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 for trying.
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 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?
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 Muslim.
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 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.