On Monday, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson was bailed out of the controversy over his views of Islam by an unexpected ally. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called a news conference to "ask Mr. Ben Carson to withdraw from the presidential race."
The mild disrespect of calling a medical doctor "mister" was apparently unintentional, but the sheer audacity of CAIR's ask lit a fire on the right. CAIR, which plays a role in Islamic controversies similar to the one the Anti-Defamation League plays in Jewish ones, is not viewed that way by elements of the conservative movement. To many, like Center for Security Policy founder Frank Gaffney, it's viewed as a veritable fifth column that may be "engaged in money-laundering foreign funds to pay for civilizational jihad here." The mainstream media's stenographic coverage of CAIR and Carson sent some leading conservative voices into Carson's camp.
"We are confronting a problem called sharia that is the authoritative version of Islam, not practiced by a lot of Muslims, but those who do have an obligation to force it on the rest of us," Gaffney told liberal radio host Alan Colmes. "It is absolutely anti-constitutional."
Gaffney and others were reacting to more than Carson's stumbling interview with "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd. In a subsequent interview with The Hill's Jon Easley, Carson had said that he had been talking not about Islam generally but about sharia law specifically. "Obviously if a Muslim was running for president, there would be a lot more education about sharia, about taqiyya," he said, referring to Islam's term for concealing one's religion in the face of a credible threat. On the "anti-sharia" right, Carson was being railroaded.
"Let me help out these genius journalists, a.k.a. Democrats, a.k.a. liberals, a.k.a. know-nothings," snarked conservative radio host and author Mark Levin. "There's a difference in Islam that does not apply to Judaism and Christianity and other religions. That is, sharia law is not just a governing law in your personal lives. It is a governing law. That's why in Saudi Arabia, they set up sharia courts."
Carson's understanding of sharia law was controversial but hardly unique. Seven Republican-dominated states have banned the hypothetical threat of sharia law or sharia courts that Muslims might hypothetically convene to contravene state law.
"If you look into sharia law, you will not find any consistency with the U.S. Constitution," Rush Limbaugh told his listeners Monday. "Sharia law is the law which is used to behead women in Islamic countries who have been raped. Sharia law is the reason women in Islamic countries can't drive. Sharia law is so inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. Ben Carson could not be more right. And the question he was asked was in that context. 'Well, do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?' Well, sharia law isn't."
CAIR's battle to debunk this has largely succeeded in the media -- but not on the right. Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese immigrant who warns that radical Muslims have already infiltrated the government, will speak at this coming weekend's Values Voter Summit, an event bringing nine of the Republican Party's presidential candidates to Washington, including Carson. The candidate, who has used similar forums to litigate battles with the media, told reporters in Ohio on Tuesday that they had confused his argument about sharia for a criticism of Muslims.
"If people listen to that interview, they’ll notice that I said that anybody, regardless of their interview or affiliation, if they embrace American values and they place the Constitution at the top level, that I embrace that person," Carson said. "It seems to be hard for people to actually hear English and understand it. . . . Sharia law is completely antithetical to Americanism."
Carson went on to blame the entire controversy on "political correctness," a bugaboo of his campaign that's just as unpopular on the right as sharia.
"It is downright sad watching the left-leaning media beat up all the Republican candidates because they don't embrace the liberal PC litmus test," Bill O'Reilly said at the start of his Fox News show Monday. ". . . Dr. Carson believing that Islamic tenets don't line up with Judeo-Christian philosophy on which the country was founded? And he is not allowed to say that? It's his opinion. Well, here's a bulletin: Unlike many Muslim countries, we have free speech in America. And Carson's opinion shouldn't disqualify him from anything but individual votes if that be the case. All of this PC fog has shrouded important issues."