NYT has second thoughts about “Sharia smear” on Obama

June 2, 2008

New York Times front page, 1 June 2008Thank you, Clark Hoyt. The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times has torn apart Edward Luttwak’s op-ed piece on Barack Obama supposedly being a Muslim apostate, right in the Grey Lady’s pages. In his Public Editor column on Sunday, Hoyt called it “a single, extreme point of view” and said the NYT should not simply publish opinion pieces based on patently false facts. We blogged about this last week when a leading Muslim scholar refuted Luttwak’s article. Luttwak is a military historian and  conservative analyst of strategic issues who has advised the U.S. military, National Security Council and State Department. He lists his fields of expertise as “geoeconomics, strategy and national strategies and military policies” but not Islam.

“The Times Op-Ed page, quite properly, is home to a lot of provocative opinions,” Hoyt wrote. “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.”

Hoyt said he consulted five Islamic scholars at U.S. universities and “all of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.” When the Times asked Luttwak to defend his view, he sent them an analysis of it by an unnamed scholar of Muslim law. He disagreed with Luttwak so strongly that he wrote to him: “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.”

The public editor also noted that the Muslim world, far from being “horrified” by Obama’s supposed apostasy as Luttwak predicted, has shown no interest in this argument. That jibes with what we found. After Luttwak’s article appeared, Reuters correspondents looked around for public reactions in the Arabic-language media and found nothing. We decided not to actively seek out responses from experts there because that would only highlight an opinion we thought was wrong anyway.

Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix at the U.N. Security Council at the U.N. in New York, 25 November 2002/Chip EastOne other point stood out. When Hoyt told him what the five different Muslim scholars had said, Luttwak retorted by accusing them of presenting a “gross misrepresentation” of Islam. Doesn’t this sound like the way the neo-cons disputed pre-Iraq war intelligence reports, dismissed U.N. inspectors (like Hans Blix at left) who found no weapons of mass destruction and argued the war would be a push-over? It turned out that was mostly opinion not based on facts too — and the Times had to issue what Slate’s media critic Jack Shafer called its “mini-culpa” for presenting some of these WMD opinions as fact in its news reporting.

As Hoyt concluded, “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.”

We got some comments to our original post on this issue that defended Luttwak’s point of view. One said that an article challenging his thesis was “completely off base, misses the point entirely and is a waste of time to read.” Any rethinking going on out there after reading Hoyt’s critique?

105 comments

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What ever happened to accuracy in reporting? I think it is a crime that papers print what is untrue, and they should be held accountable. I am appalled that more isn’t being done to present the facts rather than one person’s diatribe based on false information.
Rev. Louisa Dyer

Robert NYC

I understand what you are saying but not being able to negotiate with a country like China is not necessarily a bad thing. Do you honestly believe everybody likes Christians? Most Muslims hate Christians which is why were not getting along now. The cold truth about America is that it was one of the key players responsible for the continued destabilization of the Middle East by selling Arms to them (thanks to Bill Clinton) So IMO putting a Muslim in the drivers seat is not a bad idea so long as he/she is a “Muslim American” who’s loyalty is first and foremost to America, Americans & global human rights rather than special interest groups or being out for self. “Who knows”, a fair minded Muslim president could maybe actually get something done in the middle east for a change.

I see it is like this; if we would stop these petty race/religious wars, focus on making America into the dream of “all man being created equal” and live by the core words of our constitution instead of fighting to amend it all the time America could one day become a shining example of how people of all races & religions can get along.

I know there are plenty of good hearted Americans out there who want a better future for their children and I exclude you. but As things stand now (to me anyway) America just seems to be a flickering light of hope and a raging inferno of hate & greed.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

Fascist smears always go for the most fantastic lies: they are supposed to do the greatest damage.

On this occasion, Obama comes out whiter than white and the extremist Sharia article looks increasingly like used toilet paper – or just tea leaves in the bottom of a cracked mug.

Anyone who hits below the belt via the media deserves to be metaphorically tarred and feathered and marched through the streets on the back of a donkey.

That the writer of the piece was writing claptrap and nonsence, has not, thankfully, gone passed the average American’s attention without incredulity or downright oputrage.

I rely on the incised sense of human decency in the average American to see made-up propaganda for what it is: tomorrows wrapping paper!

Posted by The Truth Is... | Report as abusive

I did learn from Tom Heneghan’s and Robert NYC’s back and forth comments! Thank you both for representing the 2 sides of the argument very well. Some other commentators seem to think that Luttwak had a right-wing agenda to push American’s away from voting for Obama. This does not seem likely however, because the timing is poor. Obama is about to win the Democratic nomination and the real election is many months away.

I think Tom is correct that Luttwak’s comment about ‘ALL muslims believe that Obama is an apostate’ is inaccurate, but I think that Robert NYC is correct that a great many muslims consider Obama an apostate. In the end, I think that Luttwak was inaccurate, but not a liar. And I think that his inaccuracies were close enough to the truth that the NYT did no harm in printing his article. So Luttwak overstepped his bounds a little, but Hoyt’s rebuttal did too.

I rarely read any blogs, but I read everyone’s comments on this one. Thanks again Tom and Robert.

Posted by Jeff Weber | Report as abusive

Thanks Jeff. It was one of the better exchanges we’ve had and I’m glad you found it interesting.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive