Barack the Blessed, the Good, the Handsome Obama? I mean to be neither cute nor jump on the Oprah endorsement bandwagon (she declared herself for Obama last week). I don’t find Obama particularly interesting or imaginative, which should make him an ideal candidate for the presidency. But I doubt he’ll get that far. It’s all in the name.
The name as I wrote it above is a literal translation of “Barack Hussein Obama.” Barack is a variant of the Arabic and African word baraka, the blessed one, or if you prefer, the Hebrew word for lightning (the Barak of Jewish tradition is a victor against the odds, which should come in handy for Obama). Hussein, a name of Arab, and in Jordan royal, origin, means “the good, the handsome one.” The name couldn’t be more presidential if you tried.
But to Obama’s detractors, whose ranks grow in proportion with his popularity, the name “Hussein” is a gift, the bait that keeps snagging on just the right smears that, Obama’s race being off limits, can always attach to his Arab-sounding past. Arabs (along with gays) are the last remaining groups Americans feel comfortable stereotyping and presuming guilty of whatever. It doesn’t have to be terrorism. It doesn’t have to be anything at all. It’s guilt by ethnicity, a vague, unspoken coloring that just hangs there, like an unmovable obsidian cloud over an otherwise sunny stretch of Norman Rockwell canvas.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Anton Shammas, the Palestinian novelist, wrote in The New York Times of the immediate assumption that the bomb was set off by Arabs. It was, in fact, set off by heartland Americans, both of them Army veterans. “One can’t help but think, though,” Shammas wrote, “that all parties concerned would have been better off if it had been a Middle Eastern terrorist act. All the self-appointed experts on ‘Islamic militants’ would have recycled their arguments, reminding Americans that Muslims are the world’s only fanatic extremists and their true post-cold war enemies.”
These stereotypes presage Obama’s downfall, should he manage to make it far in the Democratic nomination process. The country may be ready to elect a black man president. It’s less likely to elect a man whose middle name is Hussein, whether or not the man has any connection to anything Arab or Islamic (Obama does not). This is where the slimier side of American presidential politics kicks in — the side that gave us the Willie Horton ads of the first Bush presidency, the Swift boat ads of the second, and the “Southern Strategy” ads appealing to Southern whites going back to Richard Nixon. We’re about to get the “Arab Strategy” ads, the kinds that hint, allude, suggest, but never say what lurks beneath the surface of so many wholesome suburban roofs: the fear that anything remotely Arab-sounding could be in charge.
The attacks on Obama began last January when Fox News unleashed its slander about him having supposedly attended a madrassa in Indonesia, “for a decade,” in the words of the announcer (one of an endless stream of inaccuracies: Obama was in Indonesia between 1967 and 1971). Quick flash: I, too, attended a madrassa when I was growing up in Lebanon. The word means school. My madrassa certainly was a terror center, too, run by the most brutal brand of clerics known to man (Jesuits). Obama’s Indonesian schooling included a Catholic school and a public school. Does that make him a suspect in cahoots with the Talibs of Pakistan? To the Fox tribunal, yes. Yet no sooner was the “rumor” (itself a word that confers a certain legitimacy on the matter; why “rumor” and not slander?) put to rest than it began rooting weeds through the Internet’s loamy blogs, waiting for its next chance to snap up mainstream time.
Last week, it did, on the front page of The Washington Post, and with this headline: “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” The slanders about Obama’s past are not only offensive in and of themselves, but for what they say about the currency of ethnically dirtied suggestions. What if Obama was a Muslim? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 52 percent of voters who don’t know a Muslim would be less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate, compared with 16 percent when it came to an evangelical. Why not? Prejudice, rank and raw.
Obama is no Muslim, he’s no Arab, he’s no “foreigner.” His opponents, knowing there’s a market for their bait, will ensure that he’s perceived as all three.
© 2007 The Daytona Beach News-Journal