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My Middle Name Is Hussein

Barack Obama has been getting a lot of grief from right-wing bigots for no better reason than because his middle name is Hussein.

In Jordan, Hussein is the name of a former king; to the Shia it calls up memories of Mohammed’s grandson who died in the fight against tyranny; and to Muslims everywhere it could be the name of a cousin, friend, or even their own name. But unfortunately, in certain sectors of American society, where knowledge of Muslim culture is slight and the desire to understand it even slighter, “Hussein” means Saddam Hussein and through him, everything bad about the Middle East. To such people, saying “Barack Hussein Obama” is shorthand for all their doubts about Obama’s patriotism, his loyalty to America, and even his truthfulness. Such people say, “If he was really a Christian as he claims, then what is he doing with a Muslim name?”

Obama has been challenged for not putting his hand over his heart during the national anthem at an event in Iowa; for refusing to wear a flag pin on his jacket because he sees it as a superficial form of patriotism; for spending a couple of years in a “madrassa” or public school in Indonesia; and for belonging to a church whose pastor once traveled to Libya to meet Muammar Qaddafi. Such charges all carry the same message. Is Obama really an American, or a secret Muslim? The fact that his middle name is Hussein is treated as the final proof.

Right-wing columnist Debbie Schlussel wrote a column last December called, “Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim.” In it, she reminds us that Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya, and that Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, a Muslim country. She tells us, “Hussein is a Muslim name…and while Obama may not identify as a Muslim…in Arab culture and under Islamic law, if your father is a Muslim, so are you.” In her opinion, this is enough to disqualify him from being president.

    Is a man who Muslims think is a Muslim, who feels some sort of psychological need to prove himself to his absent Muslim father, and who is now moving in the direction of his father’s heritage, a man we want as President when we are fighting the war of our lives against Islam? Where will his loyalties be?

I could get into the question of whether Americans are really “fighting the war of our lives against Islam,” a subject that embarasses me whenever it comes up, but I’ll save that for another post.

Meanwhile, just last week, radio host Bill Cunningham gave us another example of using Obama’s middle name as an insult, when he fired up the crowd at a rally for John McCain, Obama’s likely opponent in the November elections.

    He lambasted the national media, drawing cheers from the audience, for being soft in their coverage of Mr. Obama…declaring they should “peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama.” …
    Mr. Obama’s campaign has been dogged by whispered rumors that he is a Muslim—he is actually a practicing Christian.

Finally, today, someone came up with the right response to all this bigotry. Andrew Sullivan, one of America’s best-known political bloggers, posted this comment he’d received from a reader.

    Recall how football players shave their heads in solidarity with a teammate who’s going through chemo? What the Democrats need to do, should Obama become the nominee, is to use Hussein as their adopted middle names. Ted Hussein Kennedy. Nancy Hussein Pelosi. Hillary Hussein Clinton. … And his supporters, too. This is something that can easily go viral and backfire on the far right big-time.

That’s exactly right. The idea that a Muslim-sounding name should call into question a person’s belief in democracy, or his loyalty to his country, is absurd. In fact it is shameful. Just as Hitler wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if everyone in Germany had worn the Jewish star instead of the Nazi cross, having the middle name Hussein won’t sound so scary if everyone does it. So until Barack Hussein Obama is elected president in November, my middle is Hussein!

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting an appreciation of Obama from a friend of mine, a Moroccan teacher. Every so often, we hear that Obama’s election would have a positive effect on the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the world, and my friend has decided to step forward as an example of that. A warning to bigots, though: my friend is a practicing Muslim! Do we really want someone as president who appeals people like him?


Comment from leblase
Time: March 2, 2008, 10:57

I’m sure you are aware of this recent survey directed by Pew over a sample of 35000 (!) American citizens on religion in America.
It turns out that apart form the 16% who say they are not to be connected to any religion, more and more people are very inclined to become religion consumers.
They go from one religion to another in the course of their lives, through mariages (more than one third Christians go from methodists to baptists, pentoctals, evangelists,etc) or other happenstances.
Obama is an example of that modern situation, having chosen Christianty late in his life.

We are not naive enough to think that people will use sound and fair arguments to discredit an opponent but one could ask Debbie Shlussel what she thinks of the fact that Jewish people for instance, say that whatever your beliefs or way of life, if your mother is Jewish, than you are Jewish?

Or the fact that(although this has no incidence in French law, where I live now) having been raised a Catholic by the Jesuits, but not sharing the Christian faith anymore, I am still considered a Catholic?
The question is: do we grant individual choices of life consideration or not?
If not, what means freedom then?

Comment from eatbees
Time: March 2, 2008, 15:30

@leblase — You’re looking at this from an interesting angle. It’s quite possible that there are Americans who view Obama with suspicion because he only “came to Jesus” as an adult, instead of being raised in a solid religious tradition. Yet I think any attempt to stoke fear of Obama on these grounds will backfire, because as you point out, the majority of Americans today share his experience of religious drift.

On the other hand, if you look carefully at Schlussel’s argument, I think you will find it is more sinister than that. She is posing as a defender of the freedom of religion, and using that to claim that Obama is unacceptable because he was born into a tradition that denies the freedom to choose — thus the title of her article, “Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim.” This is another tired variation on the theme that the West is tolerant by definition, and Islam is intolerant by definition, so intolerance of Islam is justified to defend Western tolerance. Logical, yes?

I first remember this argument being used by Dutch prime ministerial candidate Pim Fortuyn, who was asssassinated in 2002 not by an enraged Muslim, but by a Western animal rights activist!

You are right to ask Schlussel what she thinks of other traditions, specifically Jewish and Catholic, which consider membership in their communities to last forever regardless of whether the individual wants it or not. I think she would answer that Jews and Catholics have embraced the Western values of tolerance, but there is something in the Muslim tradition that makes this impossible. A double standard, in other words.

Comment from Richard Bilski
Time: December 28, 2008, 23:29

you dumb bastard cunningham. your willing to waive the constitution regarding obamas citizenship because of 64 million votes! yet to confiscate firearms and the revolution that will cause its OK! all because obama may be an illegal citizen in violation of the constitution. you might as well not bitch about other problems facing this nation because you have no standing before the american people you treasonous bastard!

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