Last week the news arrived that the most popular name given to boys in the UK in 2014 was "Mohammed." The reactions and non-reactions to this story betrayed the deep unease and denial that are now part of the debate around Islam in modern Britain.
We have of course been here before. For some years now, there have been stories of "Mohammed" creeping up the list of most popular names in the UK. And each time the reaction has been similar.
First there come doubts over the sources of such stories, whether informal contributions from, for instance, new mothers' websites, or official statistics. There is also now extensive discussion about the varied possible spellings of the name (Muhammad and Mohammad for instance). Each year this leads to a fruitful and interesting debate about whether the reason why this name has come so high up the list of most popular boy's names is because all the different variants of the spelling have been clumped together or whether the name is lower down than it would be because they have been kept apart. This is a now traditional annual debate in Britain.
This year, the story came out with an added twist: whichever way you cooked it, it looked as if "Mohammed" had come out on top. This seemed to be the case with the Office for National Statistics official figures for England and Wales and this latest one, from the "Baby Centre." It was the latter that garnered a particular amount of attention. In the war between "Oliver" and "Mohammed" to reach the top spot, this poll came to the conclusion that if you put "Muhammad," "Mohammed" and "Mohammad" together, the variations brought the name to the top by a considerable margin.
And so, with the facts apparently all in this time, the debate moved on to another stage. The debate moved on to: "So what?" Take that week's edition of the BBC's main current affairs discussion program, Question Time. A question over the Mohammed naming matter came up from a clearly nervous and slightly baffled-sounding member of the audience. The response of the panel of politicians and pundits was striking.
The Labour party's shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, responded by saying that Britain had always been a "diverse" country, and that the fact that more boys were called Mohammed than any other name didn't say anything at all. The comedian Omid Djalili then gave his opinion: "For me, it's very interesting that a story like this has come out and it's been fed out by sources like the Daily Mail." In Britain if you say that the right-of-center Daily Mail newspaper has reported something then you are suggesting it is untrue and probably evil.
Several audience members agreed with this line of attack. They said the report was a "non-story" that was clearly intended to "divide us." The most sensible reply -- and therefore the one most worth dwelling on, came from the more impressive politicians on the panel. The Conservative minister Sajid Javid is one of the most impressive politicians in the current cabinet and also the first elected representative from a Muslim background to sit in cabinet. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he has already distinguished himself as a passionate and productive politician. Here is what he said:
"I think it's pretty silly to suggest that someone's name has some kind of bearing on their love for our country. I'm called Sajid. I'm fiercely patriotic about our country, I think it's the greatest country on earth. And so name has nothing to do it."
There is much to admire in this. Not least, the example that Javid sets by making such a passionate and unapologetic statement. But there is also a problem here, which is that it left parts of the central question unaddressed, when they should clearly not be.
Because despite the obvious concern and cultural disorientation of the gentleman in the BBC audience who asked the question, this is not a story to which the answer should be "So what?" The story does mean something. And our apparent national desire to shift the story does not change that fact. We do not evade knowledge in any other situation.
When "George," for instance, heads back to the top of the list of baby names in the UK, endless commentary is given over in the newspapers to how the choice of name bestowed upon their firstborn by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge trickled down and influenced the baby name choices of other British parents. This was the situation when Prince William himself was Christened, when his brother was Christened and it is the same every year when this story comes around. The way in which people are named each year shows an ebb and flow of fashion and events. It reveals underlying trends of considerable interest to the British public. The one exception, it now seems -- the one time when everyone seems to think we should say, "Nothing to see here, please move on" -- is if the most popular boy's name in the country is Mohammed.
I doubt if anybody in Britain actually believes that all these little Mohammeds are going to grow into Conservative cabinet ministers who are proud to be British, like Sajid Javid. If they did, then they would all be saying so proudly. But we have had a lot of Mohammeds go wrong in Britain in recent years. There have been bombers, and beheaders and fighters and more. And the name is not entirely connected, in the minds of any news-observant person, solely with peacefulness. We also know that at best, many of these Mohammeds will experience a considerable struggle over their religious and cultural identities. How many go which way is anybody's guess. Nobody could possibly say. But my own feeling is that if we were confident about most of the people involved going overwhelmingly the proud-to-be-British way, then we would discuss it. But we aren't, so we don't.
Finally, of course, there is the matter of who they are named after. I tread -- I am well aware -- on tricky ground. But let us put it this way. Although "Mohammed" is a name that many cultural Muslims bestow on their firstborn son and sometimes more, it is also apparent that the role model is -- how might one say this -- not entirely to be emulated. People called "Jesus," as some people in Latin American countries (awkwardly to some of our ears) are, have been named after someone who, even if you do not think he was the son of God, was certainly one of the nicest people of all time. But Mohammed seems to have been more of a mixed bag, was he not?
Impressive warrior? Certainly. Impressive leader? Undoubtedly. But there still seems to be that problem of the beheadings and the rapes and the pillaging and all the sex. I'm only referring to what Islam's own foundational texts say. But I'd have thought that on any reading, there is a mixed bag there. Of course, many Muslims seem not to know any of this and doubtless call their children "Mohammed" with no greater knowledge than people who call their children "Douglas" know the slightly complex origins of that name. But many others will be well aware of the nature of the historical figure they are emulating.
Naturally, people are not responsible for their parents' choice of a name. Nor would they necessarily be likely to emulate the men after whom they were named. But it would probably reasonable to assume that the choice of names might be telling you something about whom large numbers of people in your country identify with. At least it would seem a question worth discussing.