China has banned new parents from picking Islam, Quran, Saddam, Mecca, as well as references to the star and crescent moon for their babies.
But in the US, where individual freedom is more jealously guarded, there is a decided Allah dilemma in the case of baby names.
Consider what happened in Georgia recently. The US state refuses to allow a couple to add “Allah” to their baby daughter’s string of given names. (It lost that particular argument, but that’s not the point.) These cases come up from time. In 2013, a judge in Tennessee, ordered a family to rename their son from Messiah to Martin. In 2009, a three-year-old boy named Adolf Hitler Campbell was denied a decorated cake by a New Jersey bakery.
The world over, there are conventions about baby names. And then there are the laws. Spain bans “extravagant” names (what does that mean?). Portugal does not allow any names that might “raise doubts about the sex of the registrant.” New Zealand has an act dating to 1995, which states that “unreasonably long” names are “undesirable in the public interest”.
Okay so what about Allah?
It is, in essence, a fine word, being Arabic for God, the God of all followers of the Abrahamic faiths. It has been in use since pre-Islamic times. Not a lot to take exception to perhaps. If Jesus can be a relatively common name in Spanish, Arabic and even in English-speaking countries – as Issa and Joshua – what’s the problem with naming a dear little baby “Allah”?
Well, Georgia’s objection is technical rather than about religion. As Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, wrote, the state was not offering an opinion on a sacrilegious name but because Georgia requires a baby’s last name to be the same as one of its parents’ or a combination of the two.
But it has no right to do that. As Professor Feldman says, the government cannot tell you what name or nickname you should use for your child, that falls within free speech.
He acknowledges, however the subtle difference posed by the Allah case and a 1986 US Supreme Court decision called Bowen v. Roy. It revolved around a Native American man Stephen J. Roy’s insistence that a social security number for his two-year-old daughter (her name was Little Bird of the Snow) would rob her spirit.
The Supreme Court, says Professor Feldman, rejected Roy’s argument and said the government was not required “to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens.” It added, and you’ve got to love this bit, that Roy’s “objection to the government’s use of a Social Security number for his daughter” was no different from “a sincere religious objection to the size or colour of the Government’s filing cabinets.”
So, back to Allah. “Would it be harmful to a child to be named Allah?” asks Professor Feldman. “It might be seriously dangerous in a majority Muslim country – or in an Islamophobic one. Elsewhere, it might not matter at all.”