Obama should be proud of Hussein name

Juan Cole

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 President Benjamin Franklin to General Omar Bradley.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, right-wing American broadcaster Bill Cunningham, according to the Los Angeles Times, 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 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'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 slurring 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 languages!

Christian, Western heroes have often been bequeathed Middle Eastern names. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, 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 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 (?are??) them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth."

Here is a list 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 honour 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 Gibbon, 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. 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 black," 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 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 realise. 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.