – emblems of an outspoken Christian political class, fused together by scripture, distrust of the federal government (even though they’re part of it), a fear of Islamism and a sincere belief that the man in the White House is a demon.

As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz pointed out during the presidential campaign of 2012, “‘God’s Own Party’ now really is just that.”

But is this most recent Christian revival at the root of America’s dysfunction? Author Frank Schaeffer bluntly suggested during the government shutdown late last year that America doesn’t have a political problem… it has an “evangelical stupidity problem.” Schaeffer argued that the Republican party had been taken over by Christian extremists – people who believe that Christ will return to judge or kill unbelievers – and that this retributive theology has crossed over into the political mainstream.

“So let’s tell the truth: a fanatical religious element is dominating our political life these days,” he wrote. “Until this hard truth is called what it is and squarely faced, we’ll be stuck with these guys… and gridlock. Wake up: our evangelical-led right isn’t interested in policy. They are an apocalyptic cult led by the none-too-bright.”

For Schaffer, the Christian coup of the Republican Party is at the heart of the “sectarianism” that now dominates Washington, aided by an “us-or-them view, revealing those with whom you disagree to be not just wrong, but lost, or even willfully evil.”

On the surface, it’s a convincing case. America, a country whose political culture is permeated by religion, has reached gridlock, a Manichean standoff in which one tribe is engaged in a zero-sum game, one in which to compromise is to lose. After all, why would you ever compromise with the Devil?

In the UK, no matter how fierce the political protest, you are unlikely to see reference or motif shorn from the Bible. British airwaves are not laden with call-in shows discussing whether George Osborne is in fact the anti-Christ, and half Britain’s political class isn’t trying to make the case that the other half is in league with the Devil.

Yet for Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist specialising in moral psychology at New York University, this type of thinking is not unique to the US, nor is religion the root cause of America’s current political dysfunction. “We’re very good at hating each other and we’re very good at forming alliances,” he told HuffPost. “Religion is built on this psychology but you can easily have quite nasty disputes without it.”

For Haidt, the dysfunction is a product of “affective partisan polarisation”, a straight measure of how people feel towards those (politically) on the other side. During the Seventies and Eighties, data showed that Americans felt slightly negative on average towards people in the other party, howeverduring the past 10-15 years this has plummeted from slightly negative to very negative. “That’s what’s gone wrong with the US,” he said.

Allied to this “affective partisan polarisation” is the US constitutional system, which is very good at putting checks and balances on power (it was designed to prevent a despotism) but this division of power “grinds to a stop when the two parties hate each other”.

In the UK the system of “responsible party government” means that whoever wins the election can actually pass legislation, regardless of the opposition. As Haidt points out, “parliamentary systems are not nearly as vulnerable to gridlock as a separation of powers system.”

One of the most persistent criticisms of the British political class is the charge of elitism. Earlier this year Michael Gove, then a Tory Minister, complained that there were “too many old Etonians” at the heart of British government.

Even across the two main parties, currently the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Shadow Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister all went to Oxford or Cambridge. Likewise, they all live in London, they all know each other and, despite disagreements, they all have informal relationships with one another, making compromise possible.

These informal relationships among America’s political class have long since disintegrated, abruptly ended by Newt Gingrich, who became leader of the House of Representatives in 1995.

Gingrich, who went on to run for president in 2012, deliberately set about remaking the Republican Party into a far more combative entity, changing the political calendar of the House so that work was only done on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

With a now shortened working week, Gingrich encouraged his members not to move to Washington and instead to stay in their states, flying in for three days a week to enact the business of government. Once that happened, opposing politicians no longer saw each other at cocktail parties, their children no longer attended the same schools, and their spouses no longer mixed. “That simple change to Congressional procedure really changed the ability of Congress to function,” said Haidt.

While Britain’s elite-filled government is seen as less democratic, at least these informal relationships enable politicians of different stripes to speak to each other. The prominence of activist populist movements in the US may make the Union more democratic, however, their influence means that Congressmen, particularly Republicans, are unable to vote for what they believe is right. Instead they have to respond to the populist demands of the Tea Party or the various groups that campaign for religious conservatism.

So the problem with American politics is not religion (notions of good and evil seem hardwired into human psychology) but the polarisation of the political class within a system that requires compromise to function. Often this polarisation is expressed through religious metaphors and motifs because that’s the vocabulary ingrained within the culture.

As Dr Uta Balbier, the Director of the Institute of North American Studies at King’s College London, tells HuffPost, “In a political discourse heavily afflicted with religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric there is probably a stronger tendency to evoke Biblical metaphors to describe good and evil such as the figure of the anti-Christ.”

