Two recent op-ed articles in the United States presented Barack Obama as a “Muslim apostate” according to “Muslim law as it is universally understood.” Since Muslims were bound to see him as an apostate, they argued, the potential next president could be seen as “al Qaeda’s candidate” because Islamists could whip up popular anger in the Muslim world by portraying him as a turncoat heading a Western war against Islam. He also risked assassination, one suggested, because Muslim law considers apostasy a crime worthy of the death sentence and bars punishment for any Muslim who kills an apostate.
There were many generalisations about Islam in these two articles, one by Edward Luttwak in the New York Times and the other by Shireen K. Burki in the Christian Science Monitor. There is no one code of Muslim law, as Luttwak (who is a strategic analyst not previously known for his mastery of Islamic jurisprudence) or Burki (who we’re told “studied Islam at school” in Pakistan) want unsuspecting readers to believe. Few Muslim countries have death for apostates on their books, and even fewer actually carry it out. This is not meant to defend any law about apostasy, which is an individual right, but just to state a few facts.
Most important of all, Obama never tires of saying that he is a committed Christian and has never practiced the religion that his father (who left his son when he was 2 years old) no longer practiced either. The fact these articles appeared amid an “Obama-is-a-Muslim” whispering campaign in an election year makes a good case for suspecting they may have been motivated more by political strategy than legal scholarship. A lot of the 368 comments on Luttwak’s article assume that’s the case. Call it the “Sharia smear.”
We considered asking around in the Muslim world for reactions to Luttwak’s article (the first to appear), but it was so unfounded that it did not seem worthwhile. There wasn’t much echo there, anyway.
A respected Islamic scholar, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, has now given a Muslim response to the supposed Islamic legal arguments the two articles are based on. “A strange paradox has emerged whereby Sharia (the religious law of Islam) has paradoxically become mythical in its alleged power to determine the behavior of Muslims everywhere, yet defenseless against the most fanciful, even outrageous claims and charges,” he remarks on the Religion Dispatches blog at Emory University, where he teaches law. An-Na’im has just published a well-reviewed book on Sharia, Islam and The Secular State .