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what’s in a name? iraqis at risk for having ‘dangerous’ first names

Special Correspondent
Iraqi maternity hospitals are seeing a new born trend: children given “neutral” names that don’t reveal their family’s religious or political affiliations. Because in Iraq, having the wrong…
23.05.2012  |  Mosul

On a Tuesday in mid-May the office at the entrance to the Salam Hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is full of people. This is the office where births are registered and it’s located next to the delivery and operating rooms, near the main entrance.

A male clerk there is doing his routine work: he receives forms on which new born babies’ times of birth, sex, fathers and intended names are written. And this clerk has noticed a significant trend: parents are giving their newborns names that don’t give away which sect of Islam their family belongs to, Shiite or Sunni Muslim.

They’re calling their children names that are either neutral – so it’s impossible to say whether the child’s family is Shiite or Sunni – or they’re being christened with totally new monikers that have no such history, the clerk says. “And people are giving their newborns names I’ve never heard about before,” the clerk points out, “like Inaq and Qasim.”

According to those working in Ninawa’s civil service, this trend for non-sectarian, neutral or original names has been growing for several years now. According to one civil servant, who preferred to remain anonymous, it started around 2008 when the sectarian violence that followed in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was quietening down again. It was then, he believes, that people all over Iraq started to understand how important it was to abandon the sectarian allegiances that caused the bloodshed, if they were ever to live together as a nation in peace.

Because in places like Mosul, where sectarian violence was particularly bad at times, having the wrong name could actually get you killed – especially if you were stopped by members of another sect looking for trouble or revenge.

“According to our records, ever since then, the names given by parents have changed,” the civil servant says. “People are now using neutral names – names that do not incite any sectarian hatred between the Shiites and the Sunnis. And they are avoiding the use of controversial historic Islamic figures’ names,” he added.

“Mohammed, Abdullah and Mariam are popular names – because they’re neutral and don’t provoke any comment between the sects,” he notes.

“None of this means that the Iraqi people have forgotten sectarian conflict and left memories of civilian violence behind them,” the official concluded. “No, they’re choosing these neutral names because they’re afraid of another war. These names don’t reveal anything about the identity of the person and therefore cannot contribute to their death.”

Visiting hospitals around Mosul, NIQASH was able to view lists of newborn babies’ names. Out of 20 newborns at Salam Hospital that day, only one had an overtly religious name that implied sectarian loyalties. That baby was called Umar, after the religious figure Umar ibn al-Khattab. The latter is held in high regard by Sunni Muslims while Shiite Muslims see him in a far less positive light. Other names with religious overtones were also used – such as Ali and Hussein – but these are used by both sects and could be considered fairly neutral.

At the Batool Maternity Hospital in southern Mosul, six out of 22 newborns had religious names but only one had the potential to cause controversy. The rest of the names were of the sort that both sects used equally and some of the non-religious names also seemed very novel for Iraq: names like Zina, Raneen, Atasi and Safad.

“The people are using these new names to protect the next generation from a civil war,” local writer Jirjis Thamer says. “Many murders have been motivated by sectarian motives and, according to police records, a lot of people died because their names revealed their sectarian allegiances.”

Thamer also points out that in Ninawa a lot of people have two identity cards – one with their real name and another with a fake name, depending on where they live or work or which areas they need to pass through. This is because some neighbourhoods or localities in Ninawa are inhabited by mostly Sunni Muslims and others are populated by mostly Shiite Muslims.

Most of the people with two identity cards are truck or taxi drivers, Thamer notes. Every day Sunni Shiite drivers must pass through Shiite Muslim dominated areas and vice versa.

Take Siddiq for example. He is a Sunni Muslim and his real first name is Abu Bakr – in scripture, the latter was a close companion of the Prophet Mohammed but whether he was a meritorius individual is something that Shiite and Sunni Muslims disagree on.

Siddiq’s younger brother was a taxi driver like him; he was killed by extremists while driving the road between Mosul and Baghdad. “He was just a taxi driver and he was only murdered because his name was Umar,” Siddiq tells sadly.

And Siddiq realises that it’s not just a Sunni Muslim problem. “The same thing has happened to many Shiites,” Siddiq explains. “They [the extremists] are trying to divide the Iraqi people and they use terrorism to achieve that aim.”

Now Siddiq carries a second, false identity with him, in the hopes that this will prevent him suffering a similar fate to his brother.

And it is not just Muslims who are carrying fake identities for this reason. The Yazidi are members of a Kurdish religious minority and they make up almost 9 per cent of the population of the state of Ninawa; they too have taken to carrying fake identity cards because their names also reveal their origin. While many Yazidis left Mosul during sectarian violence of recent years, they must often still pass through the city. And those that do are sure to carry false papers so their real names don’t give them away.

Religious affiliations are not the only reason why Iraqis change their names. Political allegiances are another motive. Another civil servant recalls the rush to change names immediately after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown in 2003.

“People were obsessed with changing their names,” the employee remembers. “And especially those who were named after Saddam or those who had very Baath names.” And by this, he means names that were particularly Arabist or nationalist in nature. At the time, the rush for name changes caused his department to put more restrictions on the practice in an attempt to maintain some order and their records correctly.

Waad al-Amir, a professor working in Mosul University’s Faculty of Arts studied trends in new born names after 2003 – he is most likely the only academic to have tackled this topic in Iraq and he presented a paper on the subject at one of the university’s conferences recently. However the professor avoided most references to name changes from a sectarian perspective.

Al-Amir actually pointed out that many parents in Ninawa and in other parts of Iraq had started naming their children after well known Turkish actors or the characters they play. Al-Amir’s study showed that, although the Turkish soap opera actors and characters used Arab names, the same monikers were not used in Iraq before 2003 – which is when Iraqi homes first got satellite television.

For the first time Iraqi newborns were graced with titles such as Muhannad or Nour, both of whom are glamorous Turkish television characters. And for al-Amir, this was mostly an indication of the way that satellite television shows have the power to change popular culture and social values and behaviours.

Then again, as individuals like taxi driver Siddiq might attest: better the name of a Turkish soap star than dead on the highway.