America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

What’s in a Name?

The following is a post from AUA Network member and guest blogger Kyle Scott Herman who is volunteering by teaching History in Lebanon.

I would have a difficult time guessing the religious identities of most of my students based purely upon the way they look, dress, and behave.  But for many of my students, there is a clue that would immediately convey their religion through a single word – their name.  For most Americans, parents seem to choose a name because of the way it sounds.  For most Lebanese, parents seem to choose a name because of its meaning.  Often the meaning is religious.  So sometimes I could draw conclusions about my students.  For instance, when I see the names Matthew or David I could assume they are Christian.  When I see names like Omar or Mahmoud I could assume they are Muslim AND specifically, that Omar is likely to be Sunni and Mahmoud is likely Shia.  The Sunni/Shia divide within Islam is a big deal in Lebanon.  At this point, I only know a few of the religious name distinctions and I want to keep it that way for the time being.  There are also names that are Arabic words without a particular religious significance: Nour means “light”, Emira means “princess”, and Wassim means “handsome”.  Since Arabic is used by Christians and Muslims, these students could be of either religion.

In a country obsessed with sectarian divisions, I desire to see past the religious identities my students project.  As their teacher, I would rather focus on their identities as young adults trying to make sense of a complex, changing world.  My first priority is “John the aspiring artist” instead of “John the Maronite Christian”, or “Hussein the aspiring dentist” instead of “Hussein the Shiite Muslim.”  Not that religion isn’t important – it certainly is.  I have a duty to help my students make informed decisions that will inevitably be influenced by their values, sometimes in religious terms.  But for most people here religion seems to be chiefly about what politico-cultural group they identify with rather than what they actually believe.  Moreover, my primary job is helping them think critically and communicate effectively about historical and current events – regardless of their religious perspectives.  So I don’t want to consciously or subconsciously treat them differently based on what religo-polito-cultural groups they are part of.  Therefore, I am satisfied  being blissfully ignorant about the religious identities of my students for the immediate future.  Sure, it is a curiosity.  Later on, it will be interesting to speculate about how their religions seem to influence them – their social interactions, their opinions, their interests.  But first I want to get to know them as people.

Additional posts can be viewed on Kyle’s blog.


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