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.
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.
On Wednesday the Senate in Arizona passed legislation that would allow businesses and state employees to deny services to any customer based on their religious beliefs.
Pushed through by the state’s Republican majority, proponents of the Bill argued that it was required to protect business owners from legal action should they refuse to offer services on religious grounds. However, opponents contended that the legislation was tantamount to state-backed discrimination, with same-sex couples the most likely target.
In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled against Peter and Hazelmary Bull, devout Christians who refused a gay couple lodgings in their bed and breakfast hotel because it “violated their faith”. The Bulls were challenging an earlier court decision that forced them to pay £5,000 in damages, with the case going someway to clarify Britain’s current legal standing on matters of sexual orientation versus religious liberty.
In the US, the question of equal rights versus religious convictions is far less settled, with predominantly conservative state legislatures currently looking to push back against the federal overturning of a ban on same-sex marriage last June.
The Arizona Bill states: “Exercise of religion means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”
In opposition, Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar described the Bill as “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom,” adding, “with the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation”. Senator Steve Yarbrough, one of Bill’s sponsors, rejected Tovar’s evaluation, arguing that it serves to “prevent discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith”.
Similar legislation designed the protect religious liberty has been floated in Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Kansas and Tennessee. All have been struck down, with opponents arguing successfully that the proposal would not only discriminate against same-sex couples, but would provide legal backing for prejudice based on race, religion, sex, nationality, age, familial status or disability.
Should the Bill pass the House of Representatives, Arizona will stand alone as a solitary success for those campaigning on the grounds of religious liberty. Yet the push back against the repeal of the Defence of Marriage act is just part of a wider trend in the US, with the evangelical wing of the GOP determined to drive state law more into line with Biblical law, most notably in the religious lobbying to restrict access to abortions – even in cases of rape and incest.
In the post 9/11 paranoia, journalist Oriana Fallaci popularised the idea of Europe being consumed by Islamification, a notion given crude lip service in the UK by the English Defence League (EDL) and the rhetoric of “creeping Sharia”. Yet in the US the threat of religious literalism is far less fatuous, with the mainstream (albeit fractured) Republican Party openly invoking God’s word to justify discrimination against homosexuals.
Yet with a series of court rulings reversing bans on same-sex marriage, even if Arizona’s Bill does become law (it is expected to pass the state House), the faithful will still have a long way to go to push back the onrushing tide of secularism in the US. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state remains in place… albeit with a few bricks soon chipped off.
In a recent attack on the White House, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan paraphrased Ronald Reagan by suggesting “Barack Obama’s America” had taken the place of the Soviet Union as the world’s “evil empire”. It was an appraisal that echoed a speech given by Vladimir Putin in mid-December, in which the Russian leader said that over the past twenty years the US and the erstwhile communist state had switched roles.
For many on America’s Christian right, the Cold War represented more than a bi-polar nuclear stand-off between two superpowers but the bleeding edge of a cosmic battle between the faithful (America) and the Godless (the Soviets). Yet more than two decades after the end of the Soviet experiment, American social conservatives are now looking to Moscow as the guardian of the Christian moral compass.
Since the introduction of Russia’s now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law in June, the country has witnessed a sharp upturn in the number of attacks on members of its LGBT community, while those protesting the legislation have found themselves often targeted by police for mistreatment and arrest.
The bill, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations“, was introduced by Putin as a means of buttressing his dwindling support among Russia’s youth by appealing to members of the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church. In July, Putin declared, “The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped turn it into one of the largest world powers”. This mixture of religion and nationalism was not only a nod to the faithful, but a populist sop to a citizenry of which 90% support legislation that stigmatises the gay community.
Unsurprisingly, the move was decried around the globe, with Europe and the US particularly vocal in their condemnation. Just last week, more than 50 current and former Olympians criticised the anti-gay law, and called on the International Olympic Community (IOC) and the event’s multinational sponsors to do more to change the situation in Russia ahead of this week’s games in Sochi.
Since the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court last June, American gay rights advocates have stepped up their efforts to end bans on gay marriage in at least 20 states, a move that enjoys considerable public support with a 2013 Gallup poll suggesting that around 50% of American adults favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.
Momentum has gathered so quickly that the established wing of a highly divided Republican Party seems to have lost its appetite for a fight over the issue, with House GOP lawyers withdrawing from a defence of DOMA in July. More recently, when asked if the Party should support two openly gay Republican candidates running for office, House Speaker John Boehner stated publically that he did.
Yet equal marriage remains a controversial phenomenon in the US, particularly for the Republican Party’s right flank. So, with the GOP establishment either preoccupied with a futile attempt to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act or an unwillingness to push against the populist tide, Putin’s draconian legislation has become a clarion call for social conservatives across America’s religious heartland.
Just days after Russia’s anti-gay legislation became law, the Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, published a swooning editorial by Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, entitled ‘Putin is not the gay bogeyman’. In the article the author praises Russian resistance to the “political movement to regularise and even celebrate homosexuality,” while criticising the law’s American opponents, stating that there is no “human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets”.
A week later, Larry Jacobs of the World Congress of Families (WCF) gave a radio interview in which he called the Russians the “Christian saviours to the world,” before heralding the anti-propaganda law as “a great idea”.
In August, Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing mouthpiece who hosts a daily syndicated radio show, explained that Russia’s anti-gay laws were a reaction to the country’s need for population growth, reasoning that more people are required for economic security, while offering praise for the Russian leader for “putting his foot down” against a “full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy”.
The same month, Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, struck a more nuanced tone during a recorded Tea Party conference call, attacking President Obama for his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay legislation while noting that by cancelling the planned summit with Putin one day after criticising the Russian law,Obama had turned the advancement of LGBT rights into American foreign policy.
Similarly, Buchanan has on several occasions stated his admiration of the Kremlin, most notably stating that “Putin was trying to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism”. Writing in the World Net Daily, the 75-year-old former senior advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, continued his moral rebuke by lamenting, “Only yesterday, homosexual sodomy, which Thomas Jefferson said should be treated like rape, was outlawed in many states and same-sex marriage was regarded as an absurdity.”
Yet American support for Russia’s state-backed persecution goes further back than 2013, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) highlighting 14 leaders of American conservatism that have visited Russia in recent years to specifically lobby for anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the Illinois-based WCF, just one of six US groups to have signed a controversial global petition backing Russia’s anti-gay law, is scheduled to hold its next global meeting in Moscow this September, with the Russian organisers trumpeting their credentials on the event’s website:
[The] choice of Moscow as the place to organize the next Congress is connected to serious steps in our country [Russia] at the national and international levels aimed at protection of the natural family, family and moral values. Efforts of representatives of Russian society, Russian pro-family organizations defending the priority of marriage and family, parental rights and the sovereignty of the family, the right of children to live with their family, with father and mother, spiritual and moral foundations of human society were highly praised by WCF organizing committee.
In a December speech, Putin struck a similarly conservative chord, arguing that, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
Throughout the Cold War, America’s tough stance towards the Soviets was buttressed by a religious right ready to decry communism as the embodiment of Satan on earth. Viewing the Soviets and communist system as literally evil (and conversely America and capitalism as good) proved a comfortable fit with the premillennial worldview of the evangelical masses.
Yet the spiritual battle ground appears to have shifted with American social conservatives now viewing homosexuality rather than communism as the centre-piece of the good-versus-evil paradigm. So with equality being pushed at home, while Putin fashions himself as a 21st century protector of the Godly abroad, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those on America’s religious right are now looking east and seeing another piece of Reaganite imagery – that “shining city upon a hill”.