What’s in the Name Hussein?

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Juan R.I. Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, has written a cogent essay about the number of famous American names of Semitic origin. The essay was prompted by the hate campaign centered on President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s name.

A repugnant e-mail and radio campaign to connect Barack Obama’s middle name with Muslim terrorism is being waged, and, like all ideologically driven smears, it rides roughshod over the truth.

Many Christian names are of Semitic origin. Many names thought to be Christian are of pre-Christian origin, meaning they have been Christianized by usage.

Juan R.I. Cole
Juan R.I. Cole

The Hussein in Barack Obama’s name is not Muslim, it is not a religious name, it is in fact a pre-Islamic Arab name, meaning the Comely One. True, many Muslims now bear the name, as many Christians bear pre-Christian pagan names. But the hate-mongers want us to believe that the name has something to do with Muslim terrorism. The popularity of the name Hussein derives from its having been borne by the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson.

Raising this bogus issue about it is rather like saying anyone named Sean has something to do with Irish terrorism, a notion we would immediately reject as absurd.

This swift-boating is an insult to the many Americans who bear Arab names, such as Gen. George Joulwan, our former European commander, or Gen. John P. Abizaid, our former Iraq commander, or the poet Naomi Shihab Nye or the late Gen. Omar N. Bradley or Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, former difrector of the National Institutes of Health, to mention but a few.

Their distinguished military service probably gave Generals Joulwan and Abizaid a pass from this hateful smear. And perhaps Tony Shalhoub’s endearing performance as Monk on television immunizes him against this rabidity.

But the facets of this kind of hatred are many. For example, it isn’t just Islamophobia at work here, it’s pure racism, and any Jew who takes comfort in the venom of the Christian right against Arabs and Islam should remember that such venom can turn on Jews in the wink of an eye, and often has.

Particularly disturbing is the abject failure of the media to clarify a simple fact about Barack Obama’s name whenever the issue arises, namely that Hussein is an ethnic name, not a religious name. Indeed this evening Wolf Blitzer on CNN, reporting the mindless flapdoodle concerning Barack Obama’s name, further muddied the waters by referring matter-of-factly to Hussein as a Muslim name. What is so hard for the media about this problem, considering the sheer amount of paid blather in which we’re bathed every day on airwaves that we all own?

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller’s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.