Demographics and Islamic Destiny

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Niccolo and Donkey
Demographics and Islamic Destiny

Big Questions Online

Rod Dreher

February 8, 2011


There is not one Islam in the world, nor is there a typical Muslim. The Future of the Global Muslim Population, the latest report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, takes a comprehensive look at the demographic profile of global Islam, and reveals data that may upend familiar stereotypes. The report also outlines political, economic, and other challenges facing majority Muslim nations and countries with significant Islamic minorities.

The John Templeton Foundation provided grant support for Pew’s research, through the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. Rod Dreher, the Foundatin’s director of publications, recently spoke to Pew Forum senior researcher Brian J. Grim about the report.

How does the new Pew report help us understand the tumultuous recent events shaking governments in the Arab world?

The Pew-Templeton report estimates the size of Muslim populations around the globe today, and it projects how much they will grow in the coming 20 years. But the report also does much more. In order to explain the basis for the projections, it provides a detailed demographic profile of Muslims in virtually every corner of the world. Instead of portraying a single “Muslim world,” it takes stock of the enormous variations among Muslim-majority countries. These demographic differences are important to bear in mind when looking at the three countries undergoing the biggest street protests. The report shows, for example, that in Tunisia, where the current wave of unrest began, the median age is 29 years — five years above the average for Muslim-majority countries. In comparison, the median age in Egypt is 24, and in Yemen it’s 18 — six years below the average for Muslim-majority countries. Also, among the three countries, the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in U.S. dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) is in Tunisia ($8,000) followed by Egypt ($6,000) and Yemen ($2,500).

Interestingly, the unrest began in the older, relatively richer country — where the middle class is also relatively larger — and then it spread to the younger, relatively less well-off countries. But, at the same time, the unrest is clearly political in nature, and this report does not delve into politics. Social and political attitudes will be explored in much greater depth in the upcoming Pew-Templeton survey of the Muslim world.

When many Americans think of Muslims, they think first and foremost of Arabs. How do the numbers belie that stereotype — and how should that affect the way we think about the Islamic world?

Demographically speaking, Islam is more an Asian religion than it is a Middle Eastern religion. The largest Muslim populations today are in the Asian countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The study projects that in 20 years a majority of the world’s Muslims (about 60 percent) will continue to live in the Asia-Pacific region. The portion of Muslims living in the Middle East and North Africa will also remain steady, at about 20 percent. But the portion of the world’s Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to rise; in 20 years, for example, more Muslims are likely to live in Nigeria than in Egypt, in large part because Nigeria has higher fertility rates.

Why is the global rate of Muslim population growth so much higher — twice as much — than non-Muslim increase?

Several factors account for the faster projected growth among Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide. Generally, Muslim populations tend to have higher fertility rates (more children per woman) than non-Muslim populations. This is true both when we compare Muslim-majority countries with other countries and when we look below the national level, comparing Muslims with the general population in countries for which we have such data, including Canada, China, India, Israel, Nigeria, Russia and the United States. (Notable exceptions include Chad, Tanzania and Uganda, where Muslims have lower fertility rates than non-Muslims.)

In addition, a large share of the global Muslim population is in, or soon will enter, the prime reproductive years (ages 15-29). Also, improved health and economic conditions in Muslim-majority countries have led to greater-than-average declines in infant and child mortality rates, and life expectancy is rising even faster in Muslim-majority countries than in other less-developed countries.

Muslims, however, are facing the same fertility falloff as everybody else around the globe. Why is that happening? Is it happening because of factors within the Islamic religion, or in spite of them?

There are two parts to your question. First of all, you’re right — globally, the Muslim population is growing , but the rate of that growth is slowing . Rather than a runaway train, you can think of it as a decelerating engine. It’s moving in the same direction as the general global population — toward lower fertility — though the deceleration of Muslim population growth is some decades behind the general trend. One of the main factors in declining fertility rates is education, which can be seen by comparing the fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries where females receive the fewest and the most years of schooling. In the eight Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the fewest years of schooling, the average fertility rate (five children per woman) is more than double the rate (2.3 children per woman) in the nine Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the most years of schooling.

