Is Obama the Apostate, or is Bush? A Reply to Luttwak

I’ve been traveling again and so only just saw Edward Luttwak’s ridiculous column about Barack Obama being considered an “apostate” in the Muslim world.

It is just so discouraging that such an ignorant and illogical comment was made by a prominent American pundit, and that the New York Times leant its pages to this complete drivel.

Of course, this column is a stealth way of bringing back up the myth of Obama being a Muslim, and it is profoundly dishonest.

The argument is that Obama’s father was a Muslim and therefore Obama would be considered a Muslim apostate by fundamentalists, even though Obama’s mother was a Christian; even though his father abandoned them and Obama did not really know him; even though Obama never practiced Islam; and even though his father was himself a secularist who was known to like a stiff drink. Luttwak even alleges that the law of apostasy is in the Qur’an (Wael Hallaq has argued convincingly that it is not).

So here is what the academic literature has to say about Islamic law on this issue (Rudolph Peters and Gert J. J. De Vries
Die Welt des Islams, New Series, Vol. 17, Issue 1/4 (1976 – 1977), pp. 1-25 ):

“Not only the act of apostasy is subject to certain conditions in order to be legally valid, but also with regard to the perpetrator (murtadd) specific qualifications have been laid down. He can perform a legally effective act of riddah [apostasy] only out of free will (ikhtiyar) at an adult age (bulugh), being compos mentis (`aqil [of sound mind]), and, as emphasized by the Malikite school, after his unambiguous and explicit adoption of Islam.” [- p. 3][P. 2, n. 3: "It is equally stated that this Islam needs to be evident in both qawl [speech] and `amal [deed]; a person who embraced the faith by merely pronouncing the shahadah [profession of faith] would not be considered qulified to perform a legally valid act of apostasy– Cf. Mawwaq in the margin of Hattab, Mawahib al-Jalil, VI, pp. 279-80]”

Barack Obama never accepted or practiced Islam as an adult (which would be age 15 in Islamic law) and therefore according to classical Islamic jurisprudence cannot be an apostate. Peters and DeVries are Arabists and are among the foremost scholars on Islamic law, unlike Luttwak, who does not have the slightest idea what he is talking about.

Luttwak has no doubt been misled by some Salafi, modernist-fundamentalist fatwa, which departs from the great Islamic legal traditions, and he has mistakenly taken it to be representative of Islamic law. Or, I don’t know, maybe some minor jurist in the minority Hanbali tradition dissents. But to characterize these minority traditions or idiosyncratic views as representative of Islam as a whole would be like declaring Pat Robertson’s interpretation of Christianity more legitimate than that of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam, after noting some of the extremist modern positions of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri and others goes on to say,

‘ The view that the law of apostasy applies only to those [adult Muslims] who have deliberately and unambiguously broken with Islam is, for instance, still held by the majority of Hanafi jurists. Some jurists have proposed the abolition of all penalties for apostasy from Islam (Shaltut, M., Islam. `Aqida wa-shari`a (Cairo 1966), 287f.; Saeed, A., and H. Saeed, Freedom of religion. Apostasy and Islam, Aldershot 2004).’ (S.v. “Apostasy.”)

Luttwak even goes so far as to speculate, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that some Muslims might want to kill Obama for “apostasy” and suggests his life would be in danger on state visits to Muslim countries. But as we have seen, classical Islamic law would not lead to this conclusion at all.

Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don’t pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae. Indonesia’s Muslims elected relatively secular parties when they were allowed to vote. Hundreds of millions of Muslims in Muslim-majority states lives under secular governance and laws– Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, etc.

Moreover, Luttwak’s column is ahistorical. There have been lots of “apostasies” in modern Middle Eastern history. The Shihab dynasty in the 19th century Levant had been Sunni Muslims but converted to Christianity. They were recognized as the rulers of what is now Lebanon by the Ottoman Empire and by other Ottoman principalities. Nothing bad happened to them because of their conversion even though it did meet the classical definition of apostasy. People don’t always act the way the obscure law books suggest.

Or for a contemporary example, let us take Turkish Chief of Staff Yasar Buyukanit, a pillar of the Kemalist, anti-Islam establishment in Ankara. He visited Egypt quite safely even though he certainly would be considered an apostate by Muslim fundamentalists. He called activist Islam a “center of evil” that threatens Turkey’s secular and democratic traditions. Fundamentalist Muslim Turks consider Buyukanit not only an apostate from Islam but also a secret convert to Judaism.

Yet Buyukanit is arguably among the more powerful persons in the Middle East and travels freely in the region.

Or there is Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who obviously apostatized from Islam to Communism and then from Communism to some other form of secularism. And yet Nazarbayev freely visits the Middle East.

Former Cairo University Professor Hamid Nasr Abu Zaid was accused of apostasy (not heresy, apostasy) in the Egyptian court system, on the grounds that his academic writings on the Qur’an denied its status as divine revelation. He was actually found guilty by a Cairo court, though the ruling was later suspended and an embarrassed Egyptian government said it would work to prevent it happening again. Was Abu Zaid sentenced to death by the official court? No. The punishment? He was ordered divorced from his Muslim wife, since a non-Muslim male may not be legitimately married to a believing Muslim woman. The couple fled to Holland. This incident was a horrible miscarriage of justice and an affront to human liberty, but it directly refutes Luttwak’s silly argument that a finding of apostasy would necessarily lead state institutions to impose a death penalty. Many Middle Eastern states do not even have hisba or sharia benches that could make such rulings. Iran is among the few places where it could happen, and there are other reasons for one to be fearful for an American president’s safety in Iran. Likewise, those radicals who brandished death threats at Abu Zaid would kill an American president even if they didn’t think him an apostate, as Ali Eteraz pointed out.

A lot of observers think Obama is a ‘natural’ candidate for Muslims abroad to support. But why? They see him as just another American, and they haven’t had a good experience with American policies. In Pakistan, 50% of a sample said that they would like to vote in the upcoming American election. Of that group, 30% said they would vote for Hillary Clinton, 14% said they would vote for Obama, and 8% said they would vote for John McCain. So Luttwak’s assumptions are incorrect in every way. Pakistanis don’t care about Obama’s background, they care that he threatened to bomb their country. American reporters are always asking if Hillary Clinton can get respect in the patriarchal Muslim world; but she is is the one the Pakistani public would vote for! Pakistani Muslims elected a female head of state, after all, something the patriarchal Americans haven’t yet managed.

An American president might be in danger in the Middle East. But it would be because of the hatred for the United States provoked by the brutal military tactics of the Bush administration and by its blithe unconcern for the welfare of Palestinians and other local people.

It would be because Bush is the apostate, since he was born under the US constitution but he left it for a faith in torture, killing innocents, neo-colonialism, and mass murder (as at Fallujah).

That’s the apostasy that Middle Easterners most mind.