The occasion of California senator Barbara Boxer’s announcing her retirement offers an opportunity to reflect on the strange life of titles. Mrs. Boxer — I mean “Senator Boxer” — was a stickler for her own, famously chiding a brigadier general for calling her “ma’am” while testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: “You know, do me a favor, could you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’? I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it.”
One suspects that Boxer would be thrilled if her name were never uncoupled from “Senator.” That is unlikely to happen, Boxer’s political accomplishments being something less than world-historical, but the sharp distinction obvious here between the woman and her honorific is not made in another title-name combination in the news of late: “the Prophet Mohammed.” It has become routine to refer to the central figure of Islam with his title attached. But why?
Perhaps it is a simple conflation. That has happened throughout history. Consider “Caesar Augustus” and “Tiberius Caesar,” both of whose titles — “Caesar,” from the great Julius — have come down to us affixed to their names.
The same happened to Samuel Johnson, the great literary critic and subject of James Boswell’s unsurpassed biography, who is often just the illustrious “Dr. Johnson.”
For a more recent example, there is Tiger Woods — that is, Eldrick Tont Woods, who was quickly recognized to be a “tiger,” or outstanding golfer.
And, of course, there are religious examples in abundance: Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Saint Augustine.
Perhaps “the Prophet Mohammed” is no different from any of these – “prophet,” like “mahatma,” a sort of meaningless but customary adjective.
Then again, there is the syntactically identical formulation “Jesus the Christ” — but when was the last time one heard that combination employed (non-ironically) on cable news? No, “Jesus” is just another single-namer — like Shakespeare or Churchill or Cher. (And, on more vulgar occasions, a perfectly common oath.)
Mohammed would not seem to be such an obscure figure that he requires an identifying adjective. (“Oh, that Mohammed!”) Rather, there seems to be an implicit, unique measure of respect accorded to the religious leader of Islam that is passé when it comes to the carpenter from Nazareth.
To be clear, this is not necessarily sinister. It does not indicate an Islamist fifth column. I have referred to “the Prophet Mohammed” myself — merely unthinkingly, not out of self-enforced dhimmitude. But it has become a normal part of our culture, and in a society as militantly egalitarian as our own, that is striking.
It is no surprise that one does not hear “Jesus the Christ,” or some such variation, in the media. Unlike “Caesar Augustus” or “King David,” which report facts (Augustus was Caesar, David was king), whether Jesus was the foretold Christ is a matter of religious belief, and most reporters are keen to steer clear of that debate. When it comes to Mohammed, though, media sources implicitly side with those who accept that he was, in fact, “the Prophet.” That is not to say that they agree; they simply do not argue. Is that because contesting the claims of Christianity is primetime-television sport, while contesting the claims of Islam is taking one’s life in one’s hands? Perhaps that explains why CNN editorial director Richard Griffiths, explaining that his network would not show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, referred simply to “the Prophet,” dropping the apparently redundant “Mohammed.” (One wonders how he would describe Isaiah, Elijah, and Jeremiah.)
It is a complex thing, the relationship between language and life, and we regularly make linguistic choices without thinking about the motivations for them, or their effects. “The Prophet Mohammed” may be a harmless stylistic choice. But if “the Prophet Mohammed” is liable to become simply “the Prophet,” implicitly reinforcing a particular view of a historical figure — the view, moreover, taken by those from whose ranks come our age’s most murderous opponents of free thought — then we may want to choose our words carefully.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.