June 13th, 2011
11:17 PM ET

At debate, Republican candidates spar over Islam

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - There weren’t too many sharp differences among the Republican presidential candidates in Monday night’s New Hampshire debate, but a crack did emerge over how Islam and Muslims ought to be treated in the United States.

The CNN debate opened with discussions on economic issues, but later veered toward faith-based matters like the role of religion in candidates’ decision making, abortion, gay marriage – and how the United States ought to treat Muslims living within its borders.

The exchange on that issue opened with a question to former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who had said previously that he wouldn’t feel comfortable appointing a Muslim to his presidential Cabinet.

“I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims – those that are trying to kill us,” Cain said at Monday night’s debate. “And so when I said I wouldn’t be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones who are trying to kill us.”

Cain went further, addressing the prospect of Sharia, or Muslim law, being applied in the United States, which some conservatives say constitutes a growing threat to the American legal system.

“I don’t believe in Sharia law in American courts,” Cain said Monday. “I believe in American laws in American courts, period.”

“There have been instances in New Jersey, there was an instance in Oklahoma , where Muslims did try to influence court decisions with Sharia law,” he continued. “I was simply saying, very emphatically, American laws in American courts.”

Cain also said he would ask Muslims seeking jobs in his administration “certain questions … to make sure that we have people committed to the Constitution.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spoke next, appeared to brush aside Cain’s concerns about Sharia and his suspicions of American Muslims.

“Of course, we're not going to have Sharia law applied in U.S. courts. That's never going to happen,” Romney said. "We have a Constitution and we follow the law.”

Romney then appeared to defend American Muslims, even if he didn’t mention them specifically.

“We recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country,” he said. “Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance. That's in fact why some of the earliest patriots came to this country and why we treat people with respect, regardless of their religious persuasion.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly jumped in to push back on Romney, siding more with Cain over the issue of Islam. Gingrich invoked Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square bomber of 2010, who is a U.S. citizen from Pakistan.

“Now, I just want to go out on a limb here,” Gingrich said. “I'm in favor of saying to people, 'If you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period. '”

“We did this in dealing with the Nazis and we did this in dealing with the communists,” Gingrich continued. “And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country. And we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no.”

Cain’s and Gingrich’s comments on American Muslims supplied some of the night’s biggest applause lines.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Herman Cain • Islam • Mitt Romney • Newt Gingrich • Politics

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