Luttwak and Islam

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the New York Times, has responded to a controversial op-ed piece by Edward Luttwak. Luttwak’s core claim is that Barack Obama, whose father was a Muslim, but who himself is a Christian, could be considered an apostate by some Muslims and therefore a target for execution. Moreover, “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.”

Luttwak’s piece struck me, when I read it, as rather feverish: certainly it’s possible that some people could respond in the way Luttwak suggests, but is it likely that the dominos would all fall in the way he imagines? And of course Luttwak’s claims were enormously controversial, which is why the public editor got involved, and why he thinks that either Luttwak should have “softened” his language or some alternative views should have been presented.

Yglesias calls Hoyt’s column a devastating rebuttal, but I don’t think it amounts to that; as far as I can tell all Hoyt has done is muddy the waters further. His approach to the problem was to interview “five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field.” He reports that “all of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.”

But in fact — as Hoyt’s own quotations from the scholars show — they don’t all say that he’s wrong. Rather, they say things like this: “Whether (apostasy) is punishable by death or not, there are different opinions.” “The majority opinion among Islamic jurists is that the law of apostasy can apply only to individuals who knowingly decide to be Muslims and later renege.” The experts only say that the views Luttwak — whom I think everyone must agree was painting with a very broad brush indeed — attributes to Muslims in general are not held universally or not held by a majority of the world’s Muslims.

Hoyt concludes that “All the scholars argued that Luttwak had a rigid, simplistic view of Islam that failed to take into account its many strains and the subtleties of its religious law, which is separate from the secular laws in almost all Islamic nations.” (That last point Luttwak himself acknowledges: “no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law.”) But wouldn’t you expect that Muslim scholars teaching at major American universities would insist on the complexity and the adaptability of Islam, would emphasize that the religion is “evolving,” as one of them puts it? After all, radical Islamist scholars would scarcely be likely to apply for jobs at Michigan or UCLA, much less get them. Isn’t the legitimate question not what a group of American professors think about Luttwak’s claims but rather what Muslim scholars abroad think, or better yet influential religious leaders — especially in the Arab world, which Luttwak sees as the likely flashpoint for anger at Obama?

Let me be clear: I am not defending Luttwak’s article. I don’t know enough about the subject to have a clearly formed opinion. But Hoyt’s column, and the views of his chosen experts, don’t help one bit in clarifying matters. Before, I had merely thought of Luttwak’s essay as an exercise in excitability, but now I’m really curious about the substance of his claims.