Jim Sleeper: Swear Him in as 'Barack Hussein Obama'

Roundup: Historians' Take

Even as we all lurch from symbolism to substance now that Barack Obama is President-elect, I hope that he appreciates the symbolic and substantive rewards of being sworn in on January 20 as "Barack Hussein Obama."

During the campaign, neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes and others of Obama's detractors thought it smart to highlight his paternal Muslim roots and associations. But now that he's won, anyone would have to be as naive as a neo-con to miss the nobility and world-historical gains this country would achieve if, having overthrown a bad Hussein, it installed a good one -- not in Baghdad, but in Washington.

Sure, the mind reels. Hussein is a title of honor applied to metaphorical descendants of the prophet Mohammed. An American president bearing that name proudly would enact what philosophers call a transvaluation of values -- a wicked case of cognitive dissonance for millions of people like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

German minds reeled 65 years ago, too, at the ascendancy of an American named Eisenhower to command the allied forces and, five years later, to be president. After all, German-Americans had been a despised, persecuted minority here during World War I, less than three decades before Eisenhower's ascent.

To be sure, the situation now is even more polarizing for Muslims, here and abroad. Islamicists, confronted with a Hussein in the White House, will rage that the Great Satan has stolen and polluted a holy name. But where were they when the phony pietiest Saddam Hussein, an admirer more of Stalin than Mohammed, was butchering millions?

Unlike the rule of that Hussein and of oil sheiks, mullahs, and the Taliban, the very prospect of our Hussein's inauguration is raising millions of young Muslims' democratic hopes even higher than America has raised their material and sensual ones. (And, given present circumstances, it's telling that just when Obama's election was about to reflect Western democracy's deepest strengths, the iconically Western Gordon Brown was begging the Saudis to aid the International Monetary Fund.)

Notice, too, the symbolic and substantive impact Barack Hussein Obama is having on African-American youths' already waning attraction to the Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan lives a stone's throw from the Obamas in Southside Chicago. Farrakhan endorsed Obama with a kind of desperation last summer, only to be rebuffed. That tells us all we need to know, as I explained here then, successfully, to nervous Jewish voters.

Still other ironies in Obama's name are rich beyond measure. Barack is Arabic for the Hebrew Baruch, meaning "blessed" in both tongues -- another of the many achingly poignant, almost illicit, intimacies between the two languages and religions. The most famous Jew to bear the name was the medieval philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who crossed Christian and Jewish lines, blurring them in order to transcend them.

Obama's story draws all three lines of Abrahamic religion -- Christian, Muslim, and Jewish - into a convergence more promising than that drawn more than a century ago by the Rev. George Bush, a Presbyterian scholar, brother of our president's fifth-generation lineal antecedent, and the first teacher of Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic and ancient languages at New York University in the 1830s.

In 1844, the Rev. Bush wrote The Valley of the Vision, or The Dry Bones Revived: An Attempted Proof of the Restoration and Conversion of the Jews, which interpreted the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel to prophesy Jews' return to Palestine from all over the world in what Bush insisted was the not-distant future.

I doubt that our departing president has read his ancestor's exegesis, and if he doesn't know the Book of Ezekiel, Barack Obama certainly does. In his speech on race in Philadelphia last winter, Obama recalled that, for his black Congregational Church in Chicago, "Ezekiel's field of dry bones" was one of the "stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope" that "became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears."

Not incidentally, the Rev. Bush, who imagined the Jews' return to Palestine as a prelude to Armageddon, also wrote the first American book on Islam, a Life of Mohammed, declaring the prophet an imposter. That's two additional reasons why America's Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prospects are brighter with Barack Hussein Obama than with any of the George Bushes we've known, not to mention with Karl Christian Rove.

Obama may be no more a messenger of God than Rove or "W" are, yet at moments his campaign did flash intimations of the awful sublimity of the Hebrew God's thundering in history; of the Christian pilgrim's exalted, arduous journey; and of the Muslim ummah's bonds of communal faith.

And he does understand -- as did an Abraham who was called Lincoln -- that this republic should keep on weaving into its tough, liberal tapestry the threads of intrepid Abrahamic faith that have figured so strongly in its beginnings and triumphs. That Obama draws this understanding from intimacies with Ezekiel and Indonesia and Southside Chicago makes him providential enough.

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