Joe Hussein the Plumber
By Sumbul Ali-Karamali
A friend of a friend – a physician – declared categorically almost 18 months ago that she could never vote for anyone whose middle name was “Hussein.” In stark contrast, a Jewish friend of mine recently joined a Facebook group of over a thousand participants who have all adopted the middle name, “Hussein.” The purpose of this group, of course, is to protest against the unflagging use of Obama’s middle name as a negative propaganda tool, not to mention as an occasional near-expletive. But I like to think that the Jews and Christians and Muslims and others who are adopting Hussein as a middle name are doing so not only in solidarity with Obama, but with the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide named Hussein, which is, after all, just as common a name as “Joe.”
In his manifesto advocating the middle-name movement, Jeff Hussein Strabone wrote, in February of 2008, “We are all Hussein.” And he’s right. But, loosely speaking, the converse is true, too.
Because plenty of Husseins are American. In fact, plenty of Muslims are Joe-Hussein-the-Plumber average Americans who are being vilified by the very politicians who claim to care so much about average Americans. Those who elevate Joe the Plumber as the symbol of America while simultaneously denigrating Obama for being Hussein miss the point: Obama, along with his American Joe-Hussein-the-Plumber namesakes, are symbols of the greatness of America, too.
Even more troubling, though, is that never have religious prejudices, xenophobia, and racism been so widely exported to the rest of the world. The prejudice that we export rebounds back upon us. Our images are no longer limited to American media, but are spread far and wide by global media.
These attitudes are exported because Muslims – not just Arabs, who constitute only one-fifth of Muslims worldwide – watch television. They watch Hollywood movies, too, in which the vast majority of Arab characters that are depicted are racist caricatures. And they read the hate literature that abounds in the United States concerning Muslims.
These images are so potent that Muslims abroad have wondered, since long before 9/11, why Americans hate Islam and Muslims. Just as Osama bin Laden’s or Ahmadinejad’s statements are broadcast all over the American media, American anti-Islam and anti-Muslim statements are broadcast all over media in Muslim-majority countries.
Take a recent example of what Muslims abroad might see. We Americans pride ourselves on our separation of religion and state, and many Americans erroneously assume Islam requires a unity of religion and state (it doesn’t). Yet, last week CNN covered a McCain rally in Iowa, at which Reverend Arnold Conrad delivered the invocation, including this passage: “there are millions of people around this world praying to their God – whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah – that [McCain’s] opponent wins… and Lord I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens.”1
Add this incident to negative campaigning, the racist movie caricatures, and the hate literature, and what’s the result? Extremists can say with impunity to Muslim populations: “Look; the West despises Islam and means to destroy us.” Just as extremists in the West use translated hateful statements by Muslims to say: “Look; Muslims despise the West and mean to destroy us.” The net result is that we have shown each other the very worst of ourselves.
Just yesterday, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell spoke on how damaging negative campaigning can be, specifically referring to “who’s a Muslim, who’s not a Muslim.” In his interview, General Powell insisted, “Those kinds of images going out on al-Jazeera are killing us around the world….we have got to say to the world, it doesn’t matter who you are – if you’re American, you’re an American . . . We have got to stop this nonsense, pull ourselves together, and remember that our great strength is in our unity, in our diversity.”
This week has seen prominent Americans of both political parties urging the negative campaigning to stop, because finally media and political personalities are beginning to understand that hate hurts America. It divides and conquers us.
We can continue to highlight the worst of both sides and render the “clash of civilizations” a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or we can use our freedom of speech with responsibility, not with insulting carelessness; we can use our freedom of religion with pluralistic understanding, not with dogmatism. We can stand up and adopt “Hussein” as a middle name in celebration of our common humanity. It’s our choice.
—Sumbul (Hussein) Ali-Karamali, author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.
©2008 Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up in California frequently answering difficult questions about Islam and its practices posed by friends, colleagues, and neighbors. (“What do you mean you can’t go to the prom because of your religion?”) She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a J.D from the University of California at Davis and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has served as a teaching assistant in Islamic Law at SOAS and a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London. Her book, The Muslim Next Door, is available from White Cloud Press.