I wasn't born with the name “Umar.” I was named after a gambler on a TV show my dad liked. Changing one's name after converting to Islam isn't mandatory, but it is common and was once near universal.
“Umar” is a name that was given to me. Two of my early friends and mentors (Naji Fakhrid-Deen and Mukhtar Abdul-Malik) suggested the name because I was a wrestler. Umar ibn al-Khattab was a great warrior and known for his strength. Prophet Muhammad said, "When Umar walks down one side of the street the devil walks down the other.” Indeed, it was the conversion of Umar to Islam that allowed those first Muslims to worship in public. After the death of Prophet Muhammad, Umar became the second Muslim caliph, and under his rule there was an enormous expansion of the lands Muslims ruled. Due to this, Umar is revered by Sunni Muslims.
Today few know me by any other name than “Umar.” In many respects the name “Umar” represents a rebirth. Under my old name, I'd spent my teen years in and out of jail and had been certified as an adult at 16. Under “Umar,” I was free to live up to the greatness of that name. If not for being “Umar,” I wouldn't be writing this now. I would have been killed a long time ago on these St Louis streets, like so many friends and family, or I'd be rotting away in prison.
The name “Umar” to me isn't a joke. However, during the Ferguson protests and afterwards, enemies of mine began attacking me and using my previous name in a pejorative manner. Chief amongst these bigots was Mark Reardon at KMOX.
Muhammad Ali dealt with this as well. After joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name from “Cassius Clay,” many reporters and opponents refused to use his Muslim name. Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson found out the hard way that Ali didn't take this disrespect lightly. Ali beat Patterson over several rounds, repeatedly yelling, "Say my name!" and "What's my name?"
For Ali, changing his name didn't just reflect an Islamic conversion. The name change meant discarding his slave name. As Professor Khaled Beydoun of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law often points out, the first Muslims in America were slaves practicing Islam in secret. Subsequent generations were forced to convert to Christianity by their slave masters, but for many African Americans converting to Islam and changing their names is a way of reconnecting with ancestors.
When Lewis Reed brought up the name change issue regarding state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who is challenging him for president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in the March 5 municipal primary, he knew exactly what he was doing. Reed was playing into the anti-Muslim bias that is prevalent in the country and stoked by President Donald Trump, FOX News, and right-wing talk radio. Reed is hoping many St. Louis voters share this anti-Muslim bias and will have a negative opinion of Nasheed.
Reed is also playing the role of the white media covering Muhammad Ali. The teasing and dog whistles really underline disrespect and hatred.
Or perhaps Reed has been listening to his buddy Bob Romanik. Romanik often makes fun of the name “Jamilah Nasheed” on the air and refers to the senator as "Aunt Jemima" when he isn't using the N-word. Maybe after one of the times Reed sat and chuckled with this racist who cuts him campaign checks, Romanik gave him the idea to go after the name “Jamilah Nasheed.”
“Jamilah” is a beautiful name. Not just the sound – it literally means “beauty.” A beautiful thing to see will be Jamilah Nasheed electorally whooping on Lewis Reed on March 5 and asking him, "What's my name?"
Reed is hoping anti-Muslim bigotry can help him get elected in 2019, but Nasheed is taking the high road as a uniter and calling us to live by our highest values. I don't think Reed will be any more successful against Nasheed than Patterson was against Ali.
Umar Lee is a writer and political activist from St. Louis.