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Muhammad and Medicine: We Need to Talk About Devout Muslim Doctors

On May 24, the New York Times ran a piece by Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Cass Sunstein, the noted law professor. The headline: “Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?” They posed a hypothetical:

Suppose you need to see a dermatologist. Your friend recommends a doctor, explaining that “she trained at the best hospital in the country and is regarded as one of the top dermatologists in town.” You respond: “How wonderful. How do you know her?”

Your friend’s answer: “We met at the Republican convention.”

The reader, of course, is assumed to be a Democrat. Would that reader mind going to a skin doctor who voted Republican? Sharot and Sunstein, as it happened, had performed an experiment designed to answer precisely that question. Their conclusion: “[K]nowing about people’s political beliefs did interfere with the ability to assess those people’s expertise in other, unrelated domains.”

Of course the fact that a doctor is a registered Republican says nothing one way or the other about his or her medical expertise. In such a case, political beliefs are indeed unrelated to professional skill. But there are other beliefs about which this is not necessarily the case. Only a couple of days before the Times piece ran, the noted Islam critic Robert Spencer recalled his nightmarish experience in Iceland last year: while he was in Reykjavik to give a talk, a leftist put poison in his drink. Shortly thereafter he began suffering a range of alarming symptoms: he trembled and vomited, his heart was racing, he felt numb all over. Rushed to a hospital, he found himself in the care of a doctor, Hjalti Mar Bjornsson, whose Facebook page he would later discover to be “filled with vicious blood libels of Israel, puerile attacks on Donald Trump, and fervent endorsements of Europe’s policies of mass Muslim migration.”

Apparently recognizing Spencer (not surprising, given that a public appearance in Iceland by any foreigner of significance is covered heavily in that tiny country's media and heard about by pretty much everybody), this doctor didn't do any of the basic things he should have done. His handling of Spencer was later described as “dismissive.” Only the most incompetent of doctors could have given a patient in that condition such poor treatment in good faith. It seems far more likely that Bjornsson was not incompetent but was, in fact, acting with malice.

Spencer's experience in Iceland is not unique. Last year, a Christian in Pakistan died because three Muslim doctors refused to touch him. It was Ramadan, and the patient, being Christian, was “unclean.”  Yes, doctors are supposed to be above such considerations. Hippocratic Oath and all that. “First do no harm.” But for devout Muslims, other doctrines take precedence. The Koran instructs them not to heal the infidel but to slay him. What does a pious Muslim physician think when confronted with a critically ill patient who is not only an infidel but a critic of Islam? Living -- and aging -- in a country with more and more Muslim doctors, I've pondered this question with increasing frequency over the years. To complicate the issue, I'm not only an infidel and an outspoken Islam critic but a gay man. Every faithful Muslim knows what his religion tells him to do with people like me. It's all quite straightforward. Does a medical-school diploma on the wall and a stethoscope around the neck make a difference to this cold Koranic calculus?