Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fear of a Muslim Planet

Here is a CNN news report claiming that the most popular name given to boys in Britain last year was Mohammad.

The report explains that Mohammad or variations of it (Muhammad, etc.) tops the boys list. The journalist explains that Mohammad has been among the top 10 names for years because of Muslim immigration and "high Muslim birth rates". The journalist admits that Muslims are only 4.6% of the UK's total population and asks a British imam about Mohammad's popularity, who explains that Muslims want their children to emulate Prophet Mohammad's behaviour.

This news report is, however, riddled with flaws. First is their prime assertion that Mohammad tops the list of boys names. Britain's Office for National Statistics actually lists the top 10 names for boys in England and Wales as follows:

1) Oliver
2) Jack
3) Harry
4) Alfie
5) Joshua
6) Thomas
7) Charlie
8) William
9) James
10) Daniel

Mohammad features on the CNN report because they choose to include all other spellings of it. However several of the English names are variations on the same name too. The total number of Mohammads are 7,535. The total number of variations on John (namely John and Jack) are 7,852, pushing John into first place.

Still, it could be argued that Jack is today used as a distinct name from John whereas the various spellings of Mohammad all refer to the prophet. That brings us to the next problem: what does CNN mean by "Britain"? The Office for National Statistics give only the names of England and Wales, for Scotland we need to access the General Register Office for Scotland, which gives us a top 10 of the following names:

1) Jack
2) Lewis
3) James
4) Liam
5) Logan
6) Daniel
7) Aaron
8) Ryan
9) Cameron
10) Callum

There are no variations on Mohammad in the top 50. Meanwhile, if we add the total number of Scottish Jacks to the English Jacks (excluding Johns) we get 7,735, which again pushes Mohammad into second place. So the CNN claim that Mohammad tops the list of male names in "Britain" for 2009 is simply incorrect.

Later in the report the journalist refers to the UK, which usually means including Northern Ireland, so we need to add their figures too. Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency gives us the following top 10 for boys:

1) Jack
2) Matthew
3) = Daniel
3) = James
5) Ryan
6) Adam
7) Ethan
8) Charlie
9) Thomas
10) Conor

No variations on Mohammad make the top 100, but we do get another 349 Jacks along with hundreds more for dozens of other English names like James, Matthew and Charlie. Simply by adding the Scottish Olivers and Northern Irish Olivers to the English Olivers (a total of 7,732), Mohammad is pushed down into third place.

So, to repeat, Mohammad was not the most common name for boys in the UK last year, CNN got that completely wrong.

One could argue that this is missing the point, the point being that Mohammad is one of the most popular names, indicating a massively increased proportion of the British population made up by Muslims. This, however, is deeply misleading for a reason hinted at by the imam interviewed in the video: British Muslim parents really like the name Mohammad, and among Muslims it is uniquely popular. There is no equivalent among the British non-Muslim population of a name so dominant.

Back to the statistics. In England and Wales there are no other obvious Muslim boys names in the top 100. Zachary, Reuben and Jude, yes, Hassan, Asad and Salman, no. The Office for National Statistics include a word cloud of the top 100 male names, looking like this:

The real insight comes from the names for girls, however. Mohammad, as well as having no equivalent in English non-Muslim names, also has no equivalent among Muslim female names. There don't appear to be any exclusively Muslim names for girls in the top 100 at all. This is the word cloud for the top 100 female names in England and Wales, completely dominated by European names:

Imagine how different CNN's report would have been if they had looked at female names instead of male. Instead of using the unique dominance of Mohammad among Muslim boys (and misreading the statistics) to indicate a rising Muslim population they might note the absence of Muslim names for girls to conclude the opposite: that British Muslims must be few in number since their female names are utterly outnumbered by non-Muslim alternatives.

All of this is happening during a period of increased tension and controversy between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe and North America, which makes CNN's clumsy coverage of this so disappointing and harmful. Europe is not Eurabia quite yet.


  1. (Fear of a Muslim Planet is, of course, a play on the Public Enemy album "Fear of a Black Planet". I just love that title!)

  2. Nice work, well researched. But if CNN read these statistics the way you have they wouldn't comment on it because it's not the news they want to tell. Actually I'd say they know only too well what the statistics say (call me cynical) but as with all statistics you can cleverly interpret them whatever way you like if you're clever enough with your use of language.

    As Benjamin Disraeli famously put it (apparently); "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

  3. And I wonder are they willfully ignorant of political geography?

  4. Thanks David! In the modern context of concerns about Muslim segregation in European countries and the "war on terror" it seems sensible to be highly accurate when making claims about Muslims on mass media. That CNN would throw around vague claims about "Britain" for such a divisive issue is unfortunate.

  5. What a well-reasoned piece, Shane. You're so right in pointing to the manipulation of statistics to add to the tension created by the current wave of Islamophobia around the world.

    David I'm going to borrow the quote from your comment with my FB share of Shane's writeup...hope you won't mind!

    Thank you for the voice of sanity, Shane.

  6. Hey, thanks Tahera! Glad you're sharing it one Facebook too, cheers :)


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