Then I found out he was an Egyptian immigrant (gulp--I am of Egyptian ancestry) and became extremely anxious. Panic set in when I learned his first name was Hesham. Immediately, I thought of changing my name to Michael Saballa.
The phenomenon of immigrants changing their names has been part of the American experience for decades. "Levy" has become "Lee." "Arshovsky" has become "Shaw." Many changed their names to make them more "American," like one of my friends in medical school. Some did so to avoid discrimination, like many Jewish Americans during the beginning of last century. Since Sept. 11, however, there has been a steady rise of Muslim Americans who have changed their names, making them more "American" as well.
On one level, there is nothing wrong with changing one's name to make it more "American." What's in a name, anyway? Some Muslims have given their children "American" names from the very beginning, such as waiter Mohamed Ahmed of Herndon, Va. The Washington Post reported that he named his four children Michael, Sabrina, Angie, and Jackie. It is not one's name that defines his or her "Muslimness." Rather, it is the belief in the heart.
Rarely, if it all, did the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) suggest a name change for his companions. He did advise one companion to change his name from "Ju'ayl" to "Amr"(meaning, life). He did this because "Amr" was a nicer name, not because it was more "Muslim."
Frankly, I think having as many "Michaels" as "Muhammads" is great for the American Muslim community and serves to highlight its diversity.
I am concerned, though, if those Muslim Americans are changing their names to avoid discrimination. The image of Muslims being equated with terrorists is so ingrained in the minds of many Americans that many Muslims feel that they must change their names so as not to be seen as "one of them." Thus, "Mohammed" becomes "Michael"; "Tariq" becomes "Terry." I pity the unfortunate soul with the name "Osama."
The bottom line is this: any American, Muslim or not, should not have to change his or her name to become "more accepted." True, a Muslim name such as "Mohamed Ahmed" is not as common as "John Smith," but it is just as American. I seriously doubt there was a spike in people changing their names from "Timothy" to "Thomas" after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As such, there should not be pressure on Muslim Americans to change their ethnic names to more "American" names. The diversity in our society is part of what makes our country the greatest in the world. We should accept each other for who we are, not for what our names are.
That being said, it is still very tempting for me to change my name. I cannot tell you how tired I am of having to spell "Hesham Hassaballa" over the phone or at the store. How nice would it be to have the name "Michael Saballa." Yet, I do not think I will be changing my name any time soon. For one thing, my parents would be too upset with me. But more importantly, America's diversity is much better served with my name staying the way it is.