In this American presidential campaign just about every possible prejudice has been let out of the soap box and it’s not even June. There was a Mormon, but Mighty Mitt dropped the ball when he was kicked in the polls by a Baptist preacher who plays the guitar. There is, though many wish we could see “was”, a woman who had already decorated the White House and whose husband would in turn (pun fully intended) be the first former president-spouse, not to mention the first admitted philanderer to get a second chance to serve tea on Pennsylvania Avenue. And there is a Black man, whose Kenyan father’s skin color seems to trump his white Kansan mother’s nurturing. And, by the way, he has a name that rhymes with Osama. And don’t forget that his father was born a Muslim. If this were American Gladiators, the battle would be simple indeed: White Naval hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton and answers to the call of Maverick vs. the young Chicago machine Black Muslim who, in the words of George Bush the Elder, kicked some — (rhymes with crass, which it is) in the primary (no matter how the folks in the backwoods down in the WV hills vote today).

So it’s full steam ahead for the mean-spitted Swift (and I don’t mean Jonathan) Boaters. Yesterday’s New York Times allowed one of the piratical advisors of John McCain a forum to broadside Obama. This was Edward N. Luttwak, whose overtly rhetorical and inadvertently satirical “President Apostate?” landed like an unexploded shell on the crowded stacked deck of media-hardened pundits. Luttwak takes his sly secular cue from the Left Behind armageddonites, viewing Arabs and Iranians as part of the Gog and Magog crowd out to destroy Israel. For those who love the plot of a clash of civilizations leading to a real-time nuclear armageddon, Luttwak obliges with a medievally-minded attack on Obama’s personal faith. Here is the spin:

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).

To my knowledge, no Muslim (and Luttwak is certainly no Muslim) has yet to denounce Senator Obama as an apostate and place a fatwa on his head. Perhaps Luttwak is trying to provoke some loony cleric to do just that. But Luttwak has no clue about contemporary Muslim thinking on the doctrinal matter of “apostasy.” Here is an informative commentary by Louay Safi:

There is ample evidence in the Qur’an that individuals should be able to accept or reject a particular faith on the basis of personal conviction, and that no amount of external pressure or compulsion should be permitted: “No compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.”(2:256) “If it had been the Lord’s will, they would have believed – All who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (10:99)

By emphasizing people’s right to freely follow their conviction, the Qur’an reiterates a long standing position, which it traces back to one of the earliest known Prophets, Noah: “He [Noah] said: O my people! See if I have a clear sign from my Lord, and that he has sent mercy unto me, but that the mercy has been obscured from your sight? Shall we compel you to accept it when you are averse to it!” (11:28).

The message of freedom of belief and conviction, and the call to religious tolerance is reiterated time and again through various Prophets, as it is quite apparent in the message of Prophet Shuaib to his people: “And if there is a party among you that believes in the message with which I have been sent, and a party which does not believe, hold yourselves in patience until Allah does decide between us: for He is the best to decide.” When Shuaib’s people threatened him with expulsion, he protested strongly citing his freedom to choose his faith: “The leaders, the arrogant party among his people, said: O Shuaib! We shall certainly drive you out of our city, and those who believe with you, or else you shall have to return to our ways and religion. He said: “What! Even though we do not wish to do so.”(7:86-7).

Not only does the Qur’an recognize the individual’s right to freedom of conviction, but it also recognizes his/her moral freedom to act on the basis of their conviction: “Say: O my people! Do whatever you may: I will do (my part). But soon will you know on whom an anguish of ignoring shall be visited, and on whom descends an anguish that abide”(39: 39-40). “Say: Everyone acts according to his own disposition: But your Lord knows best who it is that is best guided on the way.” (17:84).

The principle that the larger community has no right to interfere in one’s choices of faith and conviction can be seen, further, in the fact that the Qur’an emphasizes that the individual is accountable for the moral choices he or she makes in this life to their Creator alone: “O you who believe! Guard your own souls: If you follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is God: It is He that will show you the truth of all that you do.” (5:105). “So if they dispute with you, say: I have submitted my whole self to God and so have those who follow me. And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned: Do you (also) submit yourselves? If they do, they are in right guidance. But if they turn back, your duty is to convey the message; and in God’s sight are (all) His servants.”(3:20)

Indeed, one cannot find in the Qur’an any support for the apostasy (ridda) penalty. The Qur’an makes two references to ridda: “Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you turn back (commit ridda) from their faith and die in that state of unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life; and in the hereafter they will be companions of the fire and will abide therein.”(2:217). “O you who believe! If any from among you turn back (commits ridda) from his/her faith, soon will God produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him — humble with the believers mighty against the disbelievers, thriving in the way of God, and never afraid of the reproaches of detractors. That is the grace of God, he bestows on whom He please; and God encompasses all and he knows all things.” (5:54).

In both cases the Qur’an does not specify any physical punishment here and now, let alone a death penalty. The Qur’an rather warns those who renounce their faith of disgrace and ill-fate. To the contrary, the Qur’an provides direct evidenc that ridda is not punishable by death: “Those who believe then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve and then increase in their disbelief – God will never forgive them nor guide them to the path.” (4:137) Obviously, a death penalty would not permit repeated conversion from and to Islam.

Instead of examining the diversity of viewpoints among Muslim intellectuals, Luttwak pulls the medieval trope out of his old hat. If you believe that the 9/11 hijackers were looking for 72 virgins in paradise, then this unworkable and largely unthinkable mentality of death to apostates will be no surprise. But Luttwak does not bother to prove even the nuances of legal texts he clearly has not even bothered to read. The apostate, if one really wants to find one, would be Obama’s father. Visiting the sins of the father on the children happens often enough, but this political canard has no justification in the Quran or statements of the Prophet.

In the larger naval battle scenario for the fall election there is a telling disconnect. If indeed Luttwak is correct that Obama will be seen as an apostate and thus unable to deal with the Muslim world, then John McCain and Joe Lieberman need to revisit their tarnishing of Obama with an alleged endorsement from Hamas. This politicized torpedo stems from an ABC interview with Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas advisor, who is quoted (even on Fox News) as saying:

“I hope Mr. Obama and the Democrats will change the political discourse. … I do believe [Obama] is like John Kennedy, a great man with a great principal. And he has a vision to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community, but not with humiliation and arrogance,” Yousef said.

Some radical endorsement. Just think of the awful consequences worldwide if the United States had a president who was humble and not arrogant. So, if a Hamas spokesman does not seem to care that Obama’s father left Islam and that Obama is on the record with unqualified support for Israel, then the public must decide which story it will swallow. Let us hope this volley will sink to the depths of the media ratings, disappearing into the space where such muck naturally belongs.

Daniel Martin Varisco