Marty Peretz illustrates his ignorance of and contempt for Islam, here. Indeed, he draws an amusing picture of his ignorance of his own candidate.
But there is something cultish in this appropriation of his moniker [Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein] not because it is an Arab or Muslim name but because he took it as part of his life’s struggle with and against and for his father. To play poltical games with the inner life of your candidate is a risky venture and actually a sign of disrespect.
Obama was born Barack Hussein Obama. He didn’t add “Hussein,” it is a part of his birth name.
This thought never entered the foolish mind of Juan Cole who, on February 28, 2008, posted an article in Salon titled, “Obama should be proud to be named Hussein.” As usual with Cole, it was a dishonest piece. He lists various Husseins in history including the one who was the grandson of the Prophet, in a short enumeration that includes the author of The Kite Runner. Of course, Mohammed’s grandson is the most significant Hussein in Islamic history. The Shi’a believe he was the third Imam and they have built a shrine to him in Kerbala, Iraq. On the anniversary of his death there are ceremonies of self-flagellation, particularly by young men, as some writers insist, in the grip of testosterone. The Kerbala shrine has been the scene of several suicide bombings by Sunni fanatics punctuating the Iraq civil war with secarian hatred.
The Hussein in Obama’s name is that of his grandfather, a Sunni who commemorated nothing in the bloody history of Islam. Obama’s father died an atheist.
How Mr. Peretz knows that this is beyond me. Perhaps he conducted an interview with Hussein Obama. But Obama’s grandfather was a convert to Islam. Converts tend to take on Muslim names holding some kind of special relevance to them, often from what they have learned about Islam or from those who brought them to Islam. This is very similar to many African converts to Christianity and Arab Christian converts to Protestantism who take names such as “Robert” or “Edward” or “Theophilus” or “Solomon” or “Jacob” or “William”. It is quite possible that a convert to Islam, Sunni or Shia (Hussein is well regarded by both Sunnis and Shias), would take a name of historical significance, symbolizing honor, valor, and otherwise good nature. He could have taken it from a Muslim he knew. Or he could have thought it proper to give him a name that means “handsome” or “good”. In any case we, Peretz included, will likely never know.
What Peretz means by “a Sunni commemorating nothing in the bloody history of Islam” is not clear. Sunnis do indeed commemorate quite a few events from the history of Islam, indeed all Muslim holidays commemorate something, be it the revelation of the Qur’an or Muhammad’s birthday, or the ascension of Muhammad into heaven, or `Ashura (which many Sunnis do use to commemorate Hussein). Whether the Muslims of Kenya celebrate `Ashura is unknown to me; their cousins in Tanzania are known to, and I have read of Sunni communities in East Africa celebrating `Ashura. But is this important? Why is it relevant that the “bloody history” of Islam was or was not celebrated by a man dead for almost thirty years? Does his grandfather having been Sunni enhance Obama’s genes or character? If he had been Shia, would be cause for alarm? Peretz is simply taking an opportunity to speak poorly of Juan Cole and to write disparagingly of Islam. If he thinks Obama supporters taking on the name Hussein as a symbol of “solidarity” is foolish, that’s fine, and I agree with him. But the reasoning leading him there (it sounds more like he simply doesn’t like the idea of Muslim names proliferating than that he is concerned with “respect” for Obama’s appellative integrity) is unbecoming of an editor of any reputable publication. Then again, this is the New Republic I’m writing about.