Archive for March 1st, 2007

A Hitler By Any Other Name

Jihad is a fairly common first name in Arab countries, not least since according to Islamic tradition jihad need not mean brandishing an AK-47 and other such activities. But that is its meaning in Arabic.

In German (and indeed English), it tends to mean something else entirely, and it is for this reason that the German interior ministry wants to prohibit a father from giving his child that name. According to the Guardian report, in Germany you are not allowed to call your child Hitler or Stalin either.

When my mother was taken along to the chapel for baptism, the priest refused to baptise her under the name my grandmother had chosen for her. Instead, in a flash of non-inspiration, he assigned her the name of Christianity’s most famous virgin. In the long run, his impromptu editorialising made not a whit of difference, since the name Mary was abandoned as soon as the baby had left the church, and my mother is still known by the name her own mother had chosen for her.

On the surface, the German state’s rules on this, apparently ‘to prevent a child from becoming a victim of ridicule or confusion’ may not differ all that much from the authoritarian stance of the intransigent priest. Yet there was no question of my mother being called Hitler, and I am quite grateful to my grandparents for this.

You might not be state or church property, but you aren’t the property of your parents either. They don’t have any right to sell you for cash or hire you out as slave labour or use you as a draft excluder. And it seems to follow from this that they don’t have any right to call you something that has a good chance of making your life miserable. A rule that prohibits people from naming their children in a way that is almost certain to cause difficulties for the child therefore seems a fairly sensible protection.

The question then arises as to whether this particular case -calling a child ‘Jihad’ demands that this protection be applied. The traditional meaning of jihad may have nothing to do with hijackings, bombings and the like, but unfortunately its common meaning in the West is precisely that. In fact, it looks as though the father of the child seems fairly happy with its Western meaning.

Yet I think the name should stay, or rather, the state should not intervene in this case, and in general terms the protection should apply very sparingly. There are lots of Arab men and boys called Jihad who have nothing to do with blowing things up, and by banning the name the German state would be implying that, in fact, this is what their name really means. So to do so in this case would be bowing to popular ignorance, which is always a bad idea, and in any case I don’t think it should be a function of the state to fix the meaning of names. And if someone were to ask ‘but what about all the innocent Hitlers and Stalins out there?’, I would say, I’m afraid I don’t feel their pain.

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March 2007