Obama, 9/11, and Freedom of Conscience

During an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News which aired Sunday September 7, 2008, Barack Obama bemoaned what he claimed were insidious Republican attempts to "promulgate," falsely, his "Muslim connections." Senator Obama then made a minor gaffe (at ~ 2 minutes 50 seconds, here), in his half-hearted exculpation of Senator McCain: "John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith." Stephanopoulos, who earlier defended McCain against Obama's general anti-Republican allegations, then corrected Obama's misstatement with instantaneous, politically-correct alacrity, reminding the Democratic Presidential nominee,  "...[you meant] your Christian faith." And certainly the full context of the discussion makes clear Obama was not in any way acknowledging some personal embrace of Islam, when he responded, "What I meant to say, he [McCain] hasn't suggested that I am Muslim."

But the self-aggrieved, whining tone of Senator Obama's interview struck me as particularly inappropriate occurring just four days prior to his scheduled appearance with Senator McCain at Ground Zero, in lower Manhattan. Both men will suspend their Presidential campaigns to be present at a joint, non-partisan event, Thursday, September 11, 2008, commemorating the 7th anniversary of the cataclysmic acts of mass-murdering jihad terrorism on September 11, 2001.

Those savage attacks represent a jihadist assault on our core Western values-prominently among them, the freedom of conscience Barack Obama's personal biography epitomizes-despite his apparent obliviousness to, or denial of, this reality.

Sober, independent analyses by academics, including published essays in The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times, concur that Obama's childhood experience of Islam -- as perceived by Muslims from Islamic societies, in particular -- has two critically important, and inter-related ramifications: his status as a Muslim; and more ominously, as an apostate from Islam.

During his childhood years in Indonesia, Barack Obama was enrolled as a Muslim (see here, here, here, and here) at his primary schools (this is confirmed, conclusively, in a registration document -- which the Associated Press photographed -- made available on Jan. 24, 2007, by the Fransiskus Assisi school in Jakarta, Indonesia, demonstrating that his Muslim step-father listed Obama's boyhood religion as Islam), and also attended the mosque during that period.

Tine Hahiyary, a former teacher at one of these schools,
claimed that the young Obama actively took part in "mengaji" classes (consistent with devout Islamic education), which instruct students to read the Koran in Arabic. And the Indonesian daily Banjarmasin Post interviewed Rony Amir, a Muslim classmate  of the young Obama, who characterized Obama as "...previously quite religious in Islam." While disputing Obama's childhood Muslim religiosity, a subsequent Chicago Tribune report still concedes that the young Obama was at least an irregularly practicing Muslim, who occasionally prayed with his step-father in a mosque.

Irrespective of Obama's Muslim devoutness as a child, one must also bear in mind how contemporary (and classical) Islamic Law views the offspring of any marriage between a Muslim man (Obama's birth father and step-father were both Muslims), and a non-Muslim woman. Sheikh 'Abdus-Sattar Fathallah As-Sa`eed, professor of Koranic Exegesis and Koranic Sciences at Al-Azhar University -- for more a thousand years, the pre-eminent center of Sunni Islamic religious education -- in a recently issued a fatwa (June 20, 2002), reiterated plainly the Islamic principle that paternity determines (Muslim) religious identity for a child born of a Muslim father, and a non-Muslim wife:  

There is nothing wrong, as far as Islam is concerned, that a Muslim man marries a Christian woman, but he should stipulate (in the marriage contract) that any children from the marriage will be Muslims.

Not surprisingly then, as Daniel Pipes has assiduously documented, the predominant understanding about Obama in Islamic societies is that the Democratic Presidential nominee, at minimum, has "Muslim origins" (as stated explicitly for example in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masri al-Youm). Libyan dictator Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi has referred to Obama as "...a black citizen of Kenyan African origins, a Muslim, who had studied in an Islamic school in Indonesia."

Analyses by Al-Jazeera have called Obama a "
non-Christian man," made reference to his "Muslim Kenyan" father, and observed, tellingly, that "Obama may not want to be counted as a Muslim but Muslims are eager to count him as one of their own."

