Obama should be proud to be named Hussein/by Juan Cole | February 29, 2008

WLW radio Wingnut Bill Cunningham has always appealed to the basest, most prejudiced and ignorant members of the talk radio audience. It doesn’t take much exposure to Cunningham’s vitriolic rants to get clear that, unless you fall into one of the above categories, what’s the point of even listening to him? Like his fellow Wingnut, Rush L, babbling Bill has been looking for ways to disparage Barak Obama. It is one thing to do as many bloggers , myself included, have done, which is to try to shed light into the corners of Obama’s POLITICS that the Mains Stream Media is steadfastly ignoring. It is quite another to engage in using racism as a form of criticism.

Now we have bit of a tempest in a teapot over Cunningham’s lame attempt to make racist use of prejudice against people with Arabic or semitic names to smear Obama because of his middle name. Hussein.

I don’t know if the author of the post below, Juan Cole, is a linguist by trade, but he literally lashes Cunningham to the bone with his take on the melting pot that is America and, how it is that Hussein is in fact a name that fits right into that stew of immigrants.

The attacks on Barack Obama’s middle name have begun, but the likely
Democratic nominee joins a long line of famous Americans with Semitic
names, from Benjamin Franklin to Omar Bradley.

Obama should be proud to be named Hussein

Feb. 29, 2008 |

By Juan Cole

In Cincinnati, Bill Cunningham, according to the Los angeles
introducing presidential candidate John McCain at a rally Tuesday,
“ridiculed Democratic contender Barack Obama for his intention to meet
with ‘world leaders who want to kill us’ and pointedly referred to the
Illinois senator as ‘Barack Hussein Obama.'” John McCain<http://dir.salon.com/topics/john_mccain/> repudiated Cunningham’s
low tactics and said that using the middle name like that three times
was “inappropriate” and would never happen again at one of his rallies.

I want to say something about Barack Hussein
Obama<http://dir.salon.com/topics/barack_obama/>‘s name. It is a name to
be proud of. It is an American name. It is a blessed name. It is a
heroic name, as heroic and American in its own way as the name of Gen.
Omar Nelson Bradley or the name of Benjamin Franklin. And denigrating
that name is a form of racial and religious bigotry of the most vile and
debased sort. It is a prejudice against names deriving from Semitic

Christian, Western heroes have often been bequeathed Middle Eastern
names. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar,<http://historymedren.about.com/library/who/blwwcid.htm> the
medieval Spanish hero, carried the name El Cid, from the Arabic
al-Sayyid, “the Lord.”

Barack and Hussein are Semitic words. Americans have been named with
Semitic names since the founding of the republic. Fourteen of our 43
presidents have had Semitic names (see below). And American English
contains many Arabic-derived words<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Arabic_loanwords_in_English>
that we use every day and without which we would be much impoverished.
America is a world civilization with a world heritage, something
Cunningham will never understand.

Barack is a Semitic word meaning “to bless” as a verb or “blessing” as a
noun. In its Hebrew form, barak, it is found all through the Bible. It
first occurs in Genesis 1:22 — “And God blessed (ḇāreḵə) them, saying,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl
multiply in the earth.”

Here is a list<http://www.studylight.org/lex/heb/view.cgi?number=01288>
of how many times barak appears in each book of the Bible.

Now let us take the name “Hussein.” It is from the Semitic word hasan,
meaning “good” or “handsome.” Husayn is the diminutive, affectionate form.

Barack Obama’s middle name is in honor of his grandfather, Hussein, a
secular resident of Nairobi, Kenya. Americans may think of Saddam
Hussein when they hear the name, but that is like thinking of Stalin
when you hear the name Joseph. There have been lots of Husseins in
history, from the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, a hero who touched
the historian
to King Hussein of Jordan, one of America’s most steadfast allies in the
20th century. The author of the beloved American novel “The Kite Runner”
is Khaled Hosseini.

But in Obama’s case, it is just a reference to his grandfather.

It is worth pointing out that John McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget,
is originally from Bangladesh.<http://www.dadmag.com/archive/060400jmccain.php> Since Hussein is a very common name in Bangladesh, it is entirely possible
that her birth father or grandfather was named Hussein. McCain certainly
has Muslim relatives via adoption in his family. If Muslim relatives are
a disqualification from high office in the United States, then McCain
himself is in trouble. In fact, since Bridget is upset that George W.
Bush doesn’t like her “because she is
and used her to stop the McCain campaign in South Carolina in 2000, you
understand why McCain would be especially sensitive to race baiting of
Cunningham’s sort. The question is how vigorously he will combat it; he
hasn’t been above Muslim taunting in the campaign so far. (And the
McCains really should let Bridget know that she is Asian, not “black.”
The poor girl; Bush and Rove have done a number on her, and Cindy’s
confusion can’t help.)

