Who’s Smearing Obama?

It started when the Grey Lady ran an Op-Ed entitled “President Apostate?” on May 12. The instantaneously controversial opinion piece by military historian and security analyst Edward N. Luttwak argued that, due to a technicality of Shari`a, Democratic nominee Barack Obama would be automatically and inexorably viewed as an infidel by Muslims everywhere, and thus targeted for elimination. President Obama’s ability to promote American interests abroad would be greatly undermined, argued Luttwak, creating a security nightmare in Muslim countries. The simplest response to this simplistic thesis (if the substance of the charge was at all credible), as even radical conservative Daniel Pipes admitted six months ago, is that a nation has already been led by an ex-Muslim without any attendant diplomatic headaches or security problems to speak of.

This saga’s genesis lies in the aforementioned Daniel Pipes article. Pipes (who’s downright tactful compared to some plying their trade in today’s booming Islam-bashing industry) has been described by Christopher Hitchens as “somewhat to the right of Ariel Sharon,” and favors the profiling and internment of American Muslims in the spirit of WWII-era Japanese internment. “Was Barack Obama a Muslim?” was posted to Pipes’ Web site just before the New Year and appears to be the first example of this intellectual virus, the most prominent symptom of which is an obsessive suspicion that Obama is a taqiyya-practicin’ crypto-Muslim out to pull the wool over America’s eyes. The virus had leapt species, from demagogic radio rants (the knuckle draggers of AM radio began spewing the “Manichurian Moslem” theory as soon Obama arrived on the national stage) to published Op-Ed, albeit on the yellow pages of FrontPage.com. (A similar pattern occurred several weeks ago when a charge emanating from Sean Hannity’s radio program made its way into the prime time ABC debate, co-moderated by Stephanopoulos, who days earlier as a guest on Hannity’s program joked that we was “taking notes right now.”)

Luttwak’s pickup of the Pipes argument was riddled with unfounded generalizations, oversimplifications, and good old-fashioned neocolonial paternalism that got both him and the Times rightly pilloried. The response was so overwhelming, in fact, that the Times’ Public Editor took editorial management to task for neither verifying Luttwak’s facts nor encouraging him to tone down his categorical language, writing that: “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.”

This tactic having blown up in their faces—not unlike the “innocent” fad earlier this year among right-wingers of dropping Obama’s Arabic middle name, an odious ploy that even the unsentimental Karl Rove recognized as beyond the pale—Obama’s critics on the far right are now fixing to skin this cat in a less circuitous way. Luttwak’s article had many unsupported assertions, but it at least adopted a quasi-scholarly tone. Now, neoconservative pundits are issuing their own fatwas to get the word out to misinformed Muslims—who, it should be noted, have manifested no visible discomfort with his background or religious status—that, Shari`a and common sense be damned, Obama is an apostate after all. Because they said so, that’s why.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pipes and his proxies have been diligently digging for any hint of Muslimness in Obama’s background. Not because there’s anything wrong with being Muslim, of course, but because we have to make sure Obama has fully shared every detail of his spiritual development with the American people. While Pipes has collected some interesting but inclusive details about Obama’s life, one wonders whether he will, for example, subject McCain’s sudden—and very timely—disclosure of having been a Baptist since 2007 to any scrutiny. After all, if McCain is lying to the public as Pipes worries Obama may be, that would say something about his integrity as well. Mr. Pipes does not seem willing to consider the possibility that, having grown up in expatriate circles, in an interfaith family (not to mention with a non-practicing Muslim father), and in a society renowned in the rest of the Muslim world for religious syncretism, Barack “Barry” Obama might not have felt at home religiously until he joined a church in Chicago and embraced Christianity back in the early 1980s.

Then, just a week after Luttwak’s article appeared, dubious reinforcement arrived in, of all places, the Christian Science Monitor. A professor of political science with a Muslim-sounding name from a university in the Beltway suburbs, Shireen K. Burki (identified in a recent University of Mary Washington press release as “Shireen Burki-Liebl”) penned a thin and surprisingly sophomoric defense of Luttwak’s thesis, entitled “Barack Obama—Muslim Apostate?” The article kindly alerts the reader to its superficiality at the outset, intoning vacuously that, “Osama bin Laden must be chuckling in his safe house.” Few post-9/11 stylistic tropes signal sophistry and manipulative rhetoric more reliably than the classic slogan, “[INSERT PREFERRED EMBODIMENT OF EVIL] must be tickled pink that [INSERT POLITICAL OPPONENT] is doing [INSERT POLICY YOU HAVE A VESTED INTEREST IN DISCREDITING].”

