For many, the most exciting thing about Barack Obama’s victory in the Democratic race is the prospect of a US president who will take concrete steps to improve America’s tarnished reputation in the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world. Andrew Sullivan indulged the thought last year in his hymn of praise to Obama in the Atlantic: “It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.”
Not so fast, said Prospect author and professional contrarian Edward Luttwak. Writing in the New York Times, Luttwak suggested that Obama’s chances of healing relations with the world’s Muslims would be crippled by his own personal history. Obama’s father was, famously, a Muslim, but renounced his faith, and Obama is a practising Christian, as we know from the Jeremiah Wright controversy. According to Muslim law, wrote Luttwak, Obama’s birth to a Muslim father, even one who had left the faith, made him an apostate. And apostasy in the eyes of Islamic clerics is the worst of crimes. The usual sentence is execution, and Islamic law states that any Muslim who kills an apostate shall be spared punishment. At the very least, said Luttwak, this would make security for the president on trips to Muslim countries even more of a headache.
Luttwak likes to ruffle feathers, and usually gets a response—his article “The middle of nowhere,” published a year ago in Prospect, which argued that the world would do best to ignore the increasingly irrelevant middle east, remains, I think, the most-read piece on our website. (The book of the same name is being published later this year.)
And Luttwak certainly got a response this time. Such a fierce one, in fact, that the NY Times conducted its own inquiry into Luttwak’s thesis, interviewing five Islamic scholars, and found, more or less, that Luttwak was talking complete bunkum. In a fine contribution to what is steadily becoming a grand tradition of self-flagellation at the Grey Lady, the newspaper’s public editor wrote: “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… With a subject this charged, readers…