The other thing to say about grandfathers named Hussein is that very
large numbers of African-Americans probably have an ancestor 10 or 11
generations ago with that name, in what is now Mali or Senegal or
Nigeria. And since so many thousands of Arab Muslims were made to
convert to Catholicism<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morisco> in Spain
after 1501, many Latinos have distant ancestors named Hussein, too. In
fact, since there was a lot of Arab-Spanish intermarriage, and since
there was subsequent Spanish intermarriage with other European
Catholics, more European Americans are descended from a Hussein than
they realize. The British royal family is quite forthright about the
Arab line in its ancestry going back to Andalusia.

Obama, being a cousin of Dick Cheney on one side and having relatives in
Kenya on the other, is just more and more typical of the 21st century
United States.

So, anyway, Obama’s first two names mean “blessing, the good.” If we are
lucky enough to get him for president, we can only hope that his names
are prophetic for us.

Which brings me to Omar Bradley. Omar is an alternative spelling of
Umar, i.e., Umar ibn
al-Khattab,<http://www.princeton.edu/%7Ebatke/itl/denise/umar.htm> the
second caliph of Sunni Islam. Presumably Gen. Bradley was named for the
poet Omar Khayyam, who bore the caliph’s name. Omar Khayyam’s
“Rubaiyat,” in the “translation” of Edward FitzGerald, became enormously
popular in Victorian America.

Gen. Omar Bradley,<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Bradley> who bore a
Semitic, Muslim first name, and shared it with the second caliph of
Sunni Islam, was the hero of D-day and Normandy, of the Battle of the
Bulge and the Ruhr.

Would Cunningham see Omar Bradley as un-American, as an enemy because of
his name?

What about other American heroes, such as Gen. George
Joulwan,<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Joulwan> former NATO
supreme allied commander of Europe? “Joulwan” is an Arabic name. Or
there is Gen. John Abizaid, former CENTCOM commander. Abizaid is an
Arabic name. Abi means Abu or “father of,” and Zaid is a common Arab
first name. Is Cunningham good enough to wipe their shoes? Is he going
to call them traitors because they have Arabic names?

What about Rep. Darrell Issa of California? (“‘Isa” means Jesus in
Arabic). Former Cabinet secretary Donna Shalala? (Shalala means
“waterfall” in Arabic.)

I won’t go into all the great Americans with Arabic names in sports,
entertainment and business, against whom Cunningham would apparently
discriminate on that basis. Does he want to take citizenship away from
Kareem Abdul Jabbar (meaning “noble the servant of the Mighty”) and
Ahmad Jamal (meaning “the most praised, beauty”)? What about Rihanna
(“sweet basil,” “aromatic”)? And Tony Shalhoub (i.e., Mr. Monk)?

Let us take Benjamin Franklin. His first name is from the Hebrew Bin
Yamin,<http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/B/BENJAMIN/> the son of the
Right (hand), or the son of strength, or the son of the South (yamin or
right has lots of connotations). The “Bin” means “son of,” just as in
modern colloquial Arabic. Bin Yamin Franklin is not a dishonorable name
because of its Semitic root. By the way, there are lots of Muslims named
Bin Yamin.

As for an American president bearing a name derived from a Semitic
language, that is hardly unprecedented.

John Adams really only had Semitic names. His first name is from the
Hebrew Yochanan, or gift of God, which became Johan and then John. (In
German and in medieval English, “y” is represented by “j” but was
originally pronounced “y.”) Adams is from the biblical Adam, which also
just means “human being.” In Arabic, one way of saying “human being” is
“Bani Adam,” the children of men.

Thomas Jefferson’s first name is from the Aramaic Tuma, meaning “twin.”
Aramaic is a Semitic language spoken by Jesus, which is related to
Hebrew and Arabic. In Arabic, twin is tau’am, so you can see the similarity.

James Madison, James Monroe and James Polk all had a Semitic first name,
derived from the Hebrew Ya’aqov or Jacob, which is Ya’qub in Arabic. It
became Iacobus in Latin, then was corrupted to Iacomus, and from there
became James in English.

Zachary Taylor’s first name is from the Hebrew Zachariah, which means
“the Lord has remembered.”

Abraham Lincoln, of course, is named for the patriarch Abraham, from the
Semitic word for father, Ab, and the word for “multitude,” raham. Abu,
“father of,” is a common element in Arab names today.

So, Mr. Cunningham, Barack Hussein Obama fits right in this list of
presidents with Semitic names. In fact, we haven’t had one for a while.
We are due for another one.

A blessed and good one.

— By Juan Cole


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