So, what’s in a name?

AUGUST 13 — I was interviewing Iran-born Armin Navabi when I asked if his second name was a surname or patronym. Being slightly ignorant of Persian names, I did not want to get it wrong in the story I was writing.

After all, many Muslims use the “bin” or “binti” to indicate one is a son or daughter of the father, I told the founder of non-profit group Atheist Republic.

“I think that is mostly Arab Muslims,” Navabi replied, laughing. (It was his surname).

I had explained to him that Muslims in Malaysia use that scheme too for their names, much to his surprise.

Later I found out that Iranians’ use of surnames was popularised during the rule of Reza Shah between 1925 and 1941.

Similar steps were taken during the secularisation of Turkey and Egypt, and throughout other civilisations where surnames did not previously exist.

Looking back now, it may seem obvious that Malaysian Muslims inherited the practice from the Arabs back in the day. Those who claim lineage to Arabic tribes also sometimes use their clan names at the end of their patronyms, like al-Yahya and al-Haddad.

But it sometimes gets confusing as self-styled Islamic scholars attach self-proclaimed suffix to their names to indicate their origin.

Malaysia has progressed much in the last 60 years but we seem to still have an obsession with the superficial... like fancy names and honorifics. — Picture from
Malaysia has progressed much in the last 60 years but we seem to still have an obsession with the superficial... like fancy names and honorifics. — Picture from

For example, PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan uses the al-Tantawi to signify his alma mater in Tanta, Egypt.

Meanwhile, PAS’ Kuala Nerus MP Khairuddin Aman Razali adopts the al-Takiri, presumably because he was born in Seberang Takir, Terengganu.

What started off as perhaps an earnest attempt to signify one’s origin — so the Khairuddin from Seberang Takir is not confused with Khairuddin al-Tunisi from Tunisia — however takes on a sneaky side considering how those who usually claim to have Arabic lineage, and presumably an Arabic clan name, also claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

In that sense, taking an Arabic surname effectively makes one appear Arabic, and in the eyes of many Muslims, possessing a religious superiority over the common Malays.

This fact was highlighted to me by Umno’s Kok Lanas assemblyman Md Alwi Che Ahmad, as he told me how some politicians could easily pull the wool over Kelantan voters’ eyes by adopting an Arabic persona.

“Just wear a kopiah, a long robe and use an Arabic name, and people will gullibly listen to what you say,” he said during a lunch in 2013 when I was trying to interview him, referring to the white skullcaps preferred by Muslim men when they wish to appear pious.

Perhaps an example of this subservience is the revelation of one Iraqi who did exactly the same, and ingratiated himself to the country’s top leaders by claiming to be an exalted preacher.

With his turban and beard, few people would look pass his credentials, not when he uses honorifics such as “Sheikh” (Arabic for “respected elder”) and Habib (“beloved”) in his assumed name. Photos of him with top Umno, PKR and even PAS leaders — no kidding on the top part — can easily be found online.

But his charade was undone after a citizen arrest last week after he allegedly tried to molest a woman from Penang. He has since been released on bail.

Police confirm the woman has attempted to retract her report, but the case has been forwarded to the Attorney-General’s Chambers nonetheless under Section 354 of the Penal Code that handles outraging modesty.

Several reports alleged the preacher used Facebook, as well as his status, religious appearance, and promise of religious talks to lure women before taking advantage of them through religious healing or blessing ceremonies.

The police confirm he had previous criminal records, with media reports claiming he was believed to have committed trespass, molestation, domestic violence and gang-robbery.

A photo of his alleged permanent residency card was circulated online. It carried a common Iraqi name, with none of the Islamic pomp he used with his other name.

And yet, the same people who would easily defer to a grand Arabic name would likely be among those who opposed the recent landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal allowing a child conceived out of wedlock to carry the name of his biological father.

There have been many apologists since who supported the religious authorities for denying the child his father’s name. Almost all of them downplayed the stigma and shame that one would endure with the “bin Abdullah” name, relegating it as a minor issue compared to inheritance and lineage.

Most reminded Muslims that one should not be demonised and ostracised just for bearing a “bin Abdullah” name. And yet, that may be futile. The stigma remains, and a child would have to live the rest of his life never acknowledged as someone who deserves his own name.

This stigma comes in many ways.

Recently, some members of Atheist Republic’s Kuala Lumpur chapter received media spotlight after a pro-Islamist blog highlighted their photos, which invited fire and brimstone from many of the majority Muslims here. It was as if the latter could not reconcile seeing a photo of atheists where they are actually happy, content, and proud.

When asked how these atheists could stay safe amid violence and death threats, Navabi said they may have to use fake identities, despite Facebook’s strict policy against fake names.

“Create fake accounts with fake names... If your account gets closed by Facebook, make another account,” Navabi said.

And yet, many atheists in Malaysia are already using fake identities, due to how unsafe it is to be one otherwise. Even with fake names, they still get harassed, in danger of getting their cover blown.

In short, they are deprived of the dignity, to be able to live with their own names and identities for fear of their safety and lives. They effectively cannot be themselves, that even those who slightly sympathise with them would prefer and advise them to stay in the shadows.

That is how much name matters. For some it is just a facade of status. But for others, it is their lives.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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