Pipes also
notes how Arabic discussions of Obama occasionally mention his Arab Muslim middle name (Hussein), cryptically, "with no further comment needed." Moreover, even the American Muslim leaders Sayyid M. Syeed, president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Lewis Farakhan of the Nation of Islam, apparently view Obama as a Muslim. Speaking at a conference in Houston, Syeed encouraged Muslims that, regardless of the outcome of the American Presidential elections, Obama's candidacy reinforces the notion that Muslim children can "become the presidents of this country." Farrakhan claimed Obama was "the hope of the entire world," and compared him to his religion's founder, Fard Muhammad, "A black man with a white mother [who] became a savior to us."

Political scientist Shireen Burkhi, and historian Edward Luttwak have warned that this widespread perception of Obama's Muslim identity in Islamic societies may readily engender a dangerous sentiment -- the belief that Obama is an apostate from Islam. And as Daniel Pipes recently demonstrated, the subject of Obama's apostasy has already been raised in the Arab Muslim media. Not only did at least one Arabic-language newspaper publish Burki's article, Obama was described as "a born Muslim, an apostate, a convert to Christianity," in Kuwait's Al-Watan, while Syrian liberal Nidal Na‘isa denoted Obama as an "apostate Muslim," repeatedly, in the Arab Times. 

The recent case of Abdul Rahman illustrates, starkly, why any perception of Obama as a Muslim "apostate" raises -- or should raise -- fundamental awareness about the yawning gap between Islamic, and Western conceptions of freedom of conscience.  Rahman's predicament made eminently clear that Islamic societies do not accept the putatively universal standard for freedom of conscience as defined, for example in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18,

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

When in March, 2006, the unassuming Mr. Rahman faced death at the hands of our Afghan allies for the "crime" of converting to Christianity, it was no fluke, not a brutal Afghan variant on the practice of "tolerant" Islam. Death for apostasy is part and parcel of Islamic scripture and tradition. The poignant travails of this Afghan Muslim convert to Christianity -- who was willing to die for the basic expression of his freedom of conscience, and whose life was only spared upon being granted asylum in Italy -- demonstrate a uniquely Islamic fusion of absurdity and denial: in light of Koran 2:256 ("There is no compulsion in religion"), and repeated claims that Islam is characterized by freedom of belief and creed, devoid of compulsion, why has apostasy from Islam always been punished so harshly, for thirteen centuries, into the present era?

Ibn Warraq's seminal 2003 study of apostasy, past and present, Leaving Islam (p.31), distinguishes transient doubt -- edified by discovering the "truth" of Islam -- from apostasy.

Doubt is a very good passageway, but a very bad place to stop in. However, apostasy is a matter of treason and ideological treachery, which originates from hostility and hypocrisy. The destiny of a person who has an inborn handicap is different from the destiny of one whose hand should be cut off due to the development of a dangerous and infectious disease. The apostasy of a Muslim individual whose parents have also been Muslim is a very infectious, dangerous and incurable disease that appears in the body of an ummah (people) and threatens peoples lives, and that is why this rotten limb should be severed.

And punishment by death for apostasy from Islam is firmly rooted in the most holy Muslim texts -- both the Koran, and the hadith -- as well as the sacred Islamic Law (the Shari'a). Koran 4:89 states: 

They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper.

One of the most authoritative Koranic commentators, Baydawi (d. 1315/16) interprets this passage thus: "Whosoever turns back from belief (irtada), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard" (cited in Zwemer, The Law of Apostasy in Islam, 1924, pp. 33-34). Ibn Kathir's (d. 1373) venerated commentary on Koran 4:89 concurs, maintaining that as apostates have manifested their unbelief, they should be punished by death.

These draconian judgments are reiterated in a number of hadith (i.e., collections of the putative words and deeds of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, as compiled by pious Muslim transmitters). For example, Muhammad is reported to have said "Kill him who changes his religion" in hadith collections of both Bukhari and Abu Dawud. There is also a consensus by all four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (i.e., Maliki, Hanbali,  Hanafi, and Shafi'i), as well as Shi'ite jurists, that apostates from Islam must be put to death. Averroes (d. 1198), the renowned philosopher and scholar of the natural sciences, who was also an important Maliki jurist,
provided this typical Muslim legal opinion on the punishment for apostasy (vol. 2, p. 552):

An apostate...is to be executed by agreement in the case of a man, because of the words of the Prophet, "Slay those who change their din [religion]"...Asking the apostate to repent was stipulated as a condition...prior to his execution

The contemporary (i.e., 1991) Al-Azhar (Cairo) Islamic Research Academy-endorsed Shafi'i manual of Islamic Law, ‘Umdat al-Salik (pp. 595-96) states:

Leaving Islam is the ugliest form of unbelief (kufr) and the worst...When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed. In such a case, it is obligatory...to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.

