Fertility, Faith, and the Decline of Islam: Strategic Implications

The liberal establishment has finally taken note of the elephant in the Muslim parlor, namely the closing of the Muslim womb. A year after the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt reported the precipitous fall in Muslim fertility in a widely commented paper, and seven years after I reported the trend and its strategic implications at Asia Times, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reports wide-eyed on Eberstadt’s findings:

The Arab world may be experiencing a youth bulge now, fueling popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. But as Eberstadt notes, what’s ahead over the next generation will probably be declines in the number of working-age adults and rapidly aging populations. The Arab countries are now struggling with what Eberstadt calls their “youthquake.” But the coming dilemma, he notes, is “how these societies will meet the needs of their graying populations on relatively low income levels.”

Why does Ignatius suddenly find this important? Perhaps the frustration of the establishment’s hopes for the Arab world in the form of state failure in Syria and Egypt and Libya (and perhaps also Tunisia) has provoked an interest in deeper causes. Both the liberal establishment as well as the Republican mainstream embraced the Arab Spring, but now recoil in horror from the consequences.

The evidence has been there for years in the United Nations database. In September 2006 I warned that the Muslim world was heading towards a demographic catastrophe.

By 2050, elderly dependents will comprise nearly a third of the population of some Muslim nations, notably Iran — converging on America’s dependency ratio at mid-century. But it is one thing to face such a problem with America’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $40,000, and quite another to face it with Iran’s per capita GDP of $7,000 — especially given that Iran will stop exporting oil before the population crisis hits. The industrial nations face the prospective failure of their pension systems. But what will happen to countries that have no pension system, where traditional society assumes the care of the aged and infirm? In these cases it is traditional society that will break down, horribly and irretrievably so.

My 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) assembled evidence that the decline of Islam as a religion explained collapsing fertility, just as the decline of Catholicism explained collapsing fertility in lands once blessed by large families — Spain, Italy, Poland, Ireland, and Quebec. Iran’s total fertility rate plunged to an estimated 1.6% in 2010, barely above Europe’s rate of 1.5 children per female. In 1979, when the Islamists took power in Iran, the average woman bore seven children. Nothing like this sudden snapping shut of the national womb has ever happened before in all of history. And the rest of the Muslim world is headed in the same direction.

“Something really big is under way — and practically no one has noticed it, even in the Arab world,” Ignatius quotes an e-mail from Eberstadt, one of the best conservative economists working today. But I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that “practically no one has noticed it.” On the contrary, Islamist leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been shouting from the rooftops about the trend for the past five years, as my book reports. Excluding the independence-hungry Kurdish minority, Turkey’s fertility rate is probably around 1.5 children per female, about the same as Iran’s, and a guarantee of national decline.

Faith and fertility are linked inextricably. Liberal demographers like Phillip Longman (in The Empty Cradle, 2004) and Eric Kaufmann (Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 2010) made the case forcefully. Sociologist Mary Eberstadt, Nicholas’ wife, wrote a brilliant essay on the subject in 2007 at Policy Review. As noted, I made this argument in 2006. Sociologist Philip Jenkins noticed Iran’s demographic freefall in 2007, but drew the wrong conclusions.

Iran may be one of the world’s most secular countries; some reports put mosque attendance in the Islamic Republic at just 2%, lower than Church of England attendance. When the odious Islamist regime falls at length, we probably will find that there are as few Muslims in Iran as there were Communists in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like other religions rooted in traditional society, for example the nationalist-Catholic faith that Europeans abandoned after the two world wars, Islam cannot abide the onset of modernity. Some forms of religion can flourish in modernity; Islam is not one of them.

The variable that best predicts fertility across all Muslim countries is education: as soon as women become literate, they stop having children. That is a hallmark of a faith that melts away in the harsh light of modernity.

It is well that David Ignatius has noticed what Phillips, Kaufmann, Eberstadt, and I (not to mention Ahmadinejad and Erdogan) have noticed for years: Muslim civilization is in catastrophic decline. It is passing from infancy to senescence without ever reaching maturity. Iran has one last bulge generation of military age men, born before the fertility collapse got underway. It perceives one last historic opportunity to achieve Shi’ite dominance. It won’t have another.

It is too much to hope that the establishment will draw the appropriate strategic conclusions from this “mysterious” trend, as Ignatius obtusely characterizes it.

The point of my 2006 studies in Iran’s demographics was not academic: I argued that a demographic cataclysm helped explained the apocalyptic mindset of the Iranian leadership, which felt that it had nothing to lose by betting everything on a Shi’ite resurgence under the umbrella of nuclear.

But it does not seem likely that the foreign policy establishment, once having noticed the demographic elephant in the parlor, will draw the obvious inference: a society that suddenly stops having children suffers from cultural despair. The same cultural despair that curtains off the future for families afflicts policymakers. Cultural pessimism is a great motivation for strategic adventures. A nation that fears that it may have no future may be willing to risk everything on the roll of a dice. Iran has one last big generation of military age men, the ones who were born in the early 1980s before the great weapons. Nothing but the use of force would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with dreadful consequences. With Iran on the verge of building a nuclear bomb, we have hit crunch-time. Will the foreign policy establishment connect the dots in time?