Edward Luttwak’s recent op-ed in the New York Times on the effects of an Obama presidency has raised an interesting question. How would the fact that some of Mr. Obama’s ancestors were Muslim (and he is Christian) affect American relations with nations that value Islam so highly?
Islam is an exclusivist faith, just as all universal religions; uniquely, however, Muslim theologians have always admitted the possibility of salvation out of the faith, relying on the Qur’anic verses to that effect. Muslim mystics often took and take non-Muslim adepts. Under classical Islamic law, since his father left Islam and Mr. Obama was raised and became a Christian, even the most rigorous of medieval jurists could never insist he is an apostate.
Mr. Luttwak might allege otherwise, but Islamic law is clear on in this case: Mr Obama would have to have embraced the religion of Islam himself in order to be considered a Muslim. He did not, and thus the edifice of Mr. Luttwak’s entire article falls.
Where Mr. Luttwak is correct is in his assertion that in ‘Muslim eyes’, leaving Islam is a crime. The question is: is this a crime punishable by the state, or is it a crime that God alone punishes in the afterlife, similar to other religions?
A majority of medieval Muslim jurists considered the act of leaving Islam as the act of a radical bent on subverting social order. Despite the Qur’anic exhortation that ‘there is no compulsion in the religion’ the jurists considered that leaving Islam usually entailed other crimes, including treason.
They also recognized the strict procedural matters required for the process of conviction, which led to very few convictions in Muslim history. This was unlike the case in Christendom, where the Inquisitions claimed many lives over many centuries – leading to European minorities leaving intolerant Europe and beginning the American project. Muslim tolerance is why Jews left Catholic Spain for the Ottoman Empire, rather than any neighbouring Christian domains.
Muslim jurists are also bound to continually ‘update’ their understandings in accordance with the legal maxim of respecting the conditions of contemporary society – which eventually led to contemporary jurists making a distinction between treason and disbelief. The current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Gomma, made clear as such in the Washington Post last year.
In any case, the jurists are commanded to respect the political authority, and the political authorities in the Muslim world have signed off on international declarations defending freedom of belief, with their criminal codes excluding execution for leaving Islam. Mr. Luttwak’s notes as such, but seems to think that these countries have insufficient authority to resist demands for punishment – despite being mostly authoritarian.
Nor is it the case that Islamic law prohibits punishment of any Muslim who kills an apostate. On the contrary, if the life of an accused (of any crime) were taken without state sanction, the perpetrator would be due to stand trial for murder, just as in American law.
As a Briton, I have other political worries than the election of an American president. As a citizen of the world, however, I have a great deal of concern for the development of good relations between the West and the Muslim world. I have exerted most of my academic and policy efforts in that arena, focusing on issues of religious authority, and the rise of a radical cult bent on violence in the name of Islam. I travel frequently in the Muslim world for this purpose, and find much discussion on the merits of an Obama presidency: the fact that he is a Christian with Muslim roots seldom even comes up. When it does, it is usually to express the hope that because of such roots, he might be less prone to believing the myths that so characterise Islam in the public sphere.
What does grab the Muslim world’s attention, however, is that so many American commentators seem to think those roots are a cause of concern. If Mr Obama does win the presidency, he may or may not earn the praise of the Muslim world. But the feelings of our partners in the war against terror will certainly not be in favour of those commentators – they would view them as promoting a civilizational divide, not a civilizational alliance against al-Qa’eda.
That is something we simply cannot afford.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick, a member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and founder-director of the Visionary Consultants Group, a Muslim world-West relations consultancy.