The Secret Muslim Smear

Jon Henke asks,

In 2006, when he was asked if he was Jewish, George Allen (for whom I worked) said the questioner was “making aspersions.” Naturally, Lefties were outraged. Media Matters harangued the media for not pressing Allen on why he called questions about Jewishness an “aspersion”.

How is Barack Obama’s use of the word “smear” different than this? To paraphrase progressive blogger Lindsay Beyerstein, “Why the defensiveness? It’s as if he thinks being [Muslim] is a very bad thing.”

False rumors about Obama deserve bipartisan denunciation. But perhaps the media should begin asking Barack Obama why he thinks Muslim identity is a ‘smear’.

I don’t think that Barack Obama thinks there is anything wrong with identifying as a Muslim. But those who accuse Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim aren’t simply informing people of the fact that Obama is a Muslim. Rather, they are suggesting that he only claims to be a Christian, and that he in fact secretly practices another religion. The secrecy aspect of being a “secret Muslim” is relevant. Why? It suggests that the “secret Muslim” has something to hide, e.g., a radical Islamist agenda dedicated to the destruction of all that God-fearing Americans hold dear.

Keith Ellison, for example, is a practicing Muslim. Calling Ellison a “secret Muslim” is to say something that is simply false — it is less a smear than either a foolish mistake or a clumsy effort to suggest that Ellison isn’t entirely open about his religious beliefs. Calling him a “secret Wiccan,” in contrast, would constitute a smear, even if one believes that Wiccan religious practice merits our respect.

Henke notes that George Allen caught flack for his “aspersions” line. My sense is that reporters wanted to know if Allen was of Jewish origin, i.e., if he had Jewish ancestors, which is separate and distinct from whether Allen practices Judaism or embracing a Jewish identity. To suggest that Allen hails from a Jewish background hardly constitutes “casting aspersions.” But let’s say a reporter instead suggested that Allen was only telling voters that he was a believing Christian to woo them politically, and that he was in fact an observant Jew, but only in hiding. I mean, I think that would be a pretty strange charge — a smear even. Or, better yet, imagine if a reporter suggested that Allen was lying about being a believing Christian to distract the public from the fact that he is in fact a Zionist sleeper agent who intends to infiltrate the American government and hand over vital state secrets to the Israelis.

The accusation would be ludicrous, offensive, and it would definitely constitute a smear.

Note, however, that Obama supporters overreacted when Edward Luttwak suggested that radical Islamists would see Obama as a Muslim apostate. This was not a smear against Obama — it was a recognition that Islamists are insane. Clark Hoyt, the Times public editor, responded with a non sequitur.

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.

Which is, of course, irrelevant. Does Hoyt seriously believe that he could find five Islamic scholars at five American universities who would declare that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was religiously sound? Of course not. Why? Were such Islamic scholars in tenured faculty positions at American universities, it would rightly spark outrage. Does this mean that it would be wrong for an American intellectual to suggest that Islamic scholars in the Islamic world might declare a fatwa against Rushdie on an American op-ed page? I hope not. That would be pretty damn stupid.

It is really great to know that scholars at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California are really stoked about the fact that Islamic jurisprudence is evolving in a hipper and more humane direction. But of course Luttwak’s “rigid, simplistic view of Islam” is not his own view — it is the view of the radical Islamists who, I’m guessing, sharply outnumber the progressive Muslim imams of Alameda County.

Hoyt wrote,

When writers purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they are arguably wrong, I think The Times cannot label it opinion and let it go at that.

When public editors purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they rely on a narrow group of extremely unrepresentative scholars, I think The Times should seriously consider firing him. The job of the public editor is not to pander to readers. It is to keep the newspaper honest. The Op-Ed page did not deserve to be dressed down, and neither did Luttwak. Hoyt owes them an apology.