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At the blog Legal Insurrection, Joel Engel brings up the use of the honorific term Prophet Muhammad instead of the previous, plain-old Muhammad.
Remember after 9/11 (the original, not the Benghazi update), when Reuters decided its stylebook would require putting the word terrorist in scare quotes on the grounds that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”?
Well, now the Associated Press stylebook apparently insists that Mohammed be preceded by the word Prophet:
“An Egyptian court convicted in absentia Wednesday seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor, sentencing them to death on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that had sparked riots in parts of the Muslim world….
The low-budget “Innocence of Muslims,” parts of which were made available online, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer and buffoon.”
Hmmm. What if you think one man’s prophet is another man’s deviant? What if you’re a Christian who prefers to see Son of God or Prince of Peace precede “Jesus Christ”?
All of this is in light of the AP’s decision to remove terms like “homophobia” and “Islamophobia” from their style book – the discussion of which is rounded up by Andrew Sullivan. Most people, including myself, don’t realize how important a part the book plays in the information communicated through the articles we read. Our perceptions of news events are shaped by the terms being used. And term usage is important, as political functionaries like Frank Luntz or feminist activists who insist on using the term “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life” will tell you.
You might remember my previous posts on the use of Prophet Muhammad. It all stemmed from Tony Woodlief’s observation that the use of the term had spiked in news articles and reports from a group of high profile media outlets. They spiked in the year 2009. My assumption was that one of the big style books had changed its recommendations for the term.
Free copies of old AP Style Books are hard to find as are copies of the New York Times’ recommendations. Other style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style or the Yahoo Style Guide (used for internet publication) are worth looking at too, but the AP Book is the most influential of the bunch. The 2005 AP book is available for free online and in it, there is no suggestion for Prophet to be used when mentioning Muhammad.
I purchased used copies of the 2007 and 2009 Style Books from Amazon. My initial hunch was correct, but the year does not match up with Woodlief’s timeline though this could be due to some time lag in the mass use of updated terms. The Style Book from the 2009 book reads:
Muhammad The chief prophet and central figure of the Islamist religion, Prophet Muhammad. Use other spellings only if preferred by a specific person for his own name or in a title or the name of an organization.
The ’07 book provides the same suggestion with only a slightly different suggestion of Muhammad’s historical relevance.
So the AP’s editors changed the book in either 2006 or 2007. Again, that doesn’t match up with Woodlief’s observed spike, but the addition of the honorific title is strange and interesting. Almost nobody noticed the term being slipped into news stories which speaks to the seamlessness with which our perceptions can be nudged. It’s not the end of the world that Muhammad is now described with the honorific title, but it suggests that the gatekeepers’ gatekeepers (he who controls our language controls us, including the journalists who actually write the stories) had a problem with the old way of describing Muhammad. It would be interesting to find out why. If the removal of homophobia is a news story then the addition of Prophet to Muhammad should have been one too.
I emailed some of the editors of the Style Books – Darrell Christian, Sally Jacobsen, David Minthorn, and Norm Goldstein – but none of them replied.