“(The American Dream is) that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement...a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
These words, written in 1931 by U.S. writer and popular historian James Truslow Adams, have come to epitomize what many believe to be true. Namely, that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed and can even be president of the United States no matter if you were born rich or poor, white, black or brown, Jewish, Christian or whatever.
Yet Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said he would not advocate that a Muslim be elected to the highest office in the land.
“It's very disheartening to hear people running for president say something like that," said Emad Meerza. He is the amir, or president, of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield. The organization oversees five Islamic centers in Kern County.
Meerza estimates there are at least 5,000 Muslims living in Kern County, many of whom were disheartened by Carson’s ridiculous comments.
In case you missed it, here's a transicript of what Carson said on “Meet the Press” when questioned by host Chuck Todd.
Todd: “Should a president's faith matter? Should your faith matter to the voters?”
Carson: “Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, I have no problem.”
Todd: “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?”
Carson: “No, I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
“The sad part is that Carson is not alone in saying and believing things like that," said Meerza. "(Muslims) are very easy prey right now for political points, we're a kicking can.”
To its credit, another local faith-based group is speaking out on this.
“I believe (Carson’s) statement in itself is reminiscent of the 1960s when people said that Catholics could not be president,” said Faith in Action President Joey Williams, referring to John F. Kennedy.
Faith in Action is a coalition of churches, mostly in east Bakersfield, that advocates for social justice.
“We really should be at the point in our society that we believe that there is room for all at the table instead of building fences or deterrents to box people in.”
The leader of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield was born in Kuwait and arrived in the country when he was 5 years old. He embraced his adopted country and became a U.S. citizen.
Meerza’s wife, Charman Bryan Meerza, was a teacher for 25 years at Col. Nichols Elementary School, where she loved teaching kindergarten students. In July, the 48-year-old passed away after a six-year battle with breast cancer, leaving behind Meerza and their two children, a 20-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
OK, I get that some in the current crop of Republican presidential candidates are making bizarre statements as they try to take the spotlight away from Donald Trump. I don't like it, but that's reality.
But for thousands of American Muslims living in Kern County and the rest of the Central Valley, they, too, must live with this twisted version of reality. It's as if they are guilty by association for terrorist acts committed by others.
"It's very demoralizing for our children," said Meerza. "Carson and others don't care about the amount of damage they inflict on our families."
Those families include law enforcers, prosecutors, doctors, attorneys, educators, engineers and plain working folks.
Though his offensive comments about Muslims drew condemnation from civil rights groups and some of Carson's Republican rivals, the retired neurosurgeon told CNN that after he made them, campaign donations were coming in so fast it was hard to keep up with how much was coming in.
Meerza is hardly fazed people would donate to Carson after saying what he said. He just finds it despairing people buy into the rhetoric.
As usually happens with people running for office, Carson soon went into damage control, blaming the media for twisting his words. But the damage was done. Not to Carson, but to American Muslims who are subjected to this and worse types of abuse from people one thinks should know better.
Meerza is not asking for an apology from Carson. He would rather have a dialogue with other faith-based groups about any perceived misconceptions or differences people have with the local Muslim community. There's a saying in Spanish that says, “Hablando se entiende la gente,” which essentially translates to “Understanding comes when people talk.”
Faith in Action leader Williams said he welcomes the opportunity to meet with the local Muslim community.
The bottom line: Muslim children do not need to be told that they cannot dream of being elected president because of their faith.
“It would trouble me greatly if others would lead them to believe they are less American because of our faith," said Meerza. "They have the right to believe in the American dream."
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.