Warraq (p.19) has summarized how convicted apostates have been killed, typically by the sword (i.e., beheading), although

... there are examples of apostates tortured to death, or strangled, burned, drowned, impaled, or flayed. The Caliph ‘Umar [d. 644] used to tie them to a post and had lances thrust into their hearts, and the [Mameluke] Sultan Baybars II (1308-09) made [their] torture legal.

Sir Henry Layard, the British archaeologist, writer, and diplomat (including postings in Turkey), described this abhorrent spectacle which he witnessed in the heart of Istanbul, in the autumn of 1843, four years after the first failed iteration of the so-called Tanzimat reforms designed to abrogate the sacralized discrimination of Islamic Law, as practiced in the "tolerant" Ottoman Empire:

An Armenian who had embraced Islamism [i.e., common 19th century usage for Islam] had returned to his former faith. For his apostasy he was condemned to death according to the Mohammedan law. His execution took place, accompanied by details of studied insult and indignity directed against Christianity and Europeans in general. The corpse was exposed in one of the most public and frequented places in Stamboul [Istanbul], and the head, which had been severed from the body, was placed upon it, covered by a European hat.

Finally, within our current era, Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-96), an important 20th  century Egyptian cleric, then an official of Al Azhar University, supported -- consistent with Islamic Law -- the July 1994 vigilante murder of secular "apostate" Egyptian writer Farag Foda. Testifying on behalf of Farag Foda's murderer, al-Ghazali stated, unabashedly, that Foda's apostasy represented, "... a danger to society and the nation that must be eliminated. It is the duty of the government to kill him."

Ibn Warraq writes as a mature, intrepid secular Muslim "apostate," and scholar of Islam, which affords him unique, important perspectives. Clearly, Warraq's writings and the apostate testimonials he has compiled are unsparing in their frank criticism of Islamic dogmas and jurisdictions. However, these passionate critiques also reveal the deep, unbroken affection Warraq and his fellow apostates maintain for the individual men and women in their former societies. These brave apostates should never be associated, disingenuously, with bigoted, non-Muslim xenophobes who have surfaced in the West. Warraq speaks for truly courageous intellectuals from Muslim societies who support profound reforms of Islamic institutions. And Warraq's most recent book, "Defending the West" is a celebration of  the "golden threads" woven through Western culture -- rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism -- which he defended passionately in the wake of the Danish Muhammad cartoons debacle:

The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience. No, the west needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies who keep their women in subjection, cut off their clitorises, stone them to death for alleged adultery, throw acid on their faces, or deny the human rights of those considered to belong to lower castes... By defending our values, we are teaching the Islamic world a valuable lesson, we are helping them by submitting their cherished traditions to Enlightenment values.

Ibn Warraq's formal childhood experience of Islam mirrored Barack Obama's -- it was no more extensive. Yet despite copious evidence to the contrary, Barack Obama has gone to great lengths to deny even a nominal childhood Muslim upbringing.  These repeated, often shrill and accusatory denials are accompanied by a disturbing, if predictable silence: not once has Senator Obama celebrated the remarkable freedom of conscience he had here in America to decide in his mid to late 20s that he would practice Christianity openly, and devotedly, absent any consideration of his childhood Muslim background.

Mr. Obama has thus far squandered the unparalleled opportunity to highlight and extol a profoundly important virtue of this flawed, but still great country of ours, personified by his life story: America's singular, unwavering support for true freedom of conscience.

Surely if Obama is to live up to his followers (and his own) pretensions of being a "transformative" figure, then he should be ready to elucidate, frankly, the utter lack of freedom of conscience in the Muslim world, relative to the US; why his own life trajectory demonstrates this difference; and how the fight against global jihadism is, at its core, about the protection of this most profoundly important Western ideal. Let us hope that Obama's involvement with the 7th annual commemoration of September 11, 2001 will give him pause to reflect upon these matters, and discuss them, becoming a true "agent of change." And should Senator Obama need any further inspiration, I suggest he have a long conversation with Ibn Warraq.

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