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The Monitor's View

What's in a name? Ask José and Muhammad

Demographic data confirm the world is changing, but in unexpected ways

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 29, 2009

Sometimes, something in a name can pop assumptions about trends in race and ethnicity.

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Two years ago in Britain, for example, much was made of the fact that "Muhammad" had become the second-most popular name given to newborns, right behind the "Jack" of "Union Jack" fame. Wasn't this conclusive evidence that Christian Europe was being overrun by Muslims from the east and south?

On a closer look, though, it turns out that little Muhammads (including other spellings of the name) represented less than 2 percent of the total births. And a look at demographic trends actually shows the tide running the other direction: Birth rates for all Northern European women are headed up; birth rates for Muslim women both in Europe and in traditionally Muslim countries are nearly all headed down.

Iran's birth rate, once 6.5 children per mother, has plummeted to 1.7 today, less than the 2.1 children per mother needed to prevent a decline in population, according to international statistics studied by Martin Walker at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. Muslim countries such as Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon have fertility rates that now down to nearly European levels. At the same time, European birth rates in countries like Britain, France, and Sweden are up strongly.

In the United States, new evidence suggests Latino immigrants – both legal and illegal – are assimilating into American culture, as more of them become second-generation Americans. The name "José," the favorite name for Hispanic children born in the US (but only No. 28 overall), continues to decline in popularity, reported The New York Times, based on data released by the Pew Hispanic Center yesterday. The reason: More Hispanic parents are choosing traditionally Anglo names for their newborns. Today, 9 out of 10 Hispanic children living in the US are born here, and that percentage is growing.