Al-Husein Madhany: What’s in a Name?

Al-Husein Madhany is the Chief of Staff to the Chief Human Resource Officer at PayPal. Prior to PayPal, Al-Husein worked at Facebook as an award-winning executive business partner and chief chaos tamer to Facebook’s first Chief Information Officer. Al-Husein is senior consultant at the Duncan Group Inc. (, a New York City-based retained search firm. The firm operates globally, and offers expertise in four practice areas: recruitment, organizational consulting, coaching, and executive-level training for professional assistants. Al-Husein is a film producer, published author, and was previously a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. With advanced degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, he also consults internationally on the future of technology, business management, leadership development, philanthropy, and corporate social responsibility.

The day before the November 2008 presidential election, I was checking my bags at the domestic counter for one of the big American airlines in San Francisco. When I handed my driver’s license to the woman behind the counter and told her my name–Al-Husein Madhany–she gave me a look (a mixture of confusion and apprehension straining behind a mask of polite, professional composure) that I’d seen many times before.

“I’m sorry,” she said carefully.

“My first name’s Al-Husein,” I replied, winding up my wicked curveball. “You know, like Saddam Hussein.”

After a beat, I got a blank stare and a nervous little laugh. Then I let the moment pass and steered the conversation back on script.

That familiar exchange had been a fixture in my life from the time of the first Gulf War until Election Day 2008. Muslims had become the scary “other” for most Americans, but we existed in the popular imagination as inhabitants of that gray part of the globe beyond, say, France. Not as neighbors who lived, worked and prayed in the same communities as our non-Muslim fellow citizens.

The point of my well rehearsed airline-agent routine–and of most of what I’ve done professionally–has been to draw attention to the blind spots in relations between Muslim-Americans and the rest of the people who make up this great country. Over the past couple of decades, it has become vitally important for Americans to engage the Muslim world. But precisely because this notion of Muslims as “others” is so pervasive, it has become even more important for Americans to engage their Muslim neighbors.

What a difference an election can make.

When I flew back into San Francisco a couple of days later, the agent again did a double-take after I told him my name, but I had already revised my routine.

“My first name’s Al-Husein,” I told him. “You know, like Barack Hussein Obama.”

A Christian man with a Muslim father and a large extended Muslim family had become the country’s first African-American President. Even more significant was the fact that 68 million Americans had voted to put the “other” in the Oval Office.

I’ve always felt like an American; like most Muslims who live here, I’m as comfortable claiming both my religious and national identities as Protestant, Catholic or Jewish Americans are–as comfortable as Americans of any faith usually are.

But since that Election Day in 2008, my fellow Americans have been able to see me as an American much more easily than they could before. Americans in general now see Muslims a bit more clearly than they did before.

Barack Obama’s presidency has allowed us to begin to have the conversation that Americans have been afraid to have. The purpose behind my work at in fact, the vision that guides everything I do–is to begin to build a bridge across that perceptibly narrowing divide.

As a nation, we have come to a point where it behooves us not to fall back on empty stereotypes about religious “others.” This requires that the global conversation about religion and spirituality must be made public–not simply for the sake of our individual well-being but also for the sake of all of us.

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