A Cautious Man
May 12, 2008
You’ll Try Just One More Time
Today, the New York Times published an Op-Ed which makes the unsupported and unsourced assertion that Barack Obama, as a “former Muslim”, would be viewed as an “apostate” and the target of violence in the Muslim world.

Or, in other words, “here we go again”.

This time, it’s Edward N. Luttwak, who does not appear to have any education or other background qualifying him to opine on Muslim religious law, with a column entitled “President Apostate?” The claim is familiar (or, at least should be familiar) to anyone who has been paying attention (or at least should have been paying attention, such as, oh, I don’t know, how about the Editors of the New York Times?) to right-wing smear campaigns about Senator Obama.

This was all debunked last year, when Insight Magazine and Fox news were spreading their stories about Obama in a “madrassa”. At the time, the claim was that he was secretly a Muslim - and that claim was thoroughly debunked.

Then the argument became more refined. Daniel Pipes (who has never been know for being overly concerned about anyone who was a Muslim) expressed his "concern" in two columns (this past December and in January)that some harm might befall Senator Obama, because he was an “apostate”. This is how the Politico website (which called it “The Muslim Smear, Version 2.0") described Pipes’ methodology and intentions –

The piece that follows is pretty stunning in the twists of its logic, and comes in two steps.

First, Pipes — best known for his hostility to much of Islam, and to many prominent American Muslims — decides that Obama's faith should be judged by Muslim law, and makes that case, quibbling with inconsistencies in aides' accounts of exactly how little contact with Islam Obama had as a child in Indonesia. (Options range from very little to none.)

Then, Pipes — whose hawkish wing of the conservative movement isn't exactly known for its profound concern with making Muslims love America — starts wringing his hands at the notion that Muslims won't like Obama.

"More significantly, how would more mainstream Muslims respond to him, would they be angry at what they would consider his apostasy? That reaction is a real possibility, one that could undermine his initiatives toward the Muslim world."

(He has only one precedent, Carlos Menem of Argentina, who took no flak. But that doesn't stop him.)

I don't mean to read Pipes' mind here. Perhaps his intentions are as pure as Bob Kerrey's. But if you consider anonymous e-mailers the utter fringe, Pipes is a big step toward the mainstream.

But the political impact of the piece isn't the tortured argument. It's branding Obama a Muslim, by a subtler means. And it's a way for his Republican enemies, if he's the nominee, to pretend to be in good faith.

Robert Spencer, a reliable source for crazy talk, was pushing this same argument over a year ago. Interestingly, he seemed to downplay the “apostate” part –

So is Obama under a death sentence? Probably not – particularly if he left Islam while still a child. This is a crucial point, for according to Islamic law an apostate male is not to be put to death if he has not reached puberty (cf. ‘Umdat al-Salik o8.2; Hidayah vol. II p. 246). Some, however, hold that he should be imprisoned until he is of age and then “invited” to accept Islam, but officially the death penalty for youthful apostates is ruled out.

Now, the New York Times turns over a sizable chunk of its Op-Ed page today to Mr. Luttwak, who recycles the whole story again. It’s just that he’s concerned, you see, and simply is noting that somehow Muslim governments couldn’t protect him from someone who wanted to kill him as an “apostate” –

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

I have a problem with the fact that the New York Times decides to run this piece, given the background of this “argument”. They shouldn’t have accepted something which recycles old arguments that are just meant to make people think, “Hey, he’s a Muslim!” At least, they should not have run it without some context, information on the earlier debunkings, or at least a companion column pointing out the erroneous assumptions.

Instead, we can look forward to lesser lights of the right-wing using the phrase, “As was pointed out in the New York Times, Obama used to be a Muslim.” You can email complaints to the Times’ public editor at public@nytimes.com.

[Edited at 8:00 p.m. to add] Just because it's nice to see so many people coming down hard on the New York Times on this one, these are two of the better comments.

Matthew Yglesias says:

I'm no expert on Islamic law, but if this were any kind of real issue, shouldn't The New York Times be able to locate an actual Muslim who sees things this way?

Which, of course, says in one sentence what I wasted many more words on.

And Mr. Yglesias then directs us to Ali Eteraz, who has a more informed and more devastating comment on Mr. Luttwak's bloviations -

Luttwack and the other fake experts promoting this new smear do not understand Islam. Religion is not hereditary as it is in Judaism. Islam is not a race. Just because a child has a Muslim father -- which, again, Obama didn't -- doesn't mean anything unless the child is being raised as a Muslim. At the time of birth, Muslims engage in a symbolic act -- of saying the Call to Prayer in the child's ear -- that renders a child Muslim. If Obama's father was agnostic/atheist, then he wouldn't have done such a thing.

No call to prayer in the ear, not raised as a Muslim, born to an atheist father, and then abandoned to a Christian mother both by father and his family, equals not Muslim. Obama is right to say he had no religion until he became a Christian.

Those who actually study Muslims see that there are millions of inter-religious marriages -- between Muslim men and Hindu women for example -- in which the children are being raised as pantheists, or even, Hindu. When these children grow up, they aren't killed for being apostates (though some Muslims do thumb their noses at the father for "allowing" his children to be raised non-Muslim).

By the way, Boris Johnson, the new mayor of London, who has a Turkish grandfather, is often smeared the same way Obama is in Luttwack's article ... . In the case of the UK, the smears come from the ultra-right BNP party. Great to see that the New York Times has followed suit. I recommend that we begin calling the Islam smear what it really is: smearing immigrants.

And, finally, a succinct summary of exactly what's wrong with the New York Times' decision to present this Op-Ed (courtesy of Jason Linkins at Huffington Post), we have this observation (please click and read the whole thing) -

So we have Obama's Muslim-by-birth-atheist-in-practice father giving birth, by an American Christian, to a son who is in every sense a Christian, but Luttwak is sure that to real Muslims, Obama remains forever a Muslim.

I wonder if it would have been too much to have an actual Muslim cleric opine on the status of Barack Obama's soul in Muslim eyes. But, as I keep telling my serially outraged mother: get used to it, we've got several months like this, and much worse, to go.




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