Last night, Megyn Kelly held a town hall event for all of the remaining Republican presidential candidates save Donald Trump, who had a prior engagement. During one exchange, Dr. Ben Carson addressed concerns that his foreign policy skills were shallow. He argued that he had studied the issues quite deeply, and he insisted that if anyone doubted his foreign policy acumen, that person should just ask him foreign policy questions.
It’s not a wise decision for a candidate to make himself this vulnerable, and Carson’s advisers, if he still has them, were probably having anxiety attacks when those words escaped Carson’s lips. One doesn’t dare people to play “Stump the Chump,” and one especially doesn’t play that dangerous game with an interviewer like Megyn Kelly in the room.
Kelly, of course, took this opportunity to ask Carson a relatively innocuous question. She said, paraphrased, “Okay. I have a question. What’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam?”
Carson was very confident in his answer, which makes the absurdity of it even more alarming. Certain he was hitting a home run, Dr. Carson answered, again, paraphrased, “Well, Sunni tend to be more fundamentalist, and Shi’a tend to be more secular.” Gwuh?
Now, I grant you, in the 1970s through perhaps even the early 1990s, most Presidential candidates could be forgiven for not understanding the nuances of the two main sects of Islam. In this day and age, though, particularly when we’re so heavily invested in the dynamics among Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, this sort of nonsensical answer is inexcusable.
In point of fact, the primary difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam concerns who rightfully succeeded Mohammed after his death. Sunnis believe Mohammed’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was the rightful successor; Shi’a believe Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib succeeded him. There are more details than that, of course, but this disagreement over succession followed by 1400 years or so of deviating traditions has caused these two groups not to get along especially well.
In sum, Carson made himself vulnerable by boasting that he was knowledgeable about foreign policy. He then completely and utterly flubbed a very basic foreign policy question. Kelly, to her credit, didn’t argue with him, but let his exposure speak for itself. Now, the substance of Carson’s answer is, of course, wildly inaccurate. There are secular and fundamentalist movements in both Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Sunni Islam is by far the larger tradition; the suggestion that it is more fundamentalist than Shi’a Islam is a bit appalling. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country on the planet, possesses a secular government and is relatively tolerant of the minority religions it recognizes. Jordan is, of course, hardly a fundamentalist Muslim country, and while Turkey has become less secular under Erdogan, secularism has characterized its recent history. Egypt, controlled by one of the more powerful militaries on the planet, has tried to be secular of late. And so on.
With regard to Shi’a Islam, which is much smaller, the countries in play are chiefly Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, which have large Shi’a populations. It’s true that in the early 70s, all three countries were relatively secular in nature. All three nations, however, have struggled with fundamentalist Shi’a Islam to varying degrees, with Iran dominated by the fundamentalist Ayotollahs, Lebanon terrorized by Hezbollah, and Iraq lately trying to balance its three sects in the face of increased Iranian influence.
In sum, national foreign policy concerning Islam requires nuanced understanding, sober political realism, and good foreign policy instincts, all of which Dr. Carson has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks. I wish to high heaven he’d run for state or local level office instead of the Presidency.