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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?

Of course, we're constantly being assured that concerns on this score are baseless. Indeed, the politically correct line is that the real problem here is infidel patients who harbor unfounded hostility for Muslim doctors. Two years ago, the Daily Beast ran a piece headlined “Muslim Doctors to Trump Fans: We’ll Treat You Even if You Hate Us.” The occasion was the GOP convention in Cleveland, where a lot of doctors are Muslims. Predictably, the piece portrayed Trump voters as rabid, hate-filled morons and Cleveland's Muslim doctors as selfless professionals. Last year, WCMH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, celebrated a local Muslim clinic that was treating patients without health insurance regardless of race or religion. (Needless to say, every Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant hospital in America does the same thing and nobody applauds them for it.)

In August 2016, the Washington Post ran a piece by Jalal Baig, a Muslim oncologist claiming a patient refused to let him treat her because the recent spate of jihadist terror had caused her to view his faith with suspicion. He was “aghast”: “[M]y humanity and years of medical training had been negated by the acts of a sinister few an ocean away … the ascendant xenophobia of our time infiltrated the sacred patient-doctor relationship.” Thanks to “Trump's demagoguery and petulance,” he lamented, this woman had been infected with the evil virus of Islamophobia.

Recently someone submitted the following question to the Quora website: “As a Muslim in America, should I worry about an Islamophobic doctor intentionally doing me harm during a surgery?” The answer, given by Asher Nitin, a Christian doctor in Bangalore, India, was well-nigh perfect: “There are no anti-Muslim doctors in practice. I say this because I have never met or heard of one in my whole life.” He added, however, that many doctors are “anti-Islam,” because they prefer “democracy over theocracy, humanism over sectarianism, a uniform civil code over sharia, the freedom to criticize and even insult any belief system over the need to preserve the sanctity of the non-verifiable and feminism over chauvinism.” It is far more likely, wrote Nitin, “that an Islamist might kill a non-Muslim doctor for committing the unforgivable crime of being, well, non-Muslim.”

He cited recent cases of Hindu doctors being killed in Pakistan “for not being Muslim.” And he recalled the case of one famous Muslim doctor, Nidal Malik Hasan, who after murdering thirteen people at Fort Hood in 2009 was treated by a surgical team that, despite his atrocious act of jihad, “worked frantically to save his life … because that was their job.”

Let's also remember that six of the eight terrorists arrested for the June 2007 attacks on London and Glasgow were NHS doctors or medical students. After those attacks, a study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that “[m]any Muslim doctors … have embraced the extremist doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi Wahhabis, and the Pakistani jihadists.” The report noted that “[i]n Muslim societies the physician is often seen as something very like a religious scholar. … Indeed, the ordinary Muslim may consider the successful Muslim doctor to be superior to the mainstream cleric, and the radical Islamist doctor may easily usurp religious authority from a traditional imam. This disturbing phenomenon is visibly growing.”

Perhaps the best known Muslim doctor in Norway, where I live, is 34-year-old Mohammed Usman Rana, who in addition to being an MD is a prominent political commentator and the author of a book called Norwegian Islam. He presents himself as proof that you can be a devout Muslim and a thoroughly modern Norwegian. He is definitely the former, but he's not the latter. He tries to come off as calm and restrained, but I've seen him explode in fury when debating a critic of Islam. (The sight is chilling.) He's also made it clear that he accepts the orthodox Muslim view of gay people; in 2007, he refused to renounce the Islamic dictate that homosexuality be punished by death.

What sane gay person would want to be treated by such a doctor?

It's an obvious question, but one that's rarely raised in public. In the name of multiculturalism, we're expected to tolerate canonical Muslim convictions, even on the part of persons professionally entrusted with the power of life and death. Yet at the same time we're expected never to doubt such persons' ability to set aside their deeply held beliefs when treating a patient. Yes, one important point should be acknowledged here: there are certainly doctors who identify as Muslims but who are, in their hearts, actually ex-Muslims or what we may call cafeteria Muslims, embracing the benign doctrines and dismissing the rest. But how is one to know who's who? In short, there's a serious issue here that has been swathed in silence for too long and that we continue to ignore at our peril.

Just ask Robert Spencer, who, after his sojourn in Iceland, was lucky to get home alive.