While the substance of the arguments put forward has been embarrassingly weak, as political strategy it is very shrewd—worthy of the Chinese patron saint of Realpolitik and military strategy, Sun Tzu. In addition to playing to American bigotry by keeping the words “Muslim” and “Obama” in the news, these stratagem function like Jujitsu, using an opponent’s greatest strengths against him. By painting his childhood in loud hues of Islam, Obama’s cosmopolitan background is turned into a liability. Similarly, this perception counteracts the perceived benefits of his proverbial charm and penchant for diplomacy, groundlessly casting him as a lightning rod for conflict with America’s most feared and least understood enemies.

While there is insufficient evidence to assume that this is an organized campaign, aspects of it give pause to the critical observer. Luttwak is about hawkish as they come (see his 1999 Foreign Affairs piece,“Give War a Chance”), scornfully dismissive of American involvement in Mideast dialogue or peace making, preferring instead that the various parties duke things out until Israel is the last man standing, able to impose its will on its inferior neighbors. Burki has a substantially shorter resumé, but her affiliation with the war-mongering Foundation for the Defense of Democracies raises concerns, as a FDD thinker holding forth on strategies for avoiding conflict with “Islamofascists” is roughly akin to the fox watching the henhouse. Few institutions seem to thrive more on conflict.

One also has to wonder about the timing and particulars of these putatively unrelated statements. For a hardliner on the Middle East like Luttwak to be given access to the Times is not suprising, but it is hard to see how Burki landed her Monitor soapbox the week after. She is a foreign policy hand seemingly without any formal training in Islamic law, does not appear to be published on Islamic law, and—judging by the depth of the article in question—seems unlikely to have achieved a reputation for expertise in such matters. The question naturally arises: Why did the Christian Science Monitor—which normally features some of the best informed and fairest analysis in the news media—turn to this individual for a “definitive” statement on apostasy in Islamic law? It’s hard to explain without resorting to the suspicion that one of Burki’s ideological comrades pulled some strings.

Two scholars of Islamic law, Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, concluded their careful and highly topical 2004 study, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, with the following words, which put the apostasy claim in a completely different light: “The law of apostasy was developed in Islam on the basis of a few isolated hadith, at a time and in circumstances that differ radically from today.” Given the zeal with which many observers demand Western-style reform within Islam, one would expect rejections of the dire predictions of Muslim-Western conflict over Barack Obama’s hybrid identity to be greeted with relief and appreciation. Moreover, given that sheer number of correctives from prominent Muslim leaders and scholars that implicitly endorse reformist stances like the one above, one would expect them to be taken at face value and hailed as signs of welcome change.

But that’s not happening. Pundits hold forth confidently (and often caustically) on the workings of a legal tradition in which they have little to no experience, while input from living and breathing Muslims to a debate over contemporary Islamic law is treated as superfluous, or worse, as some cunning new form of taqiyya, a curious state of affairs that speaks volumes about the quality of this discussion.

As Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America and an Islamic scholar in her own right, pointed out in a letter to the editor, Luttwak premises his theory on “an essentialized Islamic law that does not exist.” Of Luttwak’s various misconceptions and oversimplifications—systematically dismantled by internationally renowned scholar (and RD Advisory Council member) Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im here on Religion Dispatches, as well as Juan Cole, Ali Eteraz, and others—the gravest errors are surely the twin fallacies that Shari`a is monolithic—with a single simple answer for such vexing legal issues—and that Shari`a is set in stone.

It is exceedingly ironic that here Shari`a is viewed as frozen under glass like some exotic butterfly, as few topics have generated such a wide range of interpretation and conflicted rulings as apostasy. In “Al-Ghazali’s Contribution to the Sunni Juristic Discourses on Apostasy” (Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 7, 2007), Ahmad Atif Ahmad observes:

The assumption that any stability in the definition of apostasy was achieved is contradicted by a persistence of a measure of elasticity in the juristic discussion of the concept, which does not seem to have bothered Sunni Muslim jurists. Old concepts of apostasy survived despite the availability of new concepts, and the new concepts of apostasy were debated and tended to be appropriated or partially accepted by later generations of jurists.

