Nonsense Detector: Obama and Islam; Orthodoxy of the Apostate; Hagee and Riskin

Gershom Gorenberg


Last month, military historian Edward Luttwack used the pulpit of the New York Times op-ed page to offer a solution to the American right’s burning problem: How can Barack Obama be attacked as both a dangerous Muslim and as the follower of a dangerous black pastor? (As I wrote , this is difficult even for those used to believing six impossible things before breakfast.) Luttwack argued that Obama is really an apostate Muslim, subject to the death penalty in Islam.

The Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, has now reached the judgment that the article should never have appeared. Here’s his basic standard:

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 interviewed five scholars of Islam; all said Luttwack got the facts of Islamic law wrong. Luttwack himself presented another scholar’s analysis – and he, too, gave a thumbs-down, telling Luttwack:

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.

A similar critique comes from Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a scholar of Islamic law teaching at Emory University. In a recently posted response to Luttwack, he writes:

A strange paradox has emerged whereby Shari’a (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.

In other words, Luttwack presented a false construct of Islamic law that fit his purposes, and claimed that individual Muslims and Muslim-majority states would follow that construct. Hoyt cites Luttwack’s defense of himself:

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.”

This is pretty much an admission to interpreting Islam to fit his preconception of the religion being monolithic and hostile to both peace and dissent. As Luttwack tells it, Obama was really only a vehicle. The target was Islam. The method – so common in attacking a religion – was to build a picture of the faith at its most unbending and unjust, and to assert that any other picture is “misrepresentation.” No matter that people who practice the religion know of many streams, many opposing interpretations. Kudos to Hoyt for detecting the nonsense.

In fact, this is also a technique for attacking religion as such. Chris Dornan, who often comments here, has a post on this at Peace and Wisdom. He describes “fundamentalist atheists” who

…insist that religious ideas must be understood literally, objectively and reductively, rather than alegorically, subjectively and as integrated into a whole.

This kind of critic of religion agrees with the fundamentalist that religious texts must be interpreted literally, and that religion is unchanging. Then they conclude that it’s unacceptable. I believe that it was the American scholar of Judaism, Alan Mintz, who once described this attitude as “the Orthodoxy of the apostate”: I know what religion is; so any change or humanistic interpretation isn’t the real thing; so it doesn’t challenge my ideas. Such fundamentalism by the atheist is as falsely reductionist as the fundamentalism of the believers.

Speaking of fundamentalism and its defenders, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the West Bank settlement of Efrat has rushed to the defense of Rev. John Hagee. Riskin says that

We are living in a world divided between those who believe in a God of love and peace, and those who believe in a Satan of Jihad and suicide bombers.

He puts Hagee on the side of love and peace. I think that if he sat down and read what Hagee has to say, he’d discover that Hagee is also eager to see an apocalyptic war on Israeli soil. He can push for a bellicose American policy, because war is only part of God’s plan. But then, Hagee’s theology also requires Israel to hold on to the West Bank, including Efrat. No matter if the continued occupation does little for love and peace.

2 thoughts on “Nonsense Detector: Obama and Islam; Orthodoxy of the Apostate; Hagee and Riskin”

  1. It is so refreshing to see these different strands of political and religious thinking coming together. In this article (the culmination of a series of articles) you are defending the religious integrity of a Christian and the general integrity of the Islamic faith, while incorporating a Buddhist critique of a species of reactionary atheism. It gives me some hope that the forces of reason aren’t entirely overwhelmed in these difficult times.

    It does drives me nuts when people trot out the old trope about religion dividing people. It is sloppy, dogmatic thinking and unscrupulous people abusing philosophy and religion that do the dividing, and we are all guilty of it. It is the job of good philosophy and religion to counteracts it, and how precious it is wherever it is found.

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