It is this cultural “familiarity with Biblical prophecy as proven by the prominence of apocalyptic thinking” that reduces political discourse to a battle between good versus evil, but this is simply an expression of the deep polarisation of the country.

British political culture has long since shed these “religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric”. As Alastair Campbell famously quipped when the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to speak publicly about his faith, “we don’t do God.

Yet God isn’t quite off the hook. Throughout history, conservative movements have risen in response to rapid transformation, never more so than the massive cultural (and necessary) changes of the Sixties – social changes that, Haidt argues, “energised and galvanised a very powerful conservative reaction”.

Before the Sixties, American evangelicals had traditionally stayed out of politics. It was only after the Supreme Court banned prayer in school and legalised abortion that the religious right became an active political force.

This set in motion the rise of what Schaeffer describes as a “fanatical religious element” within one of the parties, resulting in a current charged climate in which half the population is unwilling to hear “basic economic or environmental facts”, and who “opt for their own special facts mainlined from talk radio or Fox news”.

And with continued “Liberal” victories in the courtroom, most notably the rapid removal of barriers to equal marriage, this “fanatical” religious element won’t be returning to the political wilderness anytime soon.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

The Christian right goes into meltdown

NEW YORK — The US Supreme Court delivered a tacit victory for advocates of gay marriage on Monday, refusing to hear appeals on whether individual states can ban marriage between same-sex couples.

As a result, 11 more states are likely to join the 19 already permitting gay marriage, leaving only 20 to go before the entire nation is draped in rainbow equality. That means roughly 60% of Americans now live in states where equal marriage is legal.

However, as campaigners pointed out the fight isn’t over until the Supreme Court provides a ruling covering all 50 states, bringing the country to what Evan Wolfson of the group Freedom to Marry called a “nationwide resolution”.

Still, the court’s sidestepping of the issue is a huge blow to America’s Christian right and advocates for the “sanctity” of traditional marriage – many of who reacted to the decision like this…

Public opinion in the US has so overwhelmingly moved in favour of gay marriage in recent years that even the Republican Party – nothing more than a vassal for well-financed bigotry of late – was reluctant to speak out against the court’s rejection.

Apart, of course, from Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his Utah factotum Mike Lee, with the latter echoing the former in condemning the court for “abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution” and allow individual states to define marriage.

This would be the same sacred constitution Cruz now wants to amend to reverse the “tragic and indefensible” decision. Yet that was nothing compared to the collective stamping of feet across America’s heartland, as the Godly voiced their disapproval.

Take Peter LaBarbera, a social conservative activist and president of the pithily named Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, who concluded that as a result of the court’s decision Americans “live not in freedom but under tyranny”.

Allowing same-sex couple to marry was so egregious that LaBarbera even called for “civil disobedience on a massive scale”.

“God is not mocked: the Scriptures are clear that homosexual practice is an offense against both God and the very bodies of those who practice it (as is all sexual immorality),” he trumpeted.

Then there was Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain who was once court-martialed for turning up to an anti-Obama rally in uniform, and who now makes a living on Christian TV.

He reacted with bluster, reminding his followers that “sodomy is still banned by God in all 50 states” and “God will have the last word”. He added: “Every child has a right to a mom and dad. Cruel judges now deny kids’ rights in 30 states.”

The Family Research Council was equally vexed, releasing a statement saying the court had “undermine[d] natural marriage and the rule of law”.

“As more and more people lose their livelihoods because they refuse to not just tolerate but celebrate same-sex marriage, Americans will see the true goal, which is for activists to use the Court to impose a redefinition of natural marriage on the entire nation,” the council squawked.

Focus on the Family similarly bellowed, “marriage has always been – and will always be – between a man and a woman… Ultimately, no court can change that truth”. More ominously the Faith and Freedom Coalition promised the Supreme Court that it would “reap a political whirlwind” for their inaction.

Troublingly for the GOP, the court’s decision has placed equal marriage back at the forefront of the national debate, and with a presidential election in 2016, it is not an issue prospective candidates can hope to duck – no matter how many times they deflect to “jobs” and “the economy”.

During the presidential primaries, the Christian right will expect Republican candidates to come out forcefully in favour of “traditional marriage” – anyone that doesn’t is unlikely to get nominated by the party.

Yet – and here’s the real quandary – any candidate that opposes equal marriage has almost zero chance of winning a national election. Short of praying for the Rapture, it’s a conundrum the Republican Party and its overly influential Christian base has yet to solve.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.