Ahmad’s point is borne out by how widely opinions varied among the founders of the four great Sunni legal schools concerning the treatment of apostates. The most striking example is the moderation of Abu Hanifah (d. 767 CE) and the Hanafi school that he founded (today’s largest). In Tolerance and Coercion in Islam, Yohanan Friedmann shows how Abu Hanifah and his followers discouraged executions in practice by ruling that it was mandatory to make an attempt to induce apostates to recant before carrying out any sentence—others considered this process, called istitaba, optional—and in other cases scholars went so far as to for all practical purposes abolish the death penalty by removing any deadline for making a final decision. Yet others accepted the possibility of apostatizing and repenting over and over, which effectively removes the threat of execution in most cases. So much for it all being cut of the same cloth.

And the tradition continues to evolve today. Daisy Khan, executive director of ASMA Society (and RD Advisory Council member), pointed out that the reexamination of these laws has become so commonplace and mainstream that even Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the head of the most respected institution of religious learning in Sunni Islam—al-Azhar in Egypt—has stated unequivocally that traditional apostasy edicts were meant for a time and place that no longer exists. Tantawi is hardly alone. A perusal of Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam and the huge, footnoted list of influential Muslim scholars, leaders and activists who have repudiated capital punishment for this offense on the “Apostasy and Islam” blog, should definitively put to rest the erroneous notion that modern Muslims uncritically accept this doctrine, even if it has yet to be formally repealed.

One might reasonably ask, of course, if there is so much awareness among Muslims today that this draconian punishment is out of context in modern society, why is the penalty still on the books? Why haven’t Muslims gotten with the program like everybody else and unreservedly embraced religious freedom? There are, alas, no simple answers. If pressed I’d likely point out that the wheels of theological reform often turn at a glacial pace; or that Muslims aren’t the only ones with skeletons of imperfect modernity in their closet (e.g., exactly how many millenia did it take Christendom to formally repudiate the charge of Deicide?); or that a key reason the death penalty is still on the books for ridda, to choose another example, is the fact it was never widely implemented in Islamic societies to begin with.

As for the relative lag in Islamic cultures of grappling with the intolerant implications of having a death penalty for apostasy, the biggest reason seems to me to be how in Islamic tradition, as in Jewish tradition—Deuteronomy 13:6-18 is quite emphatic about the believer’s sacred duty to kill any person, even a family member, who attempts to convert the Israelites to the worship of another god—apostasy is often conflated with treason. Scientist and “part-time Imam” Usama Hassan pointed out last summer that in the time these legal codes were written “to abandon Islam was to renounce the Muslim body-politic. Thus, apostasy was akin to treason, especially since religious wars featured prominently in the ancient and medieval worlds.” Saaed and Saeed sum the matter up perfectly:

The question of apostasy in early Islamic history was closely associated with the security of the Muslim community, defined in terms of combating treachery and aggression… Anyone who became a Muslim joined the believers, and anyone who rejected Islam usually joined the side of the unbelievers who were not at peace with Muslims. Thus the issue of apostasy was closely related to both the identity and survival of Muslims. Any tradition from the Prophet indicating that apostates should be killed should be understood within this broader political framework… Similarly, apostasy on its own would not be a justification for killing people, unless they were actively threatening or fighting the Muslim community.

In the final tally, while it may be difficult for outside observers to understand exactly why the apostasy charge remains “on the books” in Islam, it’s significantly less difficult to find plausible political explanations for the writers of the two Op-Eds choosing to speak so glibly about it with respect to Barack Obama. Both draw their paychecks from right-leaning think tanks whose opponents frequently include, despite the bipartisan veneer, both Democrats and Islam. The insinuation that Obama may be a Muslim apostate manages to, as mentioned previously, keep the rumor mill going that much longer. And playing fast and loose with the facts, rather than truth telling or debate, is the point of “swiftboating.” Luttwak, in his interactions with the Clark Hoyt, the Times’ Public Editor, in fact tipped his hand. According to Hoyt, Luttwak not only puzzlingly cited a scholar in his defense “whom he did not identify… [who] also did not agree with Luttwak,” but he also charged that the scholars Hoyt had spoken with were misrepresenting Islam by calling it “a tolerant religion of peace,” noting that in fact Islam is “intolerant.”

“Several of the scholars agreed that, in classical Sharia, apostasy is a capital crime,” Hoyt recounted, “but they said that Islamic thinking is evolving.” Alas, the same does not seem to be true of those who made these claims about Barack Obama.