Is Muhammad more deserving of reverential treatment than Jesus? The New York Times seems to think so.
A Times article reporting on the collapse of Christian communities in the Middle East contains two references to Jesus. Not "Christ," which is a religious title, or "Jesus Christ," but simply "Jesus," who was (or may have been) a historical figure. The same is true of other Times stories and wire service articles published by the Times which no longer appear on its website (but still appear on other sites under different titles and are linked below). A December 21 story entitled "First Jesus-Era House Discovered in Nazareth" (AP byline) contains ten references to Jesus and none to Christ. Ditto another item, "Mass. School Denies Suspending Student for Drawing" (also AP), about a second grader who may have been suspended for drawing a figure of Jesus on the cross. Three references to Jesus, none to Christ.
A Washington Post article (AP byline) about the controversy surrounding Brit Hume's recent comments on Tiger Woods contains two references to Jesus and none to Christ. The same pattern has held true of other articles published by the Post, including "Vatican to Review Security After Papal Knockdown" (AP) and "Pilgrims Crowd Bethlehem on Warm Christmas Eve" (Reuters), which are no longer linked to the Post's website. The articles refer to Jesus, not to Christ or Jesus Christ.
The Times, the AP, and Reuters all have style manuals setting forth their policies about usage for proper names like "Jesus." Both the Times and Reuters manuals explicitly caution against using the term "Christ" when referring to Jesus because it is a theological term, "a title non-Christians would not give him," as Reuters' handbook says.
Similarly, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage does not list "Prophet Muhammad" as an acceptable usage. It says only: "Muhammad. Use this spelling for the name of the prophet of the Muslim religion." Both Reuters and the AP Stylebook identify Muhammad as "Prophet," but neither explicitly states whether "Prophet Muhammad" is a preferred, disfavored, or neutral usage.
The Times confirmed that its above-cited styles are current, but did not respond to an inquiry about its actual practice. The Washington Post, AP, and Reuters did not respond at all to inquiries for this article.
If the New York Times views Jesus as "undisputed and therefore preferred," its current practice regarding Muhammad does not meet the same standard. As a historical personage, Muhammad is, well, at least as "undisputed" as Jesus. Thus his name alone should presumably be preferred. But in fact the paper regularly refers to Muhammad by his religious title, "Prophet Muhammad."
This is not the exception, but it appears to be the rule in major media today, including:
- Recent Times stories about Iran and Iraq ("Prophet Muhammad" identified as the grandfather of Imam Hussein, whose death is commemorated on the Shiite holy day of Ashura).
- A Washington Post article about political unrest in Iran during Ashura (two references to Muhammad, the first as the "prophet Muhammad").
In short, the foundational figure of Islam is treated with a reverence not meted out to the foundational figure of Christianity or other faiths like Judaism. Newspaper references to Moses do not identify him by titles such as "Prophet" or "Rabbeinu," "our teacher," the traditional Jewish honorific applied to him. There could be several reasons for this. Editors may be attempting to educate a non-Muslim readership or to placate Muslim readers and/or reporters.
Regardless, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to pressures being felt in America and other Western countries to create exceptions to societal norms in favor of Islamic ones. For example, Ontario and Great Britain provide welfare benefits to multiple wives. Public colleges and private colleges have used their resources to provide Muslim prayer facilities. Other efforts have thus far been less successful, like allowing Muslim women to veil themselves in driver's license photos, enabling Muslim cabbies to refuse blind passengers accompanied by guide dogs, or refusing medical treatment to or from those not conforming to Muslim modesty strictures.
Free expression has been the greatest victim so far. For example, hate speech laws have been used to penalize critics of Islam through the filing of frivolous "defamation" lawsuits against them. Even more worrisome is the self-censorship that has taken root in American media and publishers. Few prominent newspapers published Kurt Westergaard's Muhammad cartoon. Yale University Press' refusal to publish the cartoons in a book about the controversy is clearer evidence yet that the threat of physical violence, like the attempt to kill Westergaard, and the threat of financially draining lawsuits have had a chilling effect on publications about Islamic extremism.
Referring to Muhammad by his religious title is a related development, but it is also a step beyond. It is not self-censorship, which is the failure to publish material out of deference or fear. Rather, it flirts with propaganda. The media are affirmatively recognizing Muhammad by his religious title, almost endorsing his prophethood — and proclaiming Muhammad's prophethood is half of the Muslim credo — while demoting or devaluing other religions whose foundational figures are not treated with the same respect.
The cumulative end result of this campaign, if it is successful, is recreating American society in the image of Islam, where Islam and Muslims have an elevated status above other religions and their adherents. However, Americans may remain blithely ignorant about these developments as they are happening, because the media will not report them.
Johanna Markind is an attorney specializing in criminal law and a part-time journalist specializing in religion.