How war is changing Iraqi names

How we name our children is informed by our community and our sense of history, isn’t it? I mean, at least it can be. We might name our children after older family members, or after a particularly admired figure from the past; even naming our kids after ourselves is meant for posterity, although saddling a kid with the word “junior” after his name seems cruel to me, and don’t get me started with “III” and “IV” and so on. So you might imagine that in a country like Iraq, home to a few distinct communities each with their own sense of shared history and now embroiled in a conflict that trades on the historic differences between those communities (or at least attempts to), some people might be a little concerned about their own names at the moment. Well, you’d be right:

The Emirati newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej reported March 1, “Three thousand Iraqi citizens bearing the [Sunni] name Omar asked that their name be changed for fear of being killed.” The author and columnist Ali Hussein wrote March 9 in Al-Mada about such people, calling them “simple people” who have been pushed by sectarian conflict to essentially “abandon their origins.”

Hussein also asserted, “Most of the names that are being changed refer to Sunni personages, such as Omar, Abu Bakr and Osman. There is seemingly a veto on these names in the Shiite central and southern cities.” For some Iraqis, a simple name change does not suffice. “Some people were forced to forge IDs and get two names, one to be used in Shiite areas and another to be used in Sunni areas,” Hussein said.

As regular readers ought to know, Abu Bakr, Oman (Umar), and Osman (Uthman) are the names of the first three caliphs, successors to Muhammad. According to Shiʿa communal history, all three of them are basically usurpers who delayed Ali’s rightful assumption of authority in the proto-Muslim community, and in doing so helped to create the climate that made Ali’s eventual turn at the top so short and so handicapped by civil war. So these guys are not very popular figures in Shiʿa lore, and there have even been times under Shiʿa dynasties (like the Safavids, who ruled Iran in the 16th-18th centuries) when people were legally required to curse their names.

Now, look, most modern Shiʿites aren’t going to give you a second look if you tell them your name is Uthman, Abu Bakr, or Conan the Barbarian (well, maybe the last one), but for particularly partisan Shiʿites, especially those who may be living in the middle of a serious fight against a Sunni extremist group that labels them unbelievers, they might not appreciate seeing a lot of displaced Sunnis with those names fleeing from ISIS into Shiʿa territory. So those Sunnis are apparently feeling some pressure to take a less antagonizing name.

Sectarianism isn’t the only reason people are changing their names, though. There’s also a desire to shed names associated with the old Saddam Hussein regime:

Zainab Hassan, a civil servant involved in issuing IDs in Babil, told Al-Monitor, “In the cities where there is sectarian heterogeneity, names are being changed for political reasons rather than sectarian reasons. Names referring to the symbols of the former regime — such as Saddam, Baath, al-Qadisiyah [the Iran-Iraq War, launched by Hussein] — are being changed. There are also social reasons, such as obsolete names and those that bear socially rejected connotations, like those referring to animals.”

Again, you can sort of see why somebody running around current-day Iraq with the name “Baath” might consider changing that.

As problems go, especially these days in the Middle East, having an unfortunate name is obviously pretty low on the list. But Wassim Bassem’s piece at Al-Monitor does offer one example of how naming things after past people and events can lead to trouble in a place like Iraq:

The Popular Mobilization Units announced Labbayka Ya Hussain (At Your Service, Hussain), the military offensive to liberate Anbar province from Islamic State (IS) control, on May 25. The operation’s name — invoking the killing of Imam Hussein ibn Ali in 680 and the call to take revenge on his killers — has raised a debate over the sectarian connotations of names in Iraq. Many Shiites consider IS members the grandchildren of Imam Hussein’s killers. The title has angered Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar, who find it inapppropriate for a military offensive designed to liberate a Sunni-majority province.

Well I can’t imagine why Sunni tribal leaders would object to an operation to retake their land from ISIS being named after a revenge mission against basically all Sunnis. That doesn’t seem like it’s sending the wrong message at all.

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