Americans these days can be divided into three categories: those who think Obama is a Muslim (and thus a likely terrorist) because his middle name is Hussein; those who think it is an inconvenience for Mr. Obama to have a Muslim sounding middle name; and those who are above this bias because, after all, what’s in a name?
I do not fit into any of these categories, at least in part because I am an international student and not American. I think it is wonderful for Mr. Barack Hussein Obama to have the middle name he does. And I find it disgusting that there are some people who ridicule Mr. Obama just because of it.
The name Hussein, of course, has its roots in Arab-Islamic culture. Hussein is Arabic for “the little beautiful one,” and it is one of the most common names among Muslims, probably the most popular after Mohammad and Ali. And not without reason. The historical figure Hussein was a maternal grandson of Prophet Mohammad, a son of Ali (the fourth Caliph of the Muslim Empire) and is revered by Muslims all over the world.
What make Hussein so important are not his family connections, but what he achieved and what he stood for.
Hussein was killed in a military encounter, not in a “jihad” against Jews and Christians. He was not a professional soldier and certainly not a terrorist. Instead, he was a scholar and a politician who ran for caliph, but was killed in the process. It was none other than the incumbent caliph, Yazid I of the Umayyad dynasty, who killed Hussein.
Yazid I was the son of Muawiyah I, the fifth caliph of the Muslim empire. On his deathbed, Muawiyah chose his son Yazid as his successor. This was a turning point in Muslim history, since to that point the caliphate was quasi-democratic: The person who had the most popular support would become caliph. But by choosing his son as his successor, Muawiyah was essentially changing the nature of the caliphate to that of a dynasty. And this is what Hussein, and other scholars, rose up against.
Hussein went a step further and declared his intention to become caliph. He, with seventy of his closest relatives, advisors and followers, was on his way to Kufa, a city where he enjoyed popular support, when he was overtaken by an army dispatched by the new caliph, Yazid. The army cornered Hussein and his men and offered them two choices: an unconditional surrender and pledge of allegiance to Yazid or imminent death. Instead of surrendering to Yazid and endorsing his dynastic designs, Hussein chose to fight. He and all the males in his camp died that day. The band of 70 was no match for the imperial army that had humbled Persia and Byzantium. But Hussein set an example for generations to come by refusing to give in to a tyrant and standing up for the right thing, even against heavy odds. And this is why Hussein’s death is mourned to this day by millions of people around the world.
Given the significance of the name Hussein, I feel disgusted when people make fun of it. I feel disgusted when people suggest that being Muslim is somehow synonymous with being a terrorist. I feel disgusted when even the suggestion that a person might be a Muslim is seen as mudslinging, an allegation which should be refuted. Colin Powell was dead right when he asked whether there is something wrong with being a Muslim in this country.
Is there something wrong with it? We know Obama is not a Muslim, as he is a Christian instead. But is there something wrong with him having a Muslim father, or with having a Muslim middle name?
I know America will grow out of this. There was a time when being black in America was a problem, when being Jewish was a problem, when being Catholic was a problem. So if being a Muslim in America is a problem today, we know that this too will go away, that eventually people will be judged by their achievements, not by their names.
Barack Obama should be proud to be named after a man of such stature. America would be lucky if President Barack Hussein Obama turns out to be even one -tenth as brave as the Hussein who had the courage to say no to a tyrant.
Syed Salah Ahmed is a sophomore in Saybrook College.