The Monitor's View

What's in a name? Ask José and Muhammad

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

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

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.

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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.

But the fastest-growing US demographic minority isn't Hispanics. That distinction belongs to Americans who identify themselves as "multiracial." Their numbers rose by 3.4 percent last year to about 5.2 million. The fame and success of multiracial Americans – such as President Obama, actress Halle Berry, and golfer Tiger Woods – may be causing more Americans to take special pride in their polyglot ancestry. Multiracial marriages have been happening for many years, but today they are becoming commonplace.

Such diversity, within individuals and the US public as a whole, may have profound implications. The use of race as a legal or governmental term "will be obsolete in less than 20 years," declares William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution.

All this isn't to suggest that all demographic trends point in rosy directions.

Russia faces an uncertain future because of a plummeting population. China's "one child" policy has curbed population growth, but massive use of female infanticide, out of a parental preference for boys, has left a skewed male population. India, too, suffers from female infanticide, not to mention that it will surpass China as the world's most populous country in a few decades.

Topping the list of concerns is sub-Saharan Africa, home to many of the world's famines, wars, and environmental disasters. By 2050, the region could grow from 800 million people today to 1.7 billion. By the end of the century, it could be home to one-third of the human race.

Yet sub-Saharan Africa is taking on another mantle – as the home of monotheism. It will become the "demographic center of Islam," with far more Muslims than the Middle East, Walker says. And in coming decades it will be home to the majority of the world's Christians – some 640 million by 2025 alone.

Demographics continue to pose both warnings and hope for humankind.

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