City of Brass

Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. This is significant for many reasons, not least of which because Hillary is perfect for the job and is supremely qualified for it. Arguably, the more important reason will be because of what her selection tells us about the character of Obama’s Presidency.

Joe Klein wrote a great piece a few days ago about how Obama intends to model his Administration and his Cabinet after Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”:

Obama has said he admires Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals.
“He talks about it all the time,” says a top aide. He is particularly
intrigued by the notion that Lincoln assembled all the Republicans who
had run against him for President in his war Cabinet, some of whom
disagreed with him vehemently and persistently. “The lesson is to not
let your ego or grudges get in the way of hiring absolutely the best
people,” Obama told me. “I don’t think the American people are
fundamentally ideological. They’re pragmatic
… and so I have an
interest in casting a wide net, seeking out people with a wide range of
expertise, including Republicans,” for the highest positions in his
government. … “I don’t want to have people who just
agree with me,” he said. “I want people who are continually pushing me
out of my comfort zone.”
Obama said he’d be particularly interested in
having high-ranking Republicans advising him on defense and national
security. “I really admire the way the elder Bush negotiated the end of
the Cold War — with discipline, tough diplomacy and restraint … and
I’d be very interested in having those sorts of Republicans in my
Administration, especially people who can expedite a responsible and
orderly conclusion to the Iraq war — and who know how to keep the
hammer down on al-Qaeda.”

What a contrast from the Bush Administration! It should be noted that it’s virtually certain Obama will make good on this philosophy by retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. However, the philosophy also applies to his rivals within the Democratic tent. The best example is his selection of Joe Biden for Vice-president, who differed with Obama about the Iraq war. During the selection process, Obama noted that he was looking for a Veep who would disagree with him and force him to think “outside the box” and in Biden he has found exactly that.

Just like Biden (only far more successfully so), Hillary is literally a rival to Obama, and it was the strength of her challenge that readied Obama to face McCain in the general election. Likewise, the challenge of having her as Secretary of State will be an asset in and of itself for Obama – this is something that the progressive left doesn’t seem to understand.

It is true that Clinton had been critical during the primary of Obama’s willingness to engage in diplomacy with “rogue nations”, but then she herself acknowledged she’s engage in much the same thing. Neither Obama not Clinton were talking about personal sit-downs with Ahmadinejad, but rather engaging Iran using high-level diplmats and envoys (including, perhaps, the Secreary of State). It is also true that Clinton talked of “obliterating” Iran, but the context of that was in the hypothetical scenario of Iran launching a nuclear attack on Israel (something that Iran lacks the capability to do, and which Iran would be deterred from doing even if it had that capability, partly because of strong and obvious-to-everyone statements of truth like Clinton’s was). Clinton and Obama sparred on these controversies during the primary, but neither was as significant as those with an instinctual aversion to Clinton (or Obama, for that matter) claim.

All in all, Hillary is an inspired choice for Secretary of State, and there’s a lot of arenas sorely neglected by the current Administration – most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – where she stands to be able to bring a fresh approach and face to the diplomatic challenge ahead. It’s good for the country and the world for her to be SecState, and it shows that Obama is serious about putting his Country First.

Takfir is what excommunication is called in Islam – the process of declaring someone to be outside the faith. This is a pernicious concept because it is usually used by self-appointed guardians of the faith to try and impose their own strict interpretations on others. In many ways, it’s as much a political act as a religious one. This is why I find it interesting to see that President-elect Obama is now being declared insufficiently Christian, because he does not subscribe to the belief that those who do not accept the Christian faith are automatically damned to hellfire for eternity (including his own mother):

Obama: …There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people
haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re
going to hell.
FALSANI: You don’t believe that?

OBAMA: I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.

I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in
India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for
all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.

It’s an interesting twist that a man might be called un-Christian for being too compassionate and loving, and for believing that God is not merciful, but there you go. Islam has its own fair share of such rigidity – people who believe that even the slightest deviation from doctrine results in immediate damnation. That, despite the prayer that every muslim utters ten times a day: Bismillah a-Rahman al-Rahim, “In the name of God, most Benevolent, Most Merciful.” Perhaps Christians and muslims alike who are so ready to engage in takfir should consider how their own message and actions contradict the word of God, and ponder what that means for their own salvation.

Related – Steven Waldman makes the inconvenient observation that the  majority of the world’s Christians would also be excommunicated by the standard being applied to Obama. Also, Rod Dreher follows up by pointing out that Obama did not strongly affirm the divinity of Christ, which is firmer ground for arguing his embrace of Christianity is lacking, but Obama did not deny that divinity either, and so it’s premature to infer such things from his words.

One of the singular best references about Islam, in all its complexity and diversity and nuance, is an online and free collection of essays and reference articles: Oxford Islamic Studies Online. It builds on the classical Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam, as well as several other major reference works, and will be continually updated online. As such it’s a fantastic source (far superior to Wikipedia) for anyone writing, learning, or even critiquing about Islam.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the content is not free, but there are “Focus” articles which serve as gateways on specific topics that are immensely useful in their own right. For example, “What Is Shari?ah?” by Tamara Sonn. A large excerpt follows:

The body of Islamic law does undoubtedly contain
elements that are startling in the light of contemporary Western norms.
And today, there is lively debate among Muslim scholars over many of
the laws that most concern non-Muslim observers, particularly those
dealing with democracy, pluralism, the rights of women and of
minorities, and the status of the traditional ?ud?d punishments.

contemporary Islamic thinkers fully endorse pluralism, including full
equality for all citizens. Egypt’s Fahmi? Huwaydi?, for example, argues
for equal rights for non-Muslim minorities based on the overall goal of
Islamic law, which is to establish justice. In order to achieve justice
in today’s world, he says, democracy is essential. Democracy has been
shown to be successful in the West, and it is the most effective way to
implement the Qur’?n’s command to govern through consultation (sh?r?).
While sh?r? has been exercised in various ways throughout history, in
order to result in justice today it must be anchored in a government
that recognizes the right of people to choose their ruler, and this
right must be shared equally by all citizens. Egyptian legal scholar
Salim al-Awa (Sali?m al-?Aww?) also argues in favor of democracy,
saying that Islam places authority with the people, and all citizens
have equal rights to choose, women and non-Muslims included.

Tunisian thinker Rachid Ghannouchi (R?shid Ghann?shi?) argues for
Muslim participation in secular democracies, again based on the
Qur’?nic principle of participatory governance, sh?r?, which he defines
as the authority of the community. Muslims must work with whoever is
willing to help achieve essential Islamic goals such as “independence,
development, social solidarity, civil liberties, human rights,
political pluralism, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the
press, or liberty for mosques and Islamic activities.”

European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan concludes that any government
conforming to Islamic principles must allow for communal consultation,
including both men and women, and that the most efficient means of
doing that today is through a consultative council made up of elected
members. He also insists that any representatives be chosen on the
basis of competence in various areas pertinent to daily life, rather
than heredity or some other unearned criterion. This competence allows
them to exercise ijtih?d, that is, to deliberate and formulate ways to
achieve Islamic principles in today’s circumstances, instead of relying
on models appropriate to circumstances that no longer exist.
Consequently, Ramadan concludes, Islam is completely opposed to
theocracy. Not only must Islamic government be conducted through
consultation, it also requires freedom of conscience. This is based on
Ramadan’s reading of the Qur’?n’s prohibition of compulsion in matters
of religion (2:256). Thus, he says, people must have the right to
choose their leaders, express their opinions, and live–male and female,
Muslims and non-Muslim–under equal protection of the law, as was the
case in the Prophet’s time under the Constitution of Medina. He argues
that, although there is no unique model of Islamic government, basic
principles have been provided which Ramadan calls “a framework to run

In a similar vein, Ramadan recommends a moratorium on
the implementation of ?ud?d punishments. Other scholars agree, focusing
specifically on the prohibition of apostasy (renouncing one’s
religion). For example, the former chief justice of Pakistan, Dr. S. A.
Rahman, argues that the prohibition of apostasy under threat of capital
punishment violates the Qur’?n’s fundamental insistence on freedom of
conscience. Egypt’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti? Ali Gomaa
(?Al? Jum?ah), also rejects the death sentence for apostasy, arguing
that if punishment is due, it will come in the afterlife. There is even
debate about whether or not some of the ?ud?d punishments have been
properly understood and interpreted in the first place. Tunisian
historian Mohamed Talbi explains that the law requiring capital
punishment for apostasy resulted from a confusion of apostasy with
treason. Leading American Muslim scholar Professor Ali A. Mazrui takes
a slightly different approach. He argues for rethinking the ?ud?d
punishments, saying that the punishments laid down fourteen centuries
ago “had to be truly severe enough to be a deterrent” in their day, but
“since then God has taught us more about crime, its causes,the methods
of its investigation, the limits of guilt, and the much wider range of
possible punishments.”

There is wide ranging opinion regarding
precisely which laws should be subjected to ijtih?d. It is common for
conservative scholars to identify the laws they believe should be
preserved as shari?ah and therefore not subject to ijtih?d. Reformist
thinkers tend to place greater emphasis on the distinction between
shari?ah and fiqh. This discussion has been a feature of Islamic
discourse throughout history.

The full article is well worth reading in its entirety.

(via Svend, who has been developing his own reference work on Islam that’s worth bookmarking as well).

At Talk Islam, a great discussion has ensured (as tends to happen over there) about analogizing between Islam and other religions, especially when talking about “reformations” or about labels. Abu Noor points out,

those both within and without Islam that call for “reformation” are not
really calling at all for anything like the Protestant reformation of
Christianity but are in fact calling for a Reform Islam movement that
would resemble Reform Judaism.

He also proposes the term “Orthodox Muslim” as a better label for those muslims attempting to engage in such a process. The debate turns to the fact that Jews can also be thought of as an ethnic group in addition to a religious one, whereas thats not the case for muslims in the US (though in one sense it is a good approximation for muslims in Europe, on a country by country basis).