My parents had an agreement: If my father could name his children, then my mother could raise us in the church. So I was given a full Muslim name, but I was baptized as a Christian. Growing up I never really liked my name very much - Omar. For a little kid in Texas, a foreign sounding, deeply ethnic name was a nuisance. It stood out too much. It made a scene. In classrooms full of Mikes and Peters and Amys and Stephanies, Omar felt like the person who wore jeans to a wedding while everyone else was in suits. Very out of place. I always wanted to be a David.
Over the years, in classrooms and sanctuaries, as different Middle Eastern dictators and terrorist groups made headlines, my name was the butt of many jokes, varied translations, and stupid questions (imagine the fun in junior high when "Moammar Gadhafi" sounded too much like "Omar Rikabi").
Not too long ago, I was given the opportunity to preach in a Baptist church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before the service started I was introduced to the senior pastor. "Hello," I told him, "my name is Omar and I'll be doing the preaching tonight." As he shook my hand, he pulled me close and asked loudly with his southern drawl, "Omar? You're not a terrorist are you?"
I have to admit that this was not the first time my Muslim name was taken as a suggestion that I was "one of them." By "them" I mean "the enemy." The politics and preaching of fear saturates us. Representative Keith Ellison, the Muslim congressman from Minnesota, had to endure talk show host Glenn Beck's ridiculous questions about his loyalty to "the enemy." And now Senator Barack Obama is under attack because his middle name is Hussein.
But here is my question: What if Obama were a Muslim? So what? I resent the idea that just because my family is Muslim, or that I have a Muslim name, we are somehow part of "the enemy" who cannot be trusted. I know scores of Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Europe, and the U.S. who do not hate Christians, Jews, the U.S., or "our freedoms." But sadly, at a time when tensions are high and we should be working for peace, too many politicians and pastors seem all too willing to fuel the fire of war with proclamations and sermons of ignorance and fear.
What stings even more with the Obama situation is the implied notion that being a Muslim, or having a Muslim or Middle Eastern name, means that you are not as qualified for a position that anyone else with a "normal" background or name could have. Does the fact that my first name is Omar, my middle name is Hamid, and I have an Iraqi last name mean that I cannot be a good pastor? Or that my dad cannot be a good father? Or that my cousin cannot be a good surgeon?
No one ever claimed that Ted Kennedy could not be a senator because Irish-Catholics were involved in violence in Belfast. Or imagine the outrage if talk show hosts attacked Senator Joe Liberman simply because he was Jewish. They would quickly be recognized as anti-Semitic and taken off the airwaves. But when it comes to Muslims and the Middle East, we seem to be operating with a different set of rules.
It does not matter that the e-mail rumors about Senator Obama being a Muslim are false. For those who are all too ready to click the "forward" button have exposed their real thoughts and convictions of bigotry and mis-placed fear toward the Muslim world.
And for those of us who claim that we say and do what we do "in the name of Jesus", we should remember that "name" also means "nature." So then, are we saying and doing what we do in the very nature of Christ, who had a radically different nature when it came to enemies and foreigners?
We must remember that the enemies of the U.S. are not always the enemies of God. The world may have radical enemies who happen to be Muslim, but Muslims are not the enemy. The real enemy is the ignorance and fear we see being trumpeted over Obama's name. And in the end the only testament left will be the further alienation of millions of people who will continue to wonder why the West seems to hate the Muslim world.
We can do so much better.
I love my name.
Rev. Omar Hamid Al-Rikabi is a campus minister at the University of Arkansas Wesley Foundation. He is the son of a Muslim father from Iraq and a Christian mother from Texas. He shares his stories on his blog at www.firstbornstories.com