NYT’s Luttwak Does Not Speak for a Billion Muslims
By Ahmed Rehab
Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito recently asked one of the most pertinent questions of our time: Who speaks for a billion Muslims?
I won’t tell you the answer because I recommend that you read their book. But I will give this away: the answer is not Edward Luttwak.
Nonetheless, in a recent New York Times commentary, Luttwak pretends to do just that. The product of his curious endeavor is a sobering demonstration of why it is an ill-fated idea.
Luttwak makes the bizarre claim that U.S. presidential hopeful Barrack Obama is an apostate according to Islamic law and concludes that, if elected, Muslims will either seek his head or look the other way when it is sought.
If Luttwak’s rendition of Obama’s biography is a little off, then his understanding of Islamic law is downright inaccurate, and his survey of Muslim beliefs and attitudes grossly simplistic.
Obama is neither a convert nor an apostate for the simple fact that he never declared himself a Muslim to begin with. The fact that his father and grandfather were Muslims does not itself determine his own faith status.
When it comes to Islamic law, Luttwak is confused on two fronts.
First, there is nothing in Islamic law that suggests that Islam is passed down genetically. To the contrary, the state of being Muslim (submission) is enshrined in Islam as a personal covenant between a human being and God; as such it can only be a freewill choice of the heart and mind. For that reason, every convert to Islam is asked publicly at the time of taking the testimony of faith whether they are coerced or are converting of their own free will.
Conversely, converting out of Islam is also a matter of free will. The Qur’an explicitly states: “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith.” [2:256]
Second, Luttwak gets apostasy wrong. According to most Muslim scholars, the term apostate is applied under exceptional circumstances that have more to do with treason and the posing of a national threat than with conversion alone. This was applicable in the context of a new and vulnerable Islamic state where, in historical instances, those who left the fold of Islam ended up joining the warring factions against Muslims.
After befuddling Islam’s take on apostasy, Luttwak then swiftly moves to build a ghoulish and speculative scenario of how Muslims en-masse would subsequently use it against Obama.
In doing so, Luttwak employs two intellectually lazy and reductive routines, all too common in today’s public discourse on Islam and Muslims.
In the first, aberrational instances are cherry-picked and then laundry listed in an attempt to make definitive statements about the norm.
Luttwak pretends to sample the Muslim world at random to substantiate his claim about Muslim attitudes against apostates. Instead, he selectively focuses on the most religiously stringent periphery of the Muslim world by its own standards: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Once there, he drills down further for cases that are exceptional even by those countries’ own standards. The result leaves the reader with the false impression that the extreme of the extreme is somehow representative of the norm, when in truth it represents a fraction of 1% of the total.
The second reductive routine casts Muslims into a simplistic monolithic entity.
Luttwak explains that, while most Americans understand that Obama is not a Muslim, “[h]is conversion, however, [is] a crime in Muslim eyes.” Similarly, he states that it would be difficult to plan Obama’s security during state visits to Muslim countries because “the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards.” He goes further to state that “most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of [his] conversion to Christianity once it became widely known.”
These are all pretty sweeping statements; worse still, they are highly inaccurate.
Of course, most Muslims have TV sets and follow the news. They are already aware of the fact that, although Obama’s father was Muslim, he himself is a Christian. There is no bounty on his head, and talking to people on the streets in Muslim countries explains why: most are not preoccupied with the religious or race affiliation of American presidents. They dislike George Bush because they see him as an arrogant warmonger. They liked John Kennedy because they felt he was an empathetic and intelligent leader. Both were white and Christian.
Contrary to Luttwak’s final conclusion, Obama is already quite popular in the Muslim world and is likely to be even more so if elected president. But it is not necessarily because he is black or has Muslim ancestry it is because Obama is widely perceived as the most likely candidate to bring an end to the current war in Iraq and treat the rest of the Muslim world with some respect.
[Ahmed M. Rehab is an American Muslim activist with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.]