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NYT Public Editor: Publishing Luttwak Op-Ed A Mistake

Being vindicated always feels good, so I was pleased to read the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt acknowledge that Edward Luttwak's op-ed of a few weeks ago — the one in which he laundered Daniel Pipes' deranged ravings about Barack … Read More

By / June 3, 2008

Being vindicated always feels good, so I was pleased to read the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt acknowledge that Edward Luttwak's op-ed of a few weeks ago — the one in which he laundered Daniel Pipes' deranged ravings about Barack Obama being a Muslim under Sharia and speculated that Obama might be slaughtered as an apostate — was utter bullshit in every particular. Before reading through a few money shots, bear in mind just how restrained and moderate a tone the Times' etiquette rules force Hoyt to be:

I interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong…[snip]…

Interestingly, in defense of his own article, Luttwak sent me an analysis of it by a scholar of Muslim law whom he did not identify. That scholar also did not agree with Luttwak that Obama was an apostate or that Muslim law would prohibit punishment for any Muslim who killed an apostate. He wrote, "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."…[snip]…

All the scholars argued that Luttwak had a rigid, simplistic view of Islam that failed to take into account its many strains and the subtleties of its religious law, which is separate from the secular laws in almost all Islamic nations. The Islamic press and television have reported extensively on the United States presidential election, they said, and Obama’s Muslim roots and his Christian religion are well known, yet there have been no suggestions in the Islamic world that he is an apostate.

So actually existing Muslims have no correspondence to the Muslims who reside in Luttwak and Pipes' imagination, and even Luttwak's own hand-picked expert thinks Luttwak's interpretation of Islamic law is preposterous. Defending himself to Hoyt, "Luttwak said the scholars with whom I spoke were guilty of 'gross misrepresentation' of Islam" — which is a real gas given that Luttwak evidently has no basis for distinguishing accurate from inaccurate representations of Islam.

The Hoyt piece includes some revealing details about how such a badly misinformed article appeared on the Times' op-ed page in the first place: "No scholars of Islam were consulted because 'we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,'" according to David Shipley, the Op-Ed editor. As Mark Kleiman notes, 'customarily' is exactly the right modifier for the self-serving journalistic pretension (it's not just the Times) that journalists are capable of vetting claims about any issue, regardless of their technical complexity — a pretension rooted (again, as Kleiman observes) in disdain of the very idea that there is such a thing as an expert authority with specialized technical knowledge, as opposed to just another pretender whose opinion is no better or worse than anyone else's.

Occasionally, as with the Luttwak op-ed, such cut-rate post-modernist populism rears its head in the form of giving prized column inches to a prevaricator posturing as an authority. But more often, it takes the form of factual disputes in which one side is clearly correct on the merits — see John McCain and Barack Obama's dueling characterizations of the Iranian threat — being reported as a conflict between mere attitudes with no right answer. Such pundits' fallacies are deeply corrosive of democratic politics.

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