Updated: Response to the New York Times on Islam

[Several noted scholars, including Ingrid Mattson, have also responded to the Luttwak’s piece in letters published on the Times Web site —ed.]

Edward Luttwak writes in a May 12 New York Times Op-Ed that Senator Barack Obama is an apostate from Islam and will therefore harm our relations with the Muslim-majority world. His entire piece is predicated on an ignorance of fundamental issues of Muslim legal thought and apparent misunderstanding of how people think.

Sen. Obama is an exceptionally charismatic speaker who was NEVER a Muslim. Although he was born to a Muslim father, his father renounced his faith. To be a Muslim is not a legal status that is transmitted by birth, like Judaism is confirmed through the mother. A child can be raised as a Muslim, but still renounce the faith when she reaches the age of comprehension without penalty. To be a Muslim is a voluntary act that must be taken on with full knowledge of what is entailed. In this instance, Sen. Obama was not even raised as Muslim. He did not choose to leave the faith; he was never part of it. One can argue that his father was an apostate, but the son cannot be responsible for the acts of the father, that is “Muslim law as it universally understood.”

Second, there is a gratuitous line that “Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.” I would like to know what school of law he is referring to, and to what verse of the Qur’an. While maternal faith may have limited impact in determining a faith community in certain schools of law, it is not universal in the degree to which it is observed, nor is it based in the Qur’an.

Mr. Luttwak continues to raise various canards that display a disregard for a 1400-year-old tradition. Apostasy is not the greatest offense in Islam. The greatest sin is usually considered ungratefulness to God, of which apostasy is one possible manifestation. However, not all apostasy is due to ungratefulness and not all ungratefulness is expressed as apostasy. More importantly, because it is considered a crime against God, no human can forgive it, only God can. Traditionally jurists have held that since only God can forgive this crime, only God can punish it. The modern emphasis on apostasy as a capital crime is just that, a modern emphasis. It is not grounded in tradition.

Mr. Luttwak has to turn to two possible situations where state law may eventually allow for the death penalty for apostasy. He then continues that most states can’t stop religious authorities, whether it’s legal or not, and then says Pope John Paul II got Iran to stop an execution. So which is it? Are the states powerless to stop lethal punishment or not? Janus, the two-faced god, would have been proud of this argument. It should be noted that the 2006 Afghanistan case happened while the United States was in charge of law and security, based on the constitution that it helped draft. The case also ignited the strongest condemnation for death to apostates in the Muslim world, helping to make the tradition normative again. Magdi Allam’s conversion at the hands of Pope Benedict in 2008 did not elicit calls for his death, but remorse that the Pope would make such a public display of “religious superiority.”

The question of security is an interesting one. The US president is protected by the US security apparatus, not foreign security agencies. Although they must often work together, it is the Secret Service that is responsible for the safety of the president. When no Muslim is arguing that Sen. Obama is an apostate it remains unclear as to how it impacts the work of his security detail. One would think that a president who launched two wars against Muslim majority nations, favors an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by helping both peoples implode, sets up Gitmo, and detains and tortures Muslims, would have more security concerns than a hypothetical based on fantastical premises.

Sen. Obama gives hope to forge strong relations with Muslims precisely because he is not a Muslim. He is a religious man who recognizes the value others place in religion. He has lived with people not of his faith. As president, he would exemplify all that Muslims find sympathetic about the American ideal. It is the colorblind society that the Prophet Muhammad challenged all Muslims to create. He represents hope for a vision of America that allows it to be a Shining City on a Hill again. The very things for which he is being excoriated are the things that offer the greatest advantages for the United States and for building bridges with the Muslim-majority world. It is appalling that the Times would give so much space to someone who knows so little about Muslims or America.

To be clear, Sen. Obama is not Muslim. He never was a Muslim. It is this that makes him an asset to building bridges with the Muslim-majority world. He is also an American who represents what America is now: multiracial, multiethnic, mobile, educated, and family-centered. All of this is what makes him an asset in letting America be America again.

[UPDATED: For more on the legal issues involved from Islamic perspectives on apostasy, see Juan Cole and Apostasy and Islam.]