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.