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Honoring Muhammad

September 15th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized

The thing is, I didn’t know we’d all gotten together and decided to officially call this guy “the Prophet Muhammad.” I know that’s what he is to 2 billion or so Muslims, but that leaves around 5 billion of us who are undecided on the matter.

It seems to be the case, however, that major news outlets have begun using the honorific title far more frequently. I don’t think that’s very good journalistic practice. I mean, to 2.2 billion Christians, Jesus Christ is “Lord Jesus Christ”—but we don’t expect The Washington Post to call him that.

I decided to do a news search, a very basic one, using Google and some simple filters. Basically, I wanted to see whether mentions of Muhammad have changed in six major news organs: CBS, NBC, ABC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I began my search in 1998, in order to include a period when Muslim terrorists had begun more noticeably killing people worldwide, but before 9/11 and the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl.

Honoring Muhammad

The challenge is that there seems to be a rule that if you are Muslim, you need to name at least one of your sons Muhammad. So a news search for articles that refer to a Muhammad, but don’t call him “Prophet Muhammad,” will turn up Muhammad Jones, who robbed a liquor store in Detroit, or the handful of Muhammads who have played for sports teams, the many Muhammads who run Middle Eastern countries, and all manner of Muhammads who have beheaded Jews or blown up school buses or sniped motorists in the name of Allah.

So I added some terms to screen out the lesser Muhammads, essentially by identifying only articles that mention Muhammad as well as Islam and religion, in order to do a better job of isolating the articles that are most likely talking about the main guy.

Not a perfect screen, but it rules out a lot of chaff, and allows us to examine changes in the variable we care about, provided major news mentions of Muhammad the religious founder didn’t become significantly more likely to talk about him without mentioning the words “religion” and “Islam,” which is a scenario that seems unlikely.

I also used two major spellings, “Muhammad” and “Mohammed,” which tend to be the ones used by news outlets.

And as you can see, between 1998 and 2011, major news outlets tended to give Muhammad the honorific “Prophet” title less than 10 percent of the time. So far this year, however, around 67 percent of the time they call him “the Prophet.”

Again, this is imperfect, dependent on Google’s filters, and at the mercy of the steady stream of garbage and good stuff they have to sort through each time they return results for one’s search. There are plenty of articles, for example, where the journalist doesn’t label Muhammad “the Prophet,” but quotes someone who does. But the only way those articles could influence the overall results is if a much higher percentage of journalists now, in their articles about Muhammad, are quoting people who call him “the Prophet.”

In short, barring some tremendous error or spurious correlation I’m missing (certainly a possibility), there seems to have been a massive shift in major news discussions of Muhammad.

Now, there’s more sophisticated ways to go at this, and I’d love to see someone do it. But for now, the point I want to make, cautiously and judiciously, is WTF.

W.T.F.

Update:

Several people have rightly noted: “Wait a minute, dumbass — “Christ” is an honorific. The implication, of course, is that if the media have been calling the Nazarene “Jesus Christ” all along, and are only now getting around to calling the Meccan “the Prophet,” then maybe this is just leveling the playing field between two heavy-hitting religions.

Curious, I ran some numbers for just this year, and found that the same news organs in the foregoing analysis refer to “Jesus Christ” (as opposed to just “Jesus”) about 19% of the time. In other words, Mohammad is over three times more likely to receive his traditional honorific in a major news account than is Jesus.

A cursory look-through indicates many of these are articles talking about the religious figure, but once again, someone would need to do some serious digging and counting to ensure that this result isn’t biased by cursing (as in: “Jesus, Tony, don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”).

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