Monday, May 12, 2008

President apostate?   posted by Razib @ 5/12/2008 12:50:00 PM

Edward Luttwak has a column (via The Corner) up pointing out that by Muslim measures Barack Obama is an apostate; so it is permissible that he should be killed. This is true, and I think if you asked most Muslims they would accede to the principle here. But as a matter of practicality these sorts of laws aren't enacted or enforced in all circumstances without sensitivity to other parameters; unlike Barack Obama the former president of Argentina, Carlos Menem, converted to Roman Catholicism from Islam as an adult (there have also been African leaders who converted from Islam to Christianity, but I don't believe they visited the Arab world), and he remained on good terms with the Arab nations. If you look at the cases where apostasy is an issue, they seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is one of crass material interest on the part of Muslims and marginality in the case of non-Muslims; in other words, there is a rational reason for a Muslim to use the letter of the law against the apostate or non-Muslim, and that individual who is being persecuted has very little recourse because of their lack of power. Second, there is the perception that the individual is being too vocal and so disrupting social norms and public disorder. It seems from all that I have heard atheism is known and tolerated in the Muslim world so long as atheists remain silent; the problem is public profession of views which go against majority norms. I strongly suspect in the case of the president of the United States most Islamic powers that be would simply ignore the letter of the law (that is, the consensus of Muslim scholars over the ages).

This does not imply that I think the attitudes of Muslims are appropriate to the modern world. Nor do I think it implies that the probability of Obama being assassinated due to his religious history is the same, all things controlled, as someone who had a less complicated past. I'm arguing simply that his "apostasy" really shouldn't be the primary predictor when we consider this issue; powerful men are simply held to different standards in our species, that's culturally invariant and the biggest issue of context in this case.

Addendum: I'm going to take a moment here to make a political comment which I hope won't spawn a thread-closing tirade from readers; but conservatives often complain that liberals don't take cultural complexity into account when they're making models of societies. Additionally, they often accuse liberals of adhering to an idealized noble savage conception of non-Western peoples (e.g., I have heard some liberals argue that Obama's Muslim background will even encourage good feelings from the Islamic world!). Unfortunately, many conservatives are guilty of the same; simple models make good rhetoric and ignorance breeds supreme confidence (I've been guilty of this, you've been guilty of this). But if any individual looks to their own life, their social circle and their culture, they will see a great deal of texture, subtly and nuance which can't be shoehorned into the avowed heuristics.