[DEBATE] : Interesting Public Editor (kind of like an Ombudsman) piece in NY Times
tintinyana at gmail.com
Tue Jun 3 15:10:45 BST 2008
June 1, 2008
The Public Editor
Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?
By CLARK HOYT
ON May 12, The Times published an Op-Ed article by Edward N. Luttwak,
a military historian, who argued that any hopes that a President
Barack Obama might improve relations with the Muslim world were
unrealistic because Muslims would be “horrified” once they learned
that Obama had abandoned the Islam of his father and embraced
Christianity as a young adult.
Under “Muslim law as it is universally understood,” Luttwak wrote,
Obama was born a Muslim, and his “conversion” to Christianity was an
act of apostasy, a capital offense and “the worst of all crimes that a
Muslim can commit.” While no Muslim country would be likely to
prosecute him, Luttwak said, a state visit to such a nation would
present serious security challenges “because the very act of
protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards.”
At a time when fears about Obama’s security keep bubbling to the
surface and an online whispering campaign suggests that he is secretly
a Muslim — call him by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, some Times
readers demand — the Luttwak thesis was a double whammy: Obama cannot
escape his Muslim history, and a lot of Muslims might want to kill him
Many Times readers saw the article as irresponsible (“gasoline on the
fire,” said Paul Trachtman of Tierra Amarilla, N.M.) or false (“Islam
is not like our hair or the color of our skin, which we inherited from
our parents,” said Ali Kamel of Rio de Janeiro). The blogosphere lit
up with assertions that Luttwak did not know what he was talking about.
The Times Op-Ed page, quite properly, is home to a lot of provocative
opinions. But all are supposed to be grounded on the bedrock of fact.
Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their
arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to
get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false
Did Luttwak cross the line from fair argument to falsehood? Did Times
editors fail to adequately check his facts before publishing his
article? Did The Times owe readers a contrasting point of view?
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.
David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article
was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text,
newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars
of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to
invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.
That’s a pity in this case, because it might have sparked a discussion
about whether Luttwak’s categorical language was misleading, at best.
Interestingly, in defense of his own article, Luttwak sent me an
analysis of it by a scholar of Muslim law whom he did not identify.
That scholar also did not agree with Luttwak that Obama was an
apostate or that Muslim law would prohibit punishment for any Muslim
who killed an apostate. He wrote, “You seem to be describing some
anarcho-utopian version of Islamic legalism, which has never existed,
and after the birth of the modern nation state will never exist.”
Luttwak made several sweeping statements that the scholars I
interviewed said were incorrect or highly debatable, including
assertions that in Islam a father’s religion always determines a
child’s, regardless of the facts of his upbringing; that Obama’s
“conversion” to Christianity was apostasy; that apostasy is, with few
exceptions, a capital crime; and that a Muslim could not be punished
for killing an apostate.
Obama was born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas with Christian roots
and a Kenyan father whose own father had converted to Islam. When
Obama was a toddler, his father left the family. His mother later
married an Indonesian Muslim, and Obama spent five years in Jakarta,
where he attended Catholic and Muslim schools and, according to The
Los Angeles Times, was enrolled in the third and fourth grades as a
Luttwak wrote that given those facts, Obama was a Muslim and his
mother’s Christian background was irrelevant. But Sherman A. Jackson,
a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of
Michigan, cited an ancient Islamic jurist, Ibn al-Qasim, who said, “If
you divorce a Christian woman and ignore your child from her to the
point that the child grows up to be a Christian, the child is to be
left,” meaning left to make his own choice. Jackson said that there
was not total agreement among Islamic jurists on the point, but
Luttwak’s assertion to the contrary was wrong.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at the University of California, Los
Angeles, School of Law, said 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. One school of
thought, he said, is that an individual must be at least a teenager to
make the choice. Obama’s campaign told The Los Angeles Times last year
that he “has never been a practicing Muslim.” As a young adult, he
chose to be baptized as a Christian.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University, said
that Sharia, or Islamic law, including the law of apostasy, does not
apply to an American or anyone outside the Muslim world. Of the more
than 40 countries where Muslims are the majority, he said, Sharia is
the official legal system only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and even
there apostasy is unevenly prosecuted, and apostates often wind up in
prison, not executed.
Several of the scholars agreed that, in classical Sharia, apostasy is
a capital crime, but they said that Islamic thinking is evolving.
Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion
at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., said, “Whether
(apostasy) is punishable by death or not, there are different opinions.”
Last year, Egypt’s highest Islamic cleric, Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand
mufti, spoke out against killing apostates. He said punishment for
those abandoning the religion would come in the afterlife.
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. The Islamic press and television
have reported extensively on the United States presidential election,
they said, and Obama’s Muslim roots and his Christian religion are
well known, yet there have been no suggestions in the Islamic world
that he is an apostate.
Luttwak said the scholars with whom I spoke were guilty of “gross
misrepresentation” of Islam, which he said they portrayed as “a
tolerant religion of peace;” he called it “intolerant.” He said he was
not out to attack Obama and regretted that, in the editing, a
paragraph saying that an Obama presidency could be “beneficial” was
cut for space.
Shipley, the Op-Ed editor, said he regretted not urging Luttwak to
soften his language about possible assassination, given how sensitive
the subject is. But he said he did not think the Op-Ed page was under
any obligation to present an alternative view, beyond some letters to
I do not agree. With a subject this charged, readers would have been
far better served with more than a single, extreme point of view. 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.
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Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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