And then came the bloody bastard

Growing up, I often wondered whether my skin looked brown or white. My hair is certainly black, and my eyes are brown. Many Westerners I met probably thought Middle East as soon as they laid eyes on me or heard my name—Junis Sultan. “Where are you originally from?” I was asked innumerable times. Some were visibly surprised that I spoke their language accent-free. Middle Easterners, however, were oftentimes disappointed that I did not speak Arabic fluently. “Why did your parents not teach you?” For a number of reasons, it was usually impossible for people to label me—and vice versa.

My story is one of unfavorable coincidence and unending reinvention. In the summer of 1991, after surviving the Gulf War, my family fled from Iraq to Germany. I was four years old at the time. One of my early memories is of sitting with my father in our run-down living room and watching the news. He raised his finger and shouted, “The West imposed those bloody sanctions on Iraq, not Saddam.[1]ˮ Intimidated by his anger, I quietly asked him what he meant. He said, “The West is Europe, North America, and Australia. They’ve killed millions, and now they are killing us!ˮ His warning scared me. However, when I started attending kindergarten in 1992, I soon realized that his warning had proved wrong. In fact, we would live together happily and in peace with many Westerners for many years.

Since those early days, I’ve strived to live in harmony with everyone around me, including Middle Easterners and Westerners. Even though I’ve repeatedly failed, I’ve kept trying to balance both our common need to bond and common need for freedom. During puberty, I was particularly concerned with religious freedom. The divisiveness I experienced, especially in the post 9/11 years, always seemed human-imposed, harmful to our relationships, and therefore self-destructive and wrong. Growing up in Germany, I frequently pondered the purpose of our existence. Were we not all precious social individuals, connected and meant to support each other while realizing our personal dreams?

Despite my strong belief in the need for humans to bond, I often doubted our connectedness when meeting other people. A number of Westerners confronted me with negative stereotypes: “Does your mother wear a hijab or a burka?” “Were your sisters’ marriages arranged?” “Do you hate Jews, the United States . . . ?ˮ None of it applied to me. Quite the opposite is true: My mother is Christian, and she has had difficulties accepting my different religion. A number of Middle Easterners have been disappointed by me as well, saying, “Don’t drink! Don’t wear shorts! Don’t . . . ! It’s haram.[2]ˮ Interactions like these often left me feeling strange, disconnected, and challenged. How could I ease and strengthen our relationship? Was I overreacting? Were they looking for common ground?

The thousands-of-years-old stories of my name have shaped my complex identity. In 1993, during my first school year, my father told me that Junis derives from Yunus, “a prophet in the Quran who strongly believed in God’s rules.ˮ In a Catholic religion class, I learned that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament first told the story of Yunus under the name of Jonah. “Jonah means dove in Hebrew, and a dove is a symbol of peace,ˮ my teacher said before she read us his story. “Jonah was ordered by God to go to Nineveh and prophesy against the Ninevites’ great wickedness. Afraid, however, that God would simply forgive the sinners, he boarded a ship that sailed in the opposite direction; a serious mistake! God punished him for his disobedience with a heavy storm at sea, and when the sailors found Jonah responsible, they threw him overboard. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale. While inside the belly of the whale, he repented, thanked God for his mercy, and committed himself to God’s will, so the whale eventually spewed him out. . . .” I looked at my teacher with large eyes. While I had no idea what my life would bring and how I would react—at times quite like an unforgiving, disobedient runaway—I could relate to Jonah’s story. I, too, wanted to have a relationship with God and be uplifted when I fell.

My first name mostly caused insecurities among new people. Many Germans called me Jonas after I had introduced myself. Sometimes, when I spelled out J–U–N–I–S, I wondered if my pronunciation was unclear, or whether they ignored my real name out of convenience, or even disrespect. Some asked me to spell it out again, and then wanted to know where the name came from. The problem started when I was naturalized in 1991. “Younes is its international notation, but would complicate matters for Germans. They’re not used to Y, which is only used in a few words in German,ˮ a public official told my mother. My first name was thus Germanized. I was too young to notice the forced assimilation. Some Middle Easterners did, however. “So are you a real Arab?ˮ they asked me after reading my name. “My mother is German, my father Iraqi,” I usually told them before I explained how my name was Germanized—which often led to an awkward silence. Growing up, I soon began to understand how much my name defined me.

