Muslims Can Serve

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson asserts that the United States should not have a Muslim president because Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution. According to Dr. Carson, "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." Dr. Carson does not appreciate the difference between a "Muslim," who is devoted to Islamic teachings, and a radical "Islamist" who rejects man-made laws and constitutional democracy.

There is nothing about the Islamic faith that by itself disqualifies Muslims from public office.

Islam, alongside Judaism and Christianity, is one of the Abrahamic religions. Muslims believe in one God, and they follow God's teachings. These teachings are revealed in the Qur'an, which literally means recitation, and are exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. To Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and charity.

Most Muslims believe in Shari'a law. Shari'a is an Islamic system of moral and religious law derived from the Qur'an and accounts of the Prophet's life. Shari'a codifies moral principles revealed by God, which transcend man-made laws. According to mainstream Sunni legal theory, Shari'a and state law can co-exist. Muslims can express grievances by participating in elections or litigating before the courts.

Radical Islam is different.

Radical Islamists also believe in Shari'a, but they are adamantly convinced that their interpretation of Sharia is true in all respects. They do not countenance dissent, nor do they accept state laws. Radical Islamists aspire to create an Islamic State. They reject any law, which is inconsistent with their interpretation of God's command.

This approach to governance is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. Social harmony is important to Muslims who live in diverse societies, such as Indonesia, Turkey, and Bangladesh. Islam rejects violence committed in God's name.

The US president-elect must take the following oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

When John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for president, some feared he would be more faithful to the papacy than the US Constitution. Faith is not a litmus test for public service. Members of the US Congress also take an oath to defend and preserve the Constitution. Keith Ellison, the Muslim congressman from Minnesota, is not barred from the U.S. House of Representatives simply because he is Muslim.

A critical distinction exists between a Muslim and a radical Islamist. Muslims may serve. Radical Islamists who reject constitutional democracy and allegiance to the US Constitution may not.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is author of many books including From Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition.