LOS ANGELES: Muslim names confuse FBI

January 05, 2003


LOS ANGELES, Jan 4: Amid the latest FBI faux pas in mistakenly identifying a Lahore-based jeweller Mohammed Asghar, the time has come that Americans must get themselves familiar with Islamic names.

The terror drill has now become familiar: Law enforcement authorities put the nation on alert every other day, as the media delivers details of warnings, investigations or developments in the war on terror.

Sometimes, there are images to further the alarm: mug shots of humourless bearded men and their exotic names with nothing more than that.

In the latest alert, the FBI said that it was looking to question Abid Noraiz Ali, 25, Iftikhar Khozmai Ali, 21, Mustafa Khan Owasi, 33 (Muhammed Asghar?), Adil Pervez, 19, and Akbar Jamal, 28.

The men are suspected of illegally entering the United States from Canada. A White House spokesman said an anti-terrorism investigation had alerted the FBI to the men, but the FBI said they could not link — or rule out — a connection to terrorism.

The bureau also acknowledged it could not confirm if the men actually crossed the border — or even if their names are correct. But even if the bureau was able to provide all the information confidently, such clarity might not help the manhunt.

In March 2001, newspapers around the world announced that the alleged Al Qaeda computer expert, wanted for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa, had been arrested in Sudan. Headlines blared “Terror Boss Is Held in Swoop” and “Osama’s Tech-Thug Pal, Bombings Planner in Jail”.

But a look at the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list today, and you’ll find Al-Liby is still there. He is believed to be in Afghanistan these days.

Days later the mistake was realized. One official who had told an international news agency that the Al Qaeda man was in custody admitted he had been led astray by the name.

Currently, the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists provides opportunities for more errors of this sort: there are 22 men on the list; eight of them alone are named Muhammad — spelled three different ways: Mohamed, Mohammed and Muhammad.

Then there is a “Sheikh” and a “Shaikh,” an “Atwa” and an “Atwah”, and three each of “Ali” and “Ahmed” — plus an “Ahmad”. And that’s not even counting their aliases: each one has on average a half-dozen aliases.

Correctly identifying public enemy No. 1 even presents some difficulties. While US news outlets have long identified the head of the Al Qaeda organization as Osama bin Laden, government documents have continued to call him Usama bin Laden.

Most of the Muslim names that sound alike, like Ahmed and Hamed, may also challenge the Western ears, acknowledged Laila Al Qatami of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee — but to those familiar with Arabic, they are quite distinctive.

Arabic, from which most Muslim names were derived, had 12 different forms from which words were formed, said Laila Al Qatami.

“If you’re familiar with the basic root patterns, you can see how different words emerge from them,” she said.

The executive director of the Council for Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad, said that certain Muslim names also tend to predominate in certain communities. One reason for it, he said, was “sometimes, people use names that are simple for them to say”.

In some Muslim communities, a certain name becomes popular because of its affiliation, Mr Awad added.

Similarly, he said, location also matters a lot in names. For example Muhammad becomes Mohammet in Turkey.

Besides, sound also matters a lot. The English language does not have proper alphabets to pronounce certain Arabic or Islamic names properly. That is why we see some American newspapers write Osama while some write Usama.

It is clear that till the US administration gets some semblance of Arabic style of pronunciation ordinary innocent Muslims would continue to suffer. Shortly after Sept 11, Canadian authorities took Mohamed Attiah, a nuclear engineer, in for questioning. He was questioned for 90 minutes and released, after authorities determined they had mistaken him with another person with the same name.

But when he returned to work, he found he had been fired for being a “security risk”. Mr Attiah had to launch a lawsuit to get his job back.