Editor’s Note: The recent New York Times op-ed claiming that Muslims view Barack Obama’s conversion to Islam as ‘apostasy’ has no basis in the Arab media, write the commentators. In fact, they argue, Obama has received more favorable coverage in the Arab media than in the American press. Jalal Ghazi and Souheila Al-Jadda are associate producers of “Mosaic: World News from the Middle East” on Link TV.
The most shocking coverage about Barack Obama’s faith appeared in the New York Times this week, when op-ed contributor Edward N. Luttwak claimed that Obama would not be able to improve relations with the Muslim world because he would be viewed as an “apostate.” Luttwak wrote that Obama’s conversion was “a crime in Muslim eyes; it is ‘irtidad’ or ‘ridda,’ usually translated from the Arabic as ‘apostasy’” and is “the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder.”
This claim has never been expressed on any Arab television station or newspaper. In fact, Obama has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage by Arab media including Saudi television stations known for their conservative politics.
Luttwak does not cite a single Muslim scholar. Even if he wanted to, there is no Muslim scholar who has accused Obama of apostasy.
Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq of Upper Iowa University has compiled citations from more than 100 notable Islamic scholars affirming the right of Muslims to change their faith.
Some of these scholars include Egyptian Islamic thinker Jamal al Banna who wrote an article entitled “No Punishment for Ridda [Muslims leaving Islam]: Freedom of Thought is the Backbone of Islam.” Al-Banna quoted all of the Qur’anic verses on the subject, and then concluded, “These verses are clear with regard to ridda in Islam; they make no mention of any torture or punishment for the murtadd [the person who changes his religion] in this world.”
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, one of the most prominent Sunni institutions, Muhammad Sayyed Tantantawi said, “A Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam.”
Dr. Jamal Badawi, professor emeritus at Canada’s Saint Mary’s University, added, “The preponderance of evidence from both the Qur’an and Sunnah [the prophet Muhammad’s teachings] indicates that there is no firm ground for the claim that apostasy is in itself a mandatory fixed punishment (hadd), namely capital punishment.”
The list goes on.
Arab media have never considered Luttwak’s apostate argument. If anything, Obama has received more favorable coverage in the Arab media than in American media.
Saudi Satellite Television presents Obama as the candidate who is most capable of changing U.S. policy towards Muslim countries. One Saudi reporter said, “We noticed that Obama said that he would attend an Islamic conference in a capital of one of the Islamic countries, which is an indication that Obama has the willingness to a policy of openness towards the Muslim world.”
Obama’s Kenyan grandmother was a hit on Al Jazeera. She told Al Jazeera television, “Barack resembles his father in terms of intelligence and eloquence; he visited us three times. The first time was when his father was dying. The last time he visited us, I asked him to finish building a school that his father started building.”
The fact that Obama never cut his ties from his village and family in Kenya made the Arab media take notice. One Al Jazeera reporter noted that “the young Obama, who is competing to become the Democratic Party nominee in the U.S. presidential elections, is not one of the American blacks who suffered during the era of racial segregation. Obama has a Kenyan Muslim father and white Christian mother…. The [Kenyan] family only has one dream, that their son can achieve what other black Americans have not been able to achieve.”
On the other hand, American media have shown no mercy in their coverage of Obama’s family. No other candidate has been so scrutinized about his African and Muslim roots, his childhood, his name and the clothes he wears. Auma Obama, Barack’s stepsister, has expressed her concern over the way his family has been treated. “To stigmatize a faith is very, very unfortunate,” she told Al Jazeera English. “In that respect, it is very, very problematic that this issue keeps being brought up and it is brought up in a way that Barack Obama has had to defend the fact that he is not a Muslim.”
Ironically, these relentless attacks by American media have stirred hope among Arabs and Muslims that Obama has the potential to slow the tide of Islamophobia.
Lebanese journalist Dianna Mukkaled argues in Asharq Al Awsat newspaper that the smear campaign denigrating Obama’s background should be turned into a launching pad for reform.
On a recent Saudi talk show, Dr. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, called Obama “the only presidential candidate that talked about reconciliation with the Arab and Muslim worlds.”
On the same talk show, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a U.S.-based civil rights organization, put it this way: “If Obama succeeds despite the intensive campaign that was launched against him and Islam, I think he will promise change and we are optimistic that if he succeeds he will rebuild the bridges of understandings with the Muslim world.”
Yet some Arab media wish Obama had gone further in his response to these attacks. Hasan Al Brari wrote in the Jordanian Alghad newspaper that he wished that “instead of only stressing that he is not a Muslim, he would have said, ‘What if I were a Muslim?’ If he had said that, he would have changed the dynamics of the debate and exposed the chauvinists that are making these accusations.”