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Wednesday, 31 January 2007

What's in a name?

CounterI have a friend whose legal name happens to be Mohammed. Although he's a citizen of Great Britain and isn't even a Muslim, this alone, perhaps combined with the fact that he was born in Iran, adds an hour or two to his transit of US Customs.

This shouldn't be. The myopic preoccupation with given names displayed by US officials is simply unforgivable. As anyone who has tried to look himself up on Google already knows, most people share their first and last names with dozens of other people. To stop someone at the airport simply because his name is the same as that of a suspected criminal is rather sophomoric; as if no criminal ever travels under an assumed name.

What's really dangerous, in this Global War on Terror that is really the Crusades revisited, is to have an Islamic name. Not only because the pool of people is so huge and the pool of names they share so relatively tiny, but because just having an Islamic name makes one automatically suspect of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Just ask Khalid el-Masri* of Ulm, Germany, who on the sole bases of his name and hometown was imprisoned at the Macedonian border and handed over to the CIA for transport to Afghanistan and months of torture.

Just what sorts of activities Khalid el-Masri was involved in prior to moving to Germany in 1985, aren't known. But one thing is for sure: he's not the Khalid al-Masri of Al Qaeda fame that the CIA was looking for.

In this day of RFD passports, biometric identifiers, and Google Images, one would think that such a case of mistaken identity could no longer happen. But it does. Repeatedly.

If you have an Islamic name but you don't live in an Islamic country, you might want to consider doing what John Forbes Kerry's grandfather did, and change it. In fact, make it sound as much like a highly placed US official's name as you can--it couldn't hurt, and it might come in handy some day.

How about George W. Clinton?

*I should add that this isn't even an Islamic name--it just sounds like one. Khalid means "glorious" or "immortal" in Arabic, and Masri means "Egyptian" (el and al are just two different ways of transcribing the article). I have a friend named Gloria England; substitute a different country, change the gender, and her name would be the same as his.

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