Goodbye Jack Smith, hello Mohammed Malik, model British subject. Mohammed, in its various spellings, is now the favourite name for newborn boys in the United Kingdom, edging out Oliver. Those named for the Prophet of Islam ride the Clapham omnibus.
Churn is a wondrous thing, grease in the wheels of vital societies able to adjust their self-images over time. But what to think of the Mohammedization of this murky isle?
Say Luton or Bradford, and the vision that leaps is that of the alienated Muslim radicalized by jihadist teaching and ready — like the Luton-incubated Stockholm bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly — to blow himself up to kill the Western infidel. The London bombers of July 7, 2005, also set out from Luton.
These are potent images. Exclusion exists; its other face is danger. But so does a particular British elasticity that registers Mohammed and shrugs...
Having lived in France and Germany, I’m struck on returning to Britain after 30 years not by the hard lines hiving off immigrant Muslim communities as in those countries but by the relative fluidity that produces Faisal Islam, economic editor of the influential Channel 4 News, or Sajid Javid, a bus driver’s son and Tory MP...
British identity has proved more capacious than French or German, perhaps because, even before the legacy of empire, it had to absorb the English, the Scottish and the Welsh (as well as fail to absorb the majority of the Irish.) The variegated texture of London — projects full of immigrants hard by upscale housing — stands in stark contrast to ghettoized Paris.
I’ve been listening to a BBC Radio 4 series — how polarized America would benefit from a national broadcaster of this quality! — called “Five Guys named Mohammed,” conceived to mark the name’s first-place surge. The programs are a good antidote to the simplistic caricature that conflates Muslim with threat, and a useful barometer of an integration that is uneven, certainly, but ongoing.
There was Mohammed Yahya, Mozambique-born rapper and creator of a Muslim-Jewish band. Or Mohammed Anwar, of purring Scottish brogue, the manager of a Glasgow Muslim day care center, waxing lyrical about Damson Jam and the crush he once had on actress Diana Rigg (who didn’t?) and his 21-year-old daughter, who could do big things if she was not “so laid-back, it’s just unbelievable.” And there she was, more Scottish even than he, laughing over his premature hunt for a husband for her.
Or Muhammad Hasan, a bubbly Birmingham real-estate dealer in his mid-30s, explaining his Islamic investment theory: Because under Islam you cannot charge or pay interest, Muslim investors in his property deals have to take equity rather than lend money — and that spurs motivation.
Bent on business, Hasan has had little time to look for a wife who, in his mother’s view, “has to be a Muslim and from Pakistan and a Princess Diana clone!” He’s now sipping tea with potential spouses while his binocular-armed Mom observes.
Overall, these Mohammeds see themselves as British citizens, not Muslims in the United Kingdom. Their universes may be distinct, as in attitudes to marriage, but distinct in a way that, at best, complements rather than confronts. “There’s an upward mobility and optimism that is much higher than in continental Europe,” said Muddassar Ahmed, a 27-year-old college dropout and chief executive of Unitas, a public relations firm.
Ahmed is involved in the drafting of a letter by 50 British Muslim scholars denouncing Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the 26-year-old killer of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor assassinated this month for denouncing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws that prescribe the death sentence for anyone insulting Islam. Qadri, self-described “slave of the Prophet,” has been feted in Islamabad.
In this context, the readiness of European Muslims, many bearing the Prophet’s name, to stand up for values of free speech assumes bridge-building importance. It reflects the experience of faith as practiced within a modern secular society.
Those bridges do not come easily. Britain has been riled in recent weeks by the conviction of Mohammed Liaqat, 28, and Abid Saddique, 27, the ringleaders of a gang that raped and sexually abused several white girls aged between 12 and 18 in Derby.
The reaction of Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, was to say a problem exists with “Pakistani heritage men thinking it is O.K. to target white girls in this way.” He said they were “popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that, but Pakistani heritage girls are off limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan, typically” — so they seek the “easy meat” of white girls.
It was a neat — and explosive — argument. Vigorous debate has ensued. Racial slur? Courageous frankness? I don’t think Straw’s argument stands up to scrutiny of overall sex-crime patterns, but I do think Britain’s Muslim community needs to take a hard look at repressive attitudes toward women. The debate is salutary.
There’s a Mohammed — in fact there are many — in Britain’s future. Oliver’s prospects look more dubious given the ties between the name’s popularity and the heady success of the chef Jamie Oliver — but that’s another story of positive British change.
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