The second part of your question, which has to do with the impact of religion on fertility rates, is much tougher. It’s a subject of considerable debate, and we think it’s a fruitful area for further research. But we warn in the report that one should not simply assume, just because fertility tends to be higher in Muslim-majority countries than in other developing countries, that Islamic teachings are the reason. Cultural, social, economic, political, historical and other factors may play equal or greater roles.

For example, many Muslims live in countries with higher-than-average rates of poverty, less-adequate health care, fewer educational opportunities and more-rural populations. All of these conditions are associated with higher fertility rates.Having said that, it’s also true that Islamic authorities in some countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, reinforce cultural norms that limit women’s autonomy — by restricting their educational and career options, for example, or making it difficult for women to initiate a divorce. These restrictions may contribute to higher fertility because, as I just mentioned, there is evidence that Muslim women, like other women around the world, tend to delay marriage — and consequently childbirth — as they attain higher levels of education.

The growth of the Muslim population in non-Muslim majority countries — the U.S., nations of the European Union, and Israel in particular — is bound to affect the political and social situations inside those countries. Broadly speaking, what kind of challenges will both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of these countries face from these demographic changes?

Our study does not address this question directly, but it is safe to make a few general observations. First, in the U.S. and European Union, the growth has been primarily through immigration. But in the decades ahead, Muslims will become less of a first-generation immigrant population — that is, the proportion of Muslims born in the U.S. and European countries will rise.

Second, for minority populations, certain figures can have symbolic importance. Crossing the double-digit mark may, potentially, be one such benchmark. Our study projects that Muslims will be approaching double-digit percentages of the population in several European countries.

In the United Kingdom, for example, Muslims are expected to comprise 8.2 percent of the population in 2030, up from an estimated 4.6 percent today. In Austria, Muslims are projected to reach 9.3 percent of the population in 2030, up from 5.7 percent today; in Sweden, 9.9 percent (up from 4.9 percent today); in Belgium, 10.2 percent (up from 6.0 percent today); and in France, 10.3 pecent (up from 7.5 percent today).

In the United States, Muslims make up a much smaller share of the total population. But we project that if current trends continue, Muslims will comprise 1.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2030, which is approximately the same portion that Episcopalians, Jews or Mormons represent today. In Israel — including all of Jerusalem but not the West Bank or Gaza — we project that Muslims will make up nearly one-in-four Israelis in 2030 (23.2 percent).

Though you project the Muslim growth rate in Europe to be significant, the numbers are nowhere near large enough to support claims that the continent will become Muslim, or Muslim-dominated, anytime soon. Is that prospect overblown?

There has been a lot of speculation about the growth of the Muslim population around the world, and many of those who speculate do so without careful attention to demographic data. The data that we have do not point in the direction of what some call “Eurabia” scenarios, in which Muslims dominate Europe numerically. Indeed, by 2030 we project that Muslims will make up just 8 percent of Europe’s overall population, up from 6 percent today.

What role do conversions have in growing the Islamic population?

Without a doubt, people convert to Islam. But don’t forget that some also switch from Islam to other religions or into the unaffiliated category. Unfortunately, at present, reliable statistical data on conversion to and from Islam are scarce. What little information is available suggests that there is no substantial net gain or loss in the number of Muslims through conversion globally; the number of people who become Muslims through conversion seems to be roughly equal to the number of Muslims who leave the faith. Historically, that’s another question. But we have no hard data that show conversion is having a substantial impact on Muslim populations today. In a large survey we conducted in 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2009, for example, the number of people who identified themselves as Muslim was roughly equal to the number who said they were raised Muslim in almost every country.

According to Pew’s projections, by 2030, Muslims will make up about 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, putting them on par with where Jews and Episcopalians are today. But both Jews and Episcopalians have cultural influence disproportionate to their tiny numbers. What changes will American Muslims, as well as American society and culture, have to undergo if U.S. Muslims are to have more influence? Are