Politics of a middle name

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Barack Obama Views: 5156

Never before has the middle name of a U.S. senator gained as much print coverage as that of Senator Barack Hussein Obama of Illinois. For the past several months the U.S. media has been obsessed with the potential connection between Mr. Obama and Islam even though he has adamantly declared his credentials as a Christian. The auditory similarity between "Obama" and "Osama" has led to all kinds of jokes and media slips that are quite revealing of the continuing apprehensions about Islam that so many citizens continue to feel across the land . Of course, the U.S. Congress now has a bona fide Muslim member, Keith Ellison, from the state of Minnesota, and his decision to take an oath on the Quran instead of the Bible created an uproar as well. However, the significance of Mr. Obama's ethnicity is far more consequential because of his national prominence. Obama is already the front-runner among the democratic candidates in terms of overall popularity, despite being dismissed by some conservatives as a political novice with "oddity appeal."

The roots of Obama's cultural background and its potential implications, if he were to become the next American President, have only received polarized coverage. His opponents have pounced on the connections to discredit him while his supporters have been quick to dismiss the lineage as remote and of little relevance.

The reality is perhaps more complex and Muslim countries and Americans should have a more mature approach to understanding his multicultural identity. Barack Obama's paternal lineage is important for us to consider as it clearly has played an important part in the crafting of his personality. Mr. Obama's father was a Kenyan Muslim who separated from his American mother when the senator was only two years old. However, his mother soon remarried another Muslim, from another corner of the world -- Indonesia. Obama's stepfather Lolo Soetoro, was an important presence in his early years, specially since the family moved to Jakarta. His longing for a connection with his cultural roots, and his sense of loss from being separated from his father is perhaps best articulated in his first book (written twelve years before his presidential aspirations), which is titled Dreams from my Father.

However, because of the political rumblings, the senator is being cornered into distancing himself from his ethnic roots and pandering to pristine patriotism. The mere possibility that he might have attended a madrassah (which means school in Arabic) in Indonesia at the tender age of six suddenly became more important than his Harvard law degree. In his recent book The Audacity of Hope, Obama presents a more secular cadence about his early years as follows: "During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school; in both cases, my mother was less concerned with me learning the catechism or puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin's call to evening prayer than she was with whether I was properly learning my multiplication tables."

While such a resolute commitment to objective knowledge on his mother's part may well be commendable, the exposure to foreign cultures and traditions which Obama experienced should always be considered an asset by all. Indeed, his familiarity with Islam, could be a means of improving America's strained relations with the Muslim world through empathy and erudition. Sadly the American political landscape is still not ready to break the glass ceiling for a truly multicultural candidate. In the last election, the complex African-Portugese lineage of Senator Kerry's wife Teresa Heinz Kerry became the talk of the town. At least as a result of the Kerry caper, a large number of my fellow Americans were able to locate Mozambique on a map.

America is not alone in its fear of minority dominance. Pakistani politicians are always suspicious of non-Muslims climbing up the ladder in political circles which is just as unfortunate. Occasionally we may have individuals such as Jamshed Marker or Justice Cornelius rising to major posts of authority. The same occasional non-tradiational outliers in the US government, such as Zalmay Khalilzad or Shirin Tahir-Kheli may also be found. However, nationalism is still the game of dominant players in most polities. In Israel, there was divisive rhetoric this week hurled against the first Arab member of the cabinet, Raleb Majadele, who remains without a portfolio because of entrenched discrimination. India's ceremonial President Abul-Kalam has frequently been questioned by the conservative Hindu establishment for his Muslim allegiance which he feels obliged to wash away with champagne cheers.

Unfortunately, we are still living in a world where credentials are constantly being filtered through ethnically determined innuendoes. Beyond the platitudes of "diversity requirements" in U.S. colleges or corporate training programs, it is high time that multiculturalism becomes an essential credential for leadership rather than being a liability.

Dr. Saleem H. Ali is an Associate Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning and Acting Associate Dean for Graduate Education in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at University of Vermont.

