The Times and Taqiyya: Newspaper of Record Thin on Sourcing For Islamic Scholarship

On Saturday, the New York Times published an analytical piece looking at Iran’s statements about its nuclear program, and whether the Iranian leadership might eventually take steps to develop a bomb. Featured centrally in the story were Iranian leaders’ religious disavowals of nuclear weapons.

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final authority in the Islamic Republic’s government system, has issued a fatwa — a binding religious edict — against a bomb. Various leaders often restate the position that to possess the ultimate weapon is a sin both in discussions with foreign powers, media and in sermons and speeches to the Iranian people.

In the Saturday Times article, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen wrote:

Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.

In seeking to digest a world full of news into a few pages every day, newspapers face in the inherent flaws restricted space that don’t allow complex issues to be fully hashed out. But writers seek the help of pundits — a word meaning “expert,” from the Hindi pa??it for “learned” — whose credentials can be independently evaluated and verified to explain these complex issues and distill them down into useful facts and interpretations.

The Times runs into a problem here because it doesn’t actual quote a pundit on Islam, Shi’ism, or anything else. Instead, the Times relies on the amorphous attribution to “some analysts.” Which analysts? one wonders.

Dealing with taqiyya offers particularly fraught turf. As outlined in the Center for American Progress’s “Fear, Inc.,” which details the Islamophobia industry in America, a host of self-proclaimed experts on Islam and Islamic doctrine routinely flub facts about and tenants of the faith, and yet use the material they wrongly claim to understand to promulgate anti-Muslim sentiment among the general public. (Disclosure: I work at CAP’s ThinkProgress blog, and helped with research for the report.)

One organization with an anti-Muslim bent, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), published a misleading report about Islamic law — called sharia — to imply a grave lurking threat from, among others, Muslims living completely peacefully in the U.S. CSP founder and president Frank Gaffney has said practicing Islam is tantamount to “sedition.” The “Fear, Inc.” authors wrote:

Gaffney’s Sharia report also erroneously suggests that every practicing Muslim engages in “taqiyya,” which CSP incorrectly defines as religiously mandated lying. This assertion suggests all practicing Muslims as unreliable and potential threats to America. In fact, taqiyya is an Arabic word that means concealing one’s faith out of fear of death and is practiced by only a minority of Muslims. This practice equips Muslims past and present with a faithful “precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution.”

Indeed, within Shia Islam — that practiced in Iran and by its government leaders — there is a developed doctrine of taqiyya. But if the Iranians do reverse their position and undertake nuclear weapons production, there are more obvious factors that could affect that decision, such as geo-political considerations. As the Times itself noted in a separate Saturday article on nuclear negotiations between the Western countries and Iran, “The fatwa… could be changed if the context changes — much as a legal decision might.”

Given the disproportionate focus of Islamophobes and Iran hawks on the subject, it would be nice if we knew just which experts were advising the Times on the issue.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Hmm! A rather sedate response to what is essentially an image of a glaring, turbaned, hook-nosed darky about to pull a dagger out of his caftan.
    Flatten the nose, and change the eyes’ slant, and you’ll have another two-faced Oriental that can never be trusted.

  2. Irans fatawa against having the bomb show the leaders understanding that to have nuclear weapons is evil. if the leaders can maintane their strength to uphold the fatawa . they will be known as leaders of wisdom and be making a great cause for humanity. i hope the US understands this and will support Iran in keeping the fatawa There is a youth group in US called Our New Clear Future with the goal of abolition of nukes by 2030. to see Iran take the lead in moving the world forward in the quest of abolition of nukes by 2030

  3. Taaquia here must be balanced with, “fight them as they fight you.” Perhaps the Iranians can justify building a bomb, as a defense against bombs. But, there is enough here to consider pushing for a nuke free ME.

    I make the same point to women’s advocates. There is enough rights in orthodox Islam to advance the rights of women. Sadly, too many women’s rights advocates seem to want to attack Islam. Once the rights Islam offers women are exhausted, perhaps then we might consider whether Islam is too limiting.

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