Hey, did you hear that Barack Obama is not a Muslim? Actually, the mainstream press has -- thank God -- devoted lots of coverage to shooting down that plague of forwarded emails. However, a more interesting topic has come up for debate over at the New York Times, in the wake of a controversial (to say the least) op-ed by Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace."
The very pushy headline on this piece: "President Apostate?" Here is the heart of the topic being discussed, which centers on the oft-stated claim that Obama's election would be welcomed by the Muslim world.
This idea often goes hand in hand with the altogether more plausible argument that Mr. Obama's election would raise America's esteem in Africa -- indeed, he already arouses much enthusiasm in his father's native Kenya and to a degree elsewhere on the continent. But it is a mistake to conflate his African identity with his Muslim heritage. Senator Obama is half African by birth and Africans can understandably identify with him. In Islam, however, there is no such thing as a half-Muslim. Like all monotheistic religions, Islam is an exclusive faith.
As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother's Christian background is irrelevant.
Well, here we go again. Note the problem areas in this discussion. There is one "Muslim world." Obama was born a Muslim as Muslim law is "universally understood." And so forth and so on.
The basic logic goes something like this. Obama's father was a Muslim, at one time, which means the faith has a claim on his son. Obama is a convert to Christianity, which means that he is a Muslim apostate and, under Sharia law, some would say he should be killed for this offense against Islam. Note that I said "some" would see the issue that way, so I am already heading toward my point.
Luttwak, who is a military historian, goes on to make a number of points about the crime of apostasy and notes, in particular, that while there is some debate about the proper punishment for apostasy, there is wide agreement on the fact that Muslims who kill apostates should not be punished. Really?
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.
That an Obama presidency would cause such complications in our dealings with the Islamic world is not likely to be a major factor with American voters, and the implication is not that it should be. But of all the well-meaning desires projected on Senator Obama, the hope that he would decisively improve relations with the world's Muslims is the least realistic.
The public editor at the Times rejected, well, all of this in a fierce rebuttal column that ran with the headline "Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?"
Once again, Clark Hoyt makes a number of interesting points. But here is the big one:
Did Luttwak cross the line from fair argument to falsehood? Did Times editors fail to adequately check his facts before publishing his article? Did The Times owe readers a contrasting point of view?
I interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them said that Luttwak's interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.
David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak's article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because "we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors," he said.
That's a pity in this case, because it might have sparked a discussion about whether Luttwak's categorical language was misleading, at best.
As you would expect, I am all in favor of newspapers printing articles that debate these kinds of issues. That's the whole point, in this case.
Luttwak clearly used language that was too simplistic on the issue of apostasy and Muslim identity, where claims of faith and ethnicity blur many lines. Yet it seems that, after interviewing some scholars in the context of North America -- Hoyt comes close to going to the other extreme and saying that all Muslims agree with his more moderate, tolerant, evolving view of Islamic law.
Luttwak makes exclusive statements, based on one view of Islam. Hoyt comes very close to making exclusive statements on the other side of the issue and he certainly says that Luttwak is totally wrong -- based on a competing view of Islam.
The problem, of course, is that there is no one Islam, no one view of this issue.
Truth is, debates continue to rage inside a number of different Muslim nations and cultures on how to handle apostasy and blasphemy. Reporters who cover these issues have to read both of these Times op-ed pieces with more than a grain of salt.
So all Muslims will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong.
So there are no Muslims who will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong again.
Be careful out there.
Top photo: Barack Obama, Sr., and his son. Photo released by the Obama campaign team.