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

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?