Republican presidential hopeful Dr Ben Carson doesn’t want the United States to elect a Muslim as President. For someone who a thousand and one times during high school was urged to read his inspirational books, I am disappointed.

I did read snippets from Gifted Hands and Think Big, and the impression I got was that of the triumph of humanity and unrelenting effort over cultural prejudice. But now the good doctor would have us believe that even if an American lad has gifted hands and thinks big, if he is a Muslim, he should not even consider running for  President.

This is the epitome of self-contradiction, and it is depressing coming from an American of his stature and in an decade when his country is headed by a black man. Quoting Article IV of the US Constitution, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has asked Carson to withdraw from the race and offered him a Qu’ran to help him obtain a better appreciation of the Prophet’s Way.

At its core the American fear of Islam has crystallised into a fear of Muslims themselves, and the negative stereotype has become entrenched to the extent that religion would be used to judge a candidate’s suitability for the top job. The problem is not that Americans fear Islam or don’t understand Islam. It’s that the only version of Islam they know is worthy of fear and misunderstanding.

What Nihad Awad and his colleagues at CAIR should be doing instead of handing out Qu’rans is asking Americans with Muslim friends if they trust them. They’ll probably be very surprised by what they find out.

I come from a continent where a number of countries are headed by Muslim Presidents. In April, Nigeria, a country with more Christians than Muslims according to recent reports, elected Muhammadu Buhari as President in a largely peaceful democratic process. He replaced Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian.

In its short democratic history Nigeria has oscillated, with a few hiccups – and none related to the religion of the candidates – between Muslim and Christian presidents. Obassanjo was replaced by Umaru Yar’Adua, who was replaced by Jonathan, who has now been replaced by Buhari.

Granted, there are far more Muslims in Nigeria, and they’ve been there longer, but Muslims routinely vote for Christians, and Christians routinely vote for Muslims. Nigeria is not without problems related to the Muslim presence and Boko Haram continues to menace its North, but America should learn a few lessons from its experience.

In Kenya, where I live, a country that hasn’t been spared its share of violence at the hands of Islamic terrorists, four cabinet secretaries are Muslims. The President is a Christian but the very important Foreign Ministry is headed by Amina Mohammed, a Muslim. The Muslim cabinet secretaries are just as capable as their non-Muslim counterparts.

What Ben Carson needs is this kind of exposure, just as black kids from underprivileged backgrounds needed to be exposed to stories like his to know they could make it in the world. He needs to see that Muslims are people too, and that they are just as capable of leading a democratic nation.

Americans were once afraid, some still are, that a Catholic President would take orders from the Pope on how to run their country. But they elected John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s and he proved as independent on secular matters as any president could have been. Perhaps more so.

It might be a while before we see a Muslim President in the United States. Perhaps it may never happen. But Ben Carson ought to know that should one come to power, he can only rule within the bounds set by America’s Constitution. If he tries to overstep these limits, there are means within the Constitution to stop him. Outside his homeland, Carson’s words reveal an unfounded and embarrassing paranoia.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya. 

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.