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Maher vs. Mohammed

Here's what Bill Maher said on his HBO show last Friday night:

MAHER: The most popular name in the United Kingdom, Great Britain -- this was in the news this week -- for babies this year was Mohammed. Am I a racist to feel alarmed by that? Because I am. And it's not because of the race, it's because of the religion. I don't have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?

MARGARET HOOVER: If you were with NPR you'd be fired.

MAHER: Right. That's so similar to Juan Williams, who said last week, 'I'm nervous --'

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL (MSNBC): No, it's worse. It's way worse than what Juan Williams said.¹

REIHAN SALAM: As a Reihan Salam, I'm pretty comfortable with Mohammeds. I have some uncles named Mohammed and I think that they're pretty decent guys.


HOOVER: I think England has far bigger problems with Islam than they do with the names of their children. I think Sharia law being institutionalized in England is probably a bigger problem.

MAHER: Sharia law is being institutionalized?

HOOVER: Yeah, it's a parallel legal system in England. That's a bigger problem than kids named Mohammad.

MAHER: Well, then I'm right. I should be alarmed. And I don't apologize.

[Audience applause.]

Let's try to get past Maher's characteristically sanctimonious delivery and bullshitter's disregard for reason and factuality. Should I apologize for asking: What is he talking about?

Even if it were true that Mohammed was the most popular name for boys in either the UK or Great Britain or England (Maher and company use those terms as if they were interchangeable), one might reasonably ask how that particular piece of information translates into the Western world being "taken over by Islam in 300 years." If Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Christine O'Donnell had said that -- and it's at least as stupid as anything any of them have ever said -- they would have been (ahem) crucified in the press. But there's been scarcely a peep about Maher's leaping illogic.

So, if you don't mind, let's just go over the above exchange quickly, point by point:

1) According to the AFP story Maher refers to, the Office for National Statistics found that the most popular name for boys born in England and Wales in 2009 was... Oliver, given to 7,364 children. Followed by Jack, Harry, Alfie, Joshua, Thomas, Charlie, William, James and Daniel. Mohammed was represented by 12 different spellings, ranked separately. So, according to the AFP story, the "two most common spellings of the Muslim name came in at 16th and 36th place, a total of 7,549 baby boys, making it the most popular name overall." So, 12 spellings of "Mohammed," from 4.6 percent of the population in England and Wales, added up to slightly less than 300 more names than the top choice, Oliver, which displaced Jack for the first time in ten years.

Now, Muslims are much more likely to name their boys after the prophet Mohammed (or some other spelling variation) than any other name. The name Mohammed (one of the most popular names in the world) is more likely to be given to a Muslim boy than any single Christian or Hebrew name, for example, is to be given to a male whose parents are Christian or Jewish. And Muslim naming conventions often involve a chain of names, rather than simply a given name/middle name/family name.

Surely this signals the end of civilization as we know it within the next three centuries.

2) Maher is a self-described (at various times) libertarian, agnostic, atheist and "apatheist" who claims to be against religion of all kinds. But as Justin Elliott points out at ("Bill Maher to Muslims: Go away"), Maher has not seen fit to express concern over the alarming popularity of Judeo-Christian names in England: "Joshua, straight from the Hebrew Bible, is the 5th most popular. No. 6 is Thomas, after the apostle. The most popular after Mohammed is Jack, from John -- again, one of the apostles. No. 9 is James, from Jacob. No. 10 is Daniel."

Also, a name itself is hardly predictive of future behavior -- or even religious belief. I think we all know plenty of non-practicing Johns and Daniels and Jacobs whose parents were religious. My mom, on the other hand, is a Mary Frances and there were no Catholics to be found anywhere in her family.

3) Sharia law is not a "parallel legal system" in England. As in many countries, individuals are allowed to use civil arbitrations to settle disputes. Right now, some of these voluntary Muslim tribunals are protected by the country's Arbitrations Act, and others are blatantly illegal. Any Sharia ruling can be overturned by English law, but the parties involved (especially women in family conflicts) are not likely to appeal outside their religion. This is why human rights activists are working to amend the Arbitration Act -- as Canada's was in 2005 -- to exclude religious tribunals.

Maher later said on CNN that he was proudly and unapologetically defending democratic values against those of theocracy. By expressing alarm over baby names in England and Wales? Perhaps, in his head, that's what he thought he was doing, but that's not what he said. He claimed he objected to the popularity of the name "Mohammed" on religious grounds, not racial ones, but didn't explain how he was drawing the distinction. How does he get, in one step, from the popularity of a very popular traditional Muslim name in England to the end of Western civilization at the hands of Islam in 300 years? The mind boggles. Sounds unmistakably like demagoguery and bigotry to me.

Yes, I know Maher is just a dumb comedian and his show should be taken no more seriously than "Oprah" or "Jerry Springer" (is that still on?) or "Two and a Half Men." I know some people thought it was cute that he played 20-year-old tapes of unemployed Creationist and sexual purity advocate Christine O'Donnell saying stupid things on "Politically Correct," holding some of them for ransom and threatening to release them one at a time until she came on his new show. (And then he'd stop?) In public remarks he addressed to O'Donnell this year, Maher boasted: "I created you." Yes, he did. And he's proud of that?

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¹ My impression was that Juan Williams, in extemporaneous remarks (not a prepared bit), was trying to express some irrational fears he thought some people could relate to... and then failed to show why they were irrational fears. If, for example, he was nervous that Islamic terrorists were going to hijack or blow up his plane (based on the actions of a handful of people over the last ten years), why would he be more afraid of people who were clearly identified in "Muslim dress"? How many terrorists have boarded planes "disguised" as Muslims? It doesn't make any sense to me, and I don't understand how this was supposed to relate to previous statement about how "political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality." Because he didn't explain how his anxiety addressed reality. I don't think Juan Williams should have been fired for those remarks alone. (NPR reportedly had problems with his previous appearances on Bill O'Reilly's show, including one in which he said Michelle Obama: "she's got this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. ... her instinct is to start with this 'Blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.'") I think he should have been interviewed by a real journalist (not Bill O'Reilly) and forced to explain exactly what he thought he was trying to say.

UPDATE (11/05/10): The newspaper is reporting that falafel has become a popular food in certain areas of the United States and Canada, particularly the West Coast, Northeast, Southwest and Northern Midwest. Should Bill Maher be alarmed that this signals the death of Western civilization at the hands of Islam in 300 years?

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