Thursday, September 10, 2009

max hastings: govt hides popularity of name 'mohammed'

Max Hastings has written a shamelessly alarmist article in the Daily Mail on what he alleges is an official statistical cover-up over the fact that Mohammed, in all its variant spellings, is now (on 2008 figures) the third most popular name for boy new borns in England. Nor is it only Max who has latched onto the story. The tabloid Sun warns that Mohammed in its various forms will be No 1 in two years.

Hastings' article is entitled: Mohammed is now the third most popular boys' name in England. So why this shabby attempt to conceal it?

He begins: This week, the Office for National Statistics published a list of the most popular boys' names in Britain: Jack, Oliver, Thomas, Harry, Joshua, Alfie, Charlie, Daniel. They reflect a cultural tradition as old the nation's history, and would provoke approving nods from Jack the Ripper, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Becket and Harry Hotspur. There is just one small problem: the list is deceitful. In reality, the third most popular choice for boy children born last year in England and Wales was not Thomas but Mohammed. The ONS explains blithely that it had no intent to deceive. Its normal practice is to catalogue different spellings separately, as in Mohammed, Muhammad and so on. But if you add these variants together, as surely seems logical, then Mohammed is right up there, near the top of the list.

Hastings goes on to say that unfortunately, in recent times we have been given plentiful cause for paranoia about attempts by official bodies to conceal from us information about the changing face of Britain which our rulers know that many people will not like.

He goes on to raise alarm over Muslim reproduction figures. The Muslim population is now close to two million, over 3 per cent, and rising fast because Muslim children have more children than most of the rest of us, many of them named Mohammed or Muhammed. In comparison, the Poles who settled her after World War II mostly had names like Wladyslaw or Miroslaw. But when they married and had children, few gave these Polish names. Most became Jacks and Olivers and Harrys. Today, their grandchildren are indistinguishable from ours. It is hard to believe that the same will be true in Birmingham or Leicester, where Mulsims are soon expected to outnumber whites.

Actually, the Poles I know tend to give their children names that "work" in both Poland and Britain, such as Peter/Piotr or Anna. Some of my Muslim friends similarly chose eg Rashid/Richard, or Idris, or Yousef/Joseph, or Samir/Sammy, and use them flexibly.

Isn't one reason for the prevalence of Mohammed in its different forms due to fact that the name is extremely popular among Muslims, and also that there is probably a more limited range of Muslim boys' names in use than of non-Muslim names?

If Hastings' alarmism over swelling Muslim numbers is well-founded, then would one not expect to find other Muslim names in the top 100? - Ahmed perhaps, Samir, or Mustafa. I can't actually find one. Or maybe some Muslims are already following Max's advice and calling their children Oliver, or maybe true-Brit name Ashton - a new entry this year, at no 74.

What about girls' names? Surely one would expect to see a similar phenomenon there, with Muslim girls' names riding high in the charts. Admittedly Jasmine is at number 35 - are the 1,653 babies given this pretty name last year all Muslim? (as an English spelling of Yasmeen) Layla is at 68 - a new entry since 1998, having risen 224 places. (Although some pure white Brit parents love this name, meainging "night". And there is of course the Eric Clapton influence). Maryam, a new entry at 99 - a grand total of 583 babies last year.

Let's look at Mr Hastings' own name. Max is now in 24th place , a +27 change in rank since 1998, and a +7 increase since 1997. Whereas the name Mohammed, now in 16th place, has risen more modestly, with corresponding figures of +18 and +1. Mind you the spelling Muhammad has risen 54 places since 1998, and +1 since last year. But some other names have shot up much faster. Jayden, now at 21, has risen +281 places since 1998.

Would it really be logical, as Hastings claims, for the ONS to lump all variant spellings of a name as one name? It surely makes more sense to list different spellings of the same name separately. The ONS tables say in a footnote: "these rankings have been produced using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. Similar names with different spellings have been counted separately."

Surely this policy has always been in place and not, as Hastings implies, hurriedly introduced as soon as "Mohammed/Muhammad" et al started creeping up the hot 100. Eg Ann and Anne, Catherine and Katherine, Jak/Jack/Jac/Jacques or come to that Susannah/Suzanna/Susanna/Suzannah/Susana. (All these numerous spellings of Susannah, "diluting" its impact. must be the reason why none has made it into the top 10 - not the fact that it has gone out of fashion!)

The Telegraph, in a more measured piece than that of Max Hastings, has an interesting more detailed breakdown of the names in terms of region. But to really make statistical sense of the whole picture, surely one needs to know what percentage of Muslim babies are given the name of one of the variants of Mohammed.

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