My last name, Sultan, sometimes amused people, reminding many of a carnival song: “The caravan is moving, the sultan is thirsty . . .” Sometimes, however, it raised fear or false idolization. The word sultan originally meant “strengthˮ in Arabic. Over time, it also became a title for leaders who claimed independence from any higher ruler. According to Wikipedia, one of the most famous sultans, Mehmed II, conquered Constantinople and ended the one-thousand-year-old Byzantine Empire in 1453. I assume his destructive power intimidated the West, which—as Professor Edward Said[3] would say—has continuously strived to invent itself as good in direct contrast to the imagined evil of the Orient. Strangely, my father ascribed the exact opposite value to the Middle East. As if Mehmed II were better than any other murderer, and as if killing four thousand non-Muslims in 1453 was good.I always struggled to understand why some people devalued or even demonized those with different cultural backgrounds while idealizing their own people. Were we not all the same: just people, more or less flawed, and yet all worthy of love?

In my school days in Germany between 1993 and 2006, I mostly learned about the merits of the West. We investigated the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.Kant’s[4] “categorical imperativeˮ—to always act in such a way that one would be willing for his actions to become general law—seemed to me like a precious idea that could bring peace among people. We read the classics of the German literary periods; the eighteenth century Storm and Stress period was my favorite since it allowed the free expression of strong emotions. I excitedly examined the revolutions for freedom and unity: 1776 in America, 1789 in France, and 1848 in Germany.

Above all, I embraced the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first document I read at school that was drafted by an international committee with the aim of promoting peace for all people—a dream I wished everybody shared. While our teachers claimed that the unprecedented horrors of World War II led to the UDHR, I learned in 2009 in a rare seminar on “post-colonialismˮ at Goethe University that Nazi Germany was not a short-term mistake, which killed more than seventy million people around the globe, but rather a direct result of the propagandistic and bloody history of the West. Like Hannah Arendt[5] said, mainstream European nationalism and colonialism blended with post-enlightenment racial theories that proclaimed the natural superiority of the “white race,” paving the way for the pseudo-legitimized enslavement and killing of non-white and non-Christian people around the globe for almost two centuries before Hitler. Our seminar discussions also revealed the subtle, allegedly colorblind and areligious ways in which millions of non-white and non-Christian people have been killed far beyond the borders of the West since 1945, through economic exploitation, starvation, or military adventures that brought chaos, destruction, and even civil war. Still, one burning question remained: how could we stop these processes of dehumanization and these crimes against humanity?

I was eager to find out. After I completed my basic studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, I studied political science at California State University, Fullerton, from 2010 to 2011. During my political philosophy course, I learned about Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Christian societies, which my senior professor called “the foundational stories of the West.ˮ In particular, I enjoyed our recurring discussions about whether it was possible to establish truths about ethics—right individual conduct—and politics—right collective life. I, like a couple of my fellow students, believed we could.

At the end of the semester, my professor suggested that modern, twenty-first century global liberalism represented the synthesis of all stories of the West. Skeptical of his Eurocentric perspective, I asked him about the role of the rest of the world. He pondered for a second before he raised his head and said with a raised eyebrow, “Well, there was Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, and then came the bloody bastard Mohammed who spread Islam by the sword.ˮ Sitting in the last row, I looked at him in disbelief. Did he just really say that? As if the stories of the West were free of bloodshed. I remained silent and waited to hear more about his black-and-white worldview; but he stopped himself. “Oh, shit, is she here? The one with the scarf?ˮ he asked, looking around.

Her name was Manar, which means “guiding lightˮ in Arabic. She was not in class that day, but I was—embodying a vibrant blend of Judeo-Christian-Muslim, German, Arabic, and Ottoman traditions. That day, like so many times before, I wondered: How could we overcome those hostile attitudes against “the others”? How could we connect with one another and appreciate each other? How could we create more happiness and peace among each other and within ourselves?       

[1] Saddam Hussein (Apr. 28, 1937–Dec. 30, 2006), fifth President of Iraq, serving from July 16, 1979 to Apr. 9, 2003, was sentenced to death after being convicted for crimes against humanity.

[2] Arabic term; means “forbidden” or “proscribed” by Islamic law.

[3] Edward Wadie Said (Nov. 1, 1935–Sept. 25, 2003); professor of literature, public intellectual, and founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies.

[4] Immanuel Kant (Apr. 22, 1724–Feb. 12, 1804); German philosopher and central figure in modern philosophy, known for his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

[5] Johanna “Hannah” Arendt (Oct. 14, 1906–Dec. 4, 1975); German-born Jewish American political theorist.