You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Name Games

I am discomfitted by the report in today's New York Times telling us that many Obama supporters are taking his middle name -- Hussein -- as their own middle names. I was for Obama long before many of his current backers came on board, probably even before those who are now cashing in their own identities to assume his. And frankly I never puzzled over his name. If he were a Muslim and also the Obama I know I would have no compunctions about supporting him.
But there is something cultish in this appropriation of his moniker not because it is an Arab or Muslim name but because he took it as part of his life's struggle with and against and for his father. To play poltical games with the inner life of your candidate is a risky venture and actually a sign of disrespect. 
This thought never entered the foolish mind of Juan Cole who, on February 28, 2008, posted an article in Salon titled, "Obama should be proud to be named Hussein." As usual with Cole, it was a dishonest piece. He lists various Husseins in history including the one who was the grandson of the Prophet, in a short enumeration that includes the author of The Kite Runner.  Of course, Mohammed's grandson is the most significant Hussein in Islamic history.  The Shi'a believe he was the third Imam and they have built a shrine to him in Kerbala, Iraq. On the anniversary of his death there are ceremonies of self-flagellation, particularly by young men, as some writers insist, in the grip of testosterone. The Kerbala shrine has been the scene of several suicide bombings by Sunni fanatics punctuating the Iraq civil war with secarian hatred.
The Hussein in Obama's name is that of his grandfather, a Sunni who commemorated nothing in the bloody history of Islam. Obama's father died an atheist.