Luttwak Has His Facts Wrong on Muslim Law

Back on May 12, the New York Times published an op-ed by Edward Luttwak, a military historian, which argued that, if elected president, Barack Obama would be a hindrance to improved relations with the Muslim world because of his personal and family religious background:

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him.

His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is “irtidad” or “ridda,” usually translated from the Arabic as “apostasy,” but with connotations of rebellion and treason. Indeed, it is the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder (which the victim’s family may choose to forgive).

In today’s Times, Clark Hoyt, the paper’s ombudsman, blasts Luttwak for playing fast and loose with the truth:

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.

Weirdly, even one of the experts that Luttwak told Hoyt he had relied on for his piece disputed its accuracy:

… 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.”

I’m not one of those people who believes that every controversial point of view has to be “balanced” with its opposite point of view. But, as Hoyt points out, even the most provocative opinions “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 picture.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?

The man responsible for editing the op-ed page doesn’t think so:

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.

Hoyt writes, at the end of his piece, that “Shipley … 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 the editor.”

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.

2 Responses to “Luttwak Has His Facts Wrong on Muslim Law”

  1. tas says:

    First thing I thought of when I saw Shipley’s piece was which school of Islamic law was he talking about? That should be the first question which starts a discussion about Islamic law — but I don’t remember Shipley ever specifying a school. And second, tacking onto this first fact, Shipley’s op/ed piece makes the assumption that Muslims are all one big monolith of people believing exactly the same things. And when a writer starts out with such an inherent blanket statement/assumption, then that writer really needs to start questioning themselves.

    Or, at the very least, an editor for the op/ed page that is publishing his piece needs to ask these questions.

    Who exactly at NYT is reading these columns before they goto print… Anybody?

  2. Kathy says:

    It’s not Shipley’s piece. It’s Edward Luttwak’s piece. Shipley is the Times editor who published it without response.

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