I admit it. I have a bad habit that I'm desperately trying to break. Growing up in cosmopolitan Washington D.C. with its mix of embassies, proximity to Europe, and hordes of international students, I relished meeting people of different ethnicities. Color, religion and language didn't seem to matter as much as the story they had to tell -- the adventure which was their personal history.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up the habit of identifying people's origins by their names. It became a harmless game which my family used to play. After all, the German school was populated with "Heidis" and "Freidrichs" while the French school leaned towards "Michelles" and "Pierres." The last names were even more obvious give-aways. And anyone whose last name ended in "-ian" just had to be of Armenian or Iranian origin.
However, religiously labeling people based upon their names is a trickier game to play, one that I'm striving to stop doing thanks to my childrens' clear example. As a Muslim, I'm not supposed to judge anyone for any reason whatsoever -- I firmly believe God is the ultimate judge. Although it may seem harmless to assume someone's religion based upon their name, it's becoming apparent that this type of judgment is unnecessary and irrelevant, especially for Muslims in America, where converts and the international backgrounds of Muslims result in a wide variety of melodious names that defy stereotyping.
Yet I'm not the only one who is guilty of this lazy man's profiling. I've had U.S. border patrol agents, immigration agents, ticket agents -- even Expedia, for God's sake -- inquire about my name and, by implication, my possible links to a religion, which in their mind is linked to fanaticism, terrorism and plenty of other unpleasant "isms." I even attended a presentation which mentioned the FBI's dissemination of a pamphlet about "Muslim Naming Conventions" -- sounds pretty ominous to me that an agency is labeling people according to some non-existent protocol. I think our President, Barack Hussein Obama, would concur that forcing a religious identity based upon a name is mischievous, if not malicious. When our government institutions are guilty of this very same narrow view, it makes me fear for the future of my country.
Muslims, like any other group, name their children according to family preference, cultural norms and sometimes, but not always, prefer to select names from their scripture. Parents argue and agree to disagree, just like parents all over the world. American Muslims newborns are as likely to be named "Jacqueline" or "Michael" as the next baby in the maternity ward these days.
Granted, someone named "Muhammad" is probably a Muslim, just as "Mary" is probably a Catholic and "Dev" is likely a Hindu. But I also know a Mark, a Maria, and a Matthew who are all Muslims. So you see, this labeling game is nonsense and only serves to create divisions where none exist. In my interfaith vision of America, I see a land populated with Joses, Elizabeths and Ahmeds who may be Jewish, Hindu and atheist, respectively. A land where we are more than the origin of our names; it's a land where we are the sum of many identities, where we are proud to be evaluated upon our contributions rather than prejudged according to our names. As my son likes to say, "A Muslim name can be any name!"
When my kids and I were writing The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook, we wanted to embrace the diversity that is inherent in Islam. The pictures of American Muslim teens in our book include whites, blacks, Asians, hijabis, non-hijabis -- we tried to include as many faces as possible to illustrate the futility of stereotyping a diverse community. We all agreed that if even one Muslim teenager picked up our book, actually read it and then felt proud to be an American Muslim, we would have succeeded. As librarians, school psychologists and educators weigh in on this subject of identity, we hope that more books like ours will fill the shelves and touch the hearts of Americans to reduce the rhetoric of "them vs. us." We're all a bit of "them" and "us." Being Jewish, Christian or Muslim is a state of mind, not a collection of physical attributes.
Is my name American enough for you? Maybe not yet. But my New Year's Resolution is to meet people with an open mind from now on. It would be marvelous if you did the same.