In all the coverage of the barbaric terror attacks in Paris Wednesday, one fact of the story kept getting repeated in a curious way on network news, cable news, and in most mainstream publications. They kept saying, “Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Do you see it? You probably have become so used to it you don’t even notice anymore. But it’s strange, isn’t it?
Why on earth do the news media continue to proclaim Muhammad as a prophet? Isn’t “prophet,” in this context, a subjective modifier? Words are important, and the word “prophet” means something very specific.
The Prophetic Nature of Muhammad Is Not A Universal Truth
When the media calls Muhammad a “prophet” they are imparting to him a title that is not based in fact but is a matter of faith. To call Muhammad a “prophet,” don’t you have to believe he was divinely inspired? It is arguable that Muhammad’s status as a prophet is not an objective fact. And the media is supposed to deal in facts, whenever possible (climate change reporting notwithstanding.)
To be sure, if a reporter is Muslim, it would make sense, I suppose, to refer to Muhammad as “The Prophet Muhammad” because he personally believes that Muhammad was an inspired messenger from God. However, in our secular media, it would still be inappropriate.
Can you imagine MSNBC’s Chris Hayes referring to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons by saying, “When I first heard about the murders at the magazine’s office, I remembered the controversy nearly ten years ago over Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.” Of course not! (By the way, the preceding is an exact quote of Hayes last night except for the addition of “peace be upon him.”)
I’m sure many American journalists are Christians, but when reporting a story that involved Jesus Christ it wouldn’t be proper to refer to him as “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” or “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.” Surely when an American journalist reports on cartoon images of “the Prophet Muhammad” he is not proclaiming his belief that Muhammad was, in fact, a prophet. So why do they do it?
Let’s Ask the Associated Press
Two years ago, Joel Engel at Legal Insurrection wrote about the Associated Press’s use of the term. He opined that “the Prophet Muhammad” had made its way into the legendary AP stylebook and the AP flatly denied it:
AP Stylebook entry is as follows:
Muhammad The chief prophet and central figure of the Islamic 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.
Prophet Muhammad is italicized in the entry showing that AP would capitalize the P before name. It does not mean “Prophet” should always be used before the name.
So if this is the case, why do reporters continue to do it?
To be clear, I am not suggesting that this is some conspiratorial “creeping Shariah” infecting American newsrooms. In fact, I think the reason behind this is the same deadly combination that infects most everything that Americans loathe about our mainstream media: It’s insipid political correctness mixed with intellectual laziness.
Someone, somewhere started using the term “the Prophet Muhammad” because they wanted to sound more inclusive, sensitive, and informed. Others heard it and started a sort of chain-reaction copy-paste that often happens in the media. Suddenly everyone was talking the same way and using the same phrases and none of them really pay attention to what they are saying.
Here’s the deal: Muhammad is a “prophet” if you believe in Islam. If you do not, then he is not a “prophet,” he is just an historical figure. Members of the media should not be obliged to label him a prophet in the same way they are not obliged to call Jesus the “Savior,” Mary the “Blessed Virgin,” or Abraham, Moses, or Samuel “prophets.”
But they’ll continue to assign the title to Muhammad. And none of them really know why.