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What's in a name? In Germany, if that name is "Mohammed," the answer is: a political powder keg — and one that the far-right AfD was quick to get its hands on. But what does the uproar about the name actually reveal?
On Thursday, the Society for the German Language (GfdS), a politically independent organization dedicated to cultivating and studying the German language, released its annual study of Germany's most popular baby names.
Harnessing data from over 700 civil registries across Germany, the report determined that the most popular names in Germany in 2018 overall were "Marie/Mari" for girls and "Paul" for boys. The ranking takes into account all given names.
The normally innocuous report, however, quickly became fodder for political mudslinging and false news reports — all because 280 of 22,000 newborn boys in Berlin were given one of at least 25 iterations of the first given name "Mohammed."
Berlin's Tagesspiegel daily newspaper summed up the report as "Mohammed is more popular than Karl-Heinz," while British tabloid The Daily Mail pointed out that "Mohammed was in the 10 most popular boy names in six of Germany's 16 states," without putting the results into context.
Alice Weidel, parliamentary co-leader for the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), currently the country's third-largest party, was quick to use Twitter to repost an article about the study from German tabloid Bild.
"Well I never! Last year the most commonly chosen first name in Berlin for male newborns was Mohammed … a rising trend," she wrote.
The Berlin chapter of the AfD was less cryptic, posting a graphic over its Twitter account about the study that depicted a woman wearing a headscarf teaching a classroom full of students. "Stop Islamization: Only with the AfD!" it read.
Sawsan Chebli, a German politician in Berlin for the center-left Social Democrats who is of Palestinian descent, posted a personal rebuttal directly aimed at the AfD: "My father is named Mohammed. I am named Sawsan Mohammed Chebli. My oldest nephew is named Mohammed ... We'll make sure that the name Mohammed never disappears!" Twitter temporarily suspended her account for triggering algorithms meant to prevent electoral manipulation.
The GfdS report failed to provide much-needed context to its results, Gabriele Rodriguez, who researches family nomenclature at the University of Leipzig, told DW. This lack of clarity combined with a society sensitive to its changing demographics and mired in political debate over migration and refugee issues led to the groundswell of misinformation.
It's partly true that "Mohammed" has ascended the ranks of baby names due to growing immigrant communities in Germany. But it's also because it's tradition that families from the Arab world name at least one of their children after the Prophet Mohammed.
"There is not a large pool of names to choose from, as is the case with German families," she said, pointing out that over half of all baby names registered in any given year in Germany are unique, and that the most popular baby names are at most between 2% and 3% of all newborns.
And while most baby names have only a few different variations, there are at least 25 of the name "Mohammed." Moreover, it is often a first given name, causing it to occur with more frequency than other names in that category. The most popular name for boys in Berlin when all given names were taken into consideration was Alexander.
The GfdS study ranked Mohammed the 24th most popular name in Germany when second and third names were also taken into account.
The report's methods were also not entirely fleshed out, said Rodriguez, making it difficult for the public to draw informed conclusions.
Until 2017's report, all first given names, regardless of order, were grouped together to determine the most popular. Over the past two years, however, the GfdS has begun to publish two separate lists together: The most popular overall baby names, including second and third given names, and the most common first given name on a birth certificate.
Without explaining the new methods for determining popularity, or giving absolute numbers for any given name, it's to be expected that the public would get confused, Rodriguez said.
"We also realized that the results are perhaps a bit confusing," Frauke Rüdebusch, a researcher with the GfdS, told DW. "But through the list of first given names, there is now another aspect of comparability that we didn't have before. Both lists are important for us … but [we] will be careful to ensure greater transparency and distinctness between the two."
That the once innocent report got taken so out of context also speaks to Germans' fears of a changing society, said Rodriguez.
"Most new baby names in Germany are from abroad and are considered to be exotic — German ears need a bit of time to adjust," she said. "That's no problem in urban enclaves, but elsewhere people see that as a problem and feel threatened, even though in villages, where the problem is most pronounced, there are very few foreigners."
"This isn't just the case for first names — it has everything at the moment to do with foreigners," she added. "This is just feeding into the AfD, which has the express goal of creating fear about such things so that they can sustain themselves."
Researcher Rodriguez said the strong misinformed reaction to the name study had to do with German worries about migration, which the AfD is trying to capitalize on