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Barack Obama
Views: 5156

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Older Comments:
Ramesh Chandar, I may be repeating myself ad nausem, but here we go again. The average American will never elect a minority "President" - never. I am not talking about token Federal or State government posts which are awarded to minority figures to keep their Black or Latin constituencies pacified- and that too only given to those minorities who "toe the "White" Judeo-Christian line", as does Condoleeza Rice to whom, as was for Colin Powell, its more important to please the Bush/Cheney/Zionist/Evangelist cabal than integrity and courage. The fact that they are black is a great boon to Neocon's outrageous posturing that even the minorities support their mad-cap agenda of Judeo-Christian imperialism and the death and destruction that naturally follows. Or they elect a complete buffoon to falsely represent that minority leadership is incompetent and corrupt- case in point, DC's Mayor, Marion Barry whose predilection to narcotics and prostitutes received substantial media coverage. However dare any minority leader show independent thinking, honesty and courage, such as Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia congresswoman, immediately they are dismissed as loons and the Israeli/Jewish politically machinery then sets into motion a slew of vicious attacks using any means possible to oust that dissenting figure. From bank rolling their opponents to dirty tricks such as disseminating false news and outright lies and even physical abuse and death threats are liberally used by both the Christian Right and their Zionist gods. It is shamefully obvious even to the blind, that the US media are deep in the pockets of the Zionists and that is now an accepted fact- like it or not. Hence to expect any even handedness from the US media is simply laughable. When was the last time a Jewish or an "appointed" Black leader had the courage to condemn Israel and Zionists and clearly call US's pro-Israel/Zionist policy as criminal? With the exception of Cynthia McKinney no one. Not even Al Sharpton.

Middle name or no middle name, America is not yet ready to elect a black President. When a person of Color in general and a black in particular buys a home in a neighborhood, people of that neighborhood start moving out. We dont think its going to happen so soon.

Note to M Hoffman:

I will have to say, you are wrong. Russel Feigngold is Jew and a US Senator from Wisconsin. Guess what? There are very few Jews in the State of Wisconsin; and they have elected senator for the last 3 terms.

In Massachusetts, we have a governor who is black; the population of Massachusetts is more than 80% white. A Few years, Massachusetts also elected a US enator who was black.

In the southern states, the Land of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis, the state of Virginia elected a black governor.

The State of Minneosota just elected a black and a muslim person as their Congressman.

I could give plenty of examples. But you got the point.

Will US elect a black person as US President? I don't know. But without trying, there is no way to know it. In US, we don't appoint Presidents; you have to go through the political process and convince the populace to elect you.

You need to get out the of 1950's mentality. Is US a paradise? Of course, No. But then there is no paradise anywhere, and that includes muslim countries; they are not even paradise for muslims even.

Ramesh Chandar, you obviously have not read or understood what I said -though the English was plain enough. I said (if I said it any slower I would be crawling) that the bigots and racist in America's mid-western and southern states ("Bible Belt") will never allow a minority to become President. The only way a minority would have a chance of being elected would be if the majority of Americans turned their backs on these racist dolts, whom they keep electing as senators and congressmen. But that is not going to happen, is it? Hence my statement, 'it will be a cold day in hell when a minority is elected President in the US'; because Americans by and large, as are Europeans- bigots. Do you understand now Ramesh Chandar?

Note to M Hoffman:

You write "As much as I like Barak Obama it will be a cold day in hell when a minority is elected as US's president.".

Well, did somebody like the minoirity white (apartheid) government of South Africa, minority european governments in South America, minority Sunni government over majority Shiites in Iraq, etc? Would you like the minority KU Klux Klan government in USA?

ALI FROM U.S.A said:
It is shocked to hear that his middle name was hidden but by whom. The article did not mention any thing about the reason of diappearnce of his middle name. I am very confused about this article.

In responding to the comment made by Romesh Chander, I disagree with the way which he is generalizing the view point of Muslims and acts like he knows all about the Muslim culture. First of all, Afghanistan is a county occupied by forgine countries and is no longer free and oppressed. I must say that I do not know a lot about the ways Afghanis live, although I hear un-Islamic things going on. For example, people planting suicide bombs on the bottoms of cars, killing not only themselves, but many innocent civilians. Seconded of all, you must realize that Obama's Mother is a white American. His father is from a tribe in Kenya who are known as Luos. These people do not have any negative feelings for people due to their religions and beliefs. Last summer, Obama and his family had visited Kenya and were welcomed as a royalty and nobody cared about his religion. The way the story appears to me, Obama was never a Muslim. Nothing being wrong with that, he has a multicultural and multi-religious family of Christen and Muslims and was his choice to become a Christen. Everybody follows in what he or she believes in and we can't do anything about that. One positive thing about Obama was that he was exposed to both religions as a child and made his decision later on. Hussain is his middle name (or in his father's culture, his fathers name) because that is who his father is and because the children receive their fathers name as their middle or second name. That is how they are recognized in their culture. The media is making something out of nothing (and by the way, Obama is a Luo name, not an Islamic name). The Media wants to be able to put every person category, and the truth is that Obama does not fit in any box.

As good and honest the man is, Barak Obama's candidacy- indeed including any minority candidate's, will always be held hostage to the racism and bigotry that plagues every institution in the US. The problem is made worse by the profoundly ultra-right racist media figures that make no bones of their ultra-right Evangelo-Zionist proclivities, such as Glenn Beck of CNN and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News. As much as I like Barak Obama it will be a cold day in hell when a minority is elected as US's president. Not until the infantile racists in the Bible belt states cease waving the Confederate flag and electing racist senators and congressman and not until US masses turn their backs on the hate mongering and bile spewing Baptists clergy and Rabbis of the lunatic fringe type, will the US mature and elect a person irrespective of his colour, creed and ethnic origin, with genuine national interest in mind. Having observed these specimens and their life style and culture for 7 years (and thankfully I am soon headed back home) I would not hold my breath for that to happen - at lest not for perhaps another 500 years. I often wonder why the average American is so amazingly uninformed and dense. In my opinion it's not just taking verbatim whatever disinformation their fantastically inept government puts out, but the core of the problem is a dire lack of education and merciless media brain washing.

S.M.C. FROM USA said:
I live in the USA. I am afraid to wear the Hijab because I will not be called for the job after my interview. The non-Muslim women go for 'drinking' on Friday evening and they shun me. They take drugs, alcohol and engage in fornication. The Muslim population is small compared to the large. However, I am at peace with self and find a lot to do: Read, help other Muslims, study complicated social and scientific issues, play with children, clean and cook healthy organic food. We are emotionally abused in USA, deprived of good and 'easy' jobs with excellent benefits. Often fired under 'other' causes or not hired. Allah is witness. Muslims are poor because of DISCRIMINATION on hiring for higher payed jobs.

The point raised in this article is very much realistic and sounds perfect but having said that I would like to say that we can not blame USA for this because no Country in the world will be happy to see the head of the state is from Ethnic minority. As far as US Govt. policy democracy for other country and for their own country is a matter of conveyance and interest.
Recognition of Palestine Govt. is the best example.

I agree it is past time that we look at a person's character and not where he comes from or what ethnicity he is or what name he has. I am a mixed-raced woman (African-American and Native American), who was rasied in an Italian neighborhood, raised Catholic and reverted to Islam. What box do you think I would fit in?

This was a well-written article from Dr. Ali. This may seem marginal, but I must commend his use of references. I've seen many Muslim writers who do not cite where their information comes from, or what authoritative personality shares the same opinion.

Mr. Shaheed Ali
University at Buffalo

It is a well-known fact that American politics and legal systems are the best that money can buy. Just follow the money trail and you will find the pupeteers. Those in the media who do their bidding keep repeating the lies until the average American sees the lie as truth, since most Americans do not make much effort in finding the truth themselves and they trust their media and their politicians to a fault. They just want you to join the dots - Barak Hussein = Saddam Hossein! and how about no lesser person an Israeli-firster candidate Hillary Clinton making wild allegations against Barak and thus equating him with Al-Qaeda. Talk about give a dog a bad name. This, in short, is American politics. Would you buy into it? The worst man-made political system invented in the name of democracy, freedom, transparency and God. Just watch how the Foxes chew Obama to the end and Hillary will be invited to the banquet.

It is rather surprising that Dr Ali ignores the main point that Mr Obama was a muslim (after all, he had 2 muslims fathers; one real, one stepfather) or not; after all, it is the muslims who always bring up the religion aspect everywhere. If he was never a muslim, then there is no issue at all, and the discussion is meaningless. And his middle name is "Hussein". Well, "Hussein" is a muslim name. His real name is "Barak Hussein Obama".

If Mr Obama is a christian now, when did he convert.? As everybody knows, conversion from Islam to another religion is considered 'apostasy' for which the islamic sentence is death. When is the 'ulema' going to issue the fatwa? After all, the 'ulema' were quick to issue a 'death' fatwa on a poor Afghani muslim who converted to christianity (and under international pressure, had to be whisked out of Afghanistan).

So, when are 'ulema' going to issue the fatwa. Or is it the usual double standard.

It is regrettable indeed that a country renowned as "the Land Of Superlatives" makes resort to
digging lineage connected with Islam or Africa.
The hallmark of "democracy" have been:
"every one is equal before law and every one has an opportunity to claim the social ladder"!
Then,how, such deplorable stands be used by such democracy?