By Halim Naeem, psychologist and president of Muslim Mental Health
Ben Carson has shown his incompetence as an aspiring civil servant yet again. Calling ‘Sharia adherent’ Muslims “schizophrenic” for engaging a democracy is simultaneously stigmatizing and bigoted.
Carson should take a lesson from the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). It is wrong to stigmatize anyone struggling with mental illness by using diagnostic terms pejoratively. He ought to know better as a doctor. In case he slept through this part of his medical training, schizophrenia is a serious mental illness characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and/or disorganized thinking. It affects approximately one percent of any population, across cultures, ethnicities, and religious categories. Schizophrenia is not a disease of Islamic extremism, fundamentalist Christianity, or megalomaniac politicians. It is a brain disorder that does not discriminate and causes real suffering to individuals and families across the country. This year’s Muslim Mental Health Conference on Mar 17 in Dearborn, MI will educate about the reality of mental illness and its effect on the American Muslim population.
Carson’s ignorance is not limited to psychiatry; he also frequently misuses the term “Sharia.” As an African-American Muslim, born and raised in the U.S., I find it reprehensible for Carson to assert that my (and other American Muslims’) values are not compatible with American democratic values. Sharia is the Muslim’s version of the way, but God’s way. Sunnah, or traditions of the prophet, is the prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) way or God’s way manifested into human life. Sharia is legal discourse that spans centuries and across many cultures. Much like U.S. constitutional law or Jewish Talmudic law consists of a large canon of dissenting opinions, lively debates arguments, and case precedents, so too does Sharia. Sharia addresses everything from heredity rights, treatment of the poor, being just to women, not discriminating based on color or socioeconomic status, ending sexual assault, abolishing human trafficking, opening the door for the elderly, smiling at someone who needs it, loving your family, and so on. In other words, it is practicing Islam in daily life. Congressmen Andre Carson and Keith Ellison have said they are practicing Muslims. I believe they have engaged in this democracy very well.
As a professional who works specifically with Muslims and their mental health-related concerns, it is incumbent on me that the experts on this topic be at the forefront of the conversation. I have dedicated my career, as well as community activism, to combating stigma against mental disorders, as well as breaking down barriers for American Muslims to seek mental health and social services. His rants not only undermine our extensive work but also contribute to the distrust and disillusionment of the community.
Perhaps most concerning about this former practicing physician, is what his statement implies about politicians who make similar statements pertaining to those dissimilar to themselves. Subtle suggestions pathologizing entire groups cannot be ignored by voters. For some “leaders,” these represent the first steps along a continuum of instilling fear about dangerous sub-humans living among the populace that eventually will be scapegoated to further their own gain–in 2016, it has become the Muslims.