March 5, 2008 -- IS pronouncing a man's mid dle name tantamount to in sulting him?
In Sen. Barack Obama's case, the answer appears to be yes.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has already apologized because her allies used the unmentionable middle name - ostensibly without her consent. Last week, it was Sen. John McCain's turn to apologize, because the host of a meeting he attended was rash enough to pronounce the seven-letter word.
The word in question is "Hussein," Obama's middle name and the name of his Kenyan Muslim father. Obama has accepted the apologies as if using his father's name was, indeed, an insult. Why?
Well, "Hussein" supposedly has a negative resonance with many Americans, reminding them of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator. The fact that the name Hussein means "most benign" or "very beautiful" in Arabic isn't enough to persuade Obama and his pr gurus to treat it more kindly. (Hussein is also one of the most popular names for Muslims, especially Shiites.)
Obama's problems shouldn't end there. "Barack" is also Arabic, from "barakah," meaning "blessing." "Obama," meanwhile, is a word in Swahili - a language based on Arabic that serves as the lingua franca of East Africa; it refers to members of his father's tribe who converted to Islam.
In other words, "Barack Hussein Obama" is a perfectly common identifier for someone with an ethnic East African Muslim background.
Nevertheless, Obama insists that, while his father and paternal grandfather were both Muslims, he himself was never one in any way.
In Islam, of course, anyone born of a Muslim father is automatically regarded as Muslim. But Obama is hardly obliged to abide by what Muslims may or may not think of his religious status. As a citizen of a free and democratic state, he can cross from one faith to anther or have no faith at all without losing any of his rights, including the right to stand for the highest office.
What's troubling about Obama's approach to the mini-storm stirred by his political enemies over his name is what may look like an attempt at obfuscation. He has behaved as if he did have a family secret, and as if the name Hussein was something to be ashamed of - or, worse still, as if a Muslim background is somehow a handicap for an American politician in ways that Christian, Jewish, Mormon or any other faith is not.
That, of course, is hurtful to Muslims - a majority of whom reject the anti-American diatribes of the radical and violent minority.
It would've been better for Obama to state the situation clearly at the start: I was born in Hawaii and spent part of my childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. Half of my family background is Islamic. My paternal grandfather and father were both Kenyan Muslims. My father gave me an Islamic forename and middle name. But my mother was from a Christian background, and I chose her faith.
Most Americans judge a candidate based on his politics rather than his parents' religious background. In a country where everyone has a rich ethnic and religious background, Obama's family story wouldn't have sounded that exotic. Some Americans may have even regarded the Islamic part of Obama's family story as a plus for the candidate, if only because the biggest challenge to US global leadership todayscomes from forces speaking in Islam's name.
Obama's efforts to distance himself from Islam contrasts with his innovative approach to US relations with its Islamist challengers.
President Bush has chosen the "iron fist" - invading Afghanistan and Iraq, quarantining the Islamic Republic in Iran, keeping Syria's Baathist regime in check and helping a dozen Muslim states fight al Qaeda or its variants. McCain and Clinton offer variations on the same theme, albeit with twists and turns to satisfy their constituencies.
By contrast, Obama offers a policy of dialogue and accommodation. He has opposed listing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and proposed a grand bargain with Syria's rulers. He is even prepared to ignore two UN Security Council resolutions that require Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment program as a precondition for talks at the highest level. He has campaigned for a formal congressional move to prevent Bush from taking any military action against Tehran.
In an important symbolic move designed to signal an end of the special relationship between Israel and America, Obama has become the first major presidential candidate in 25 years not to commit himself to transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Last but not least, Obama has promised to withdraw from Iraq in his first year in office - meeting a key demand of all radical Islamist forces, Sunni and Shiite.
The message is clear: Obama wants a new relationship with radical forces in the Islamic world while distancing America from its traditional regional allies. In other words, he proposes to reverse policies that have taken shape over more than six decades under 12 successive American presidents.
It's this revolutionary idea that deserves to be examined and debated, not the origin and meaning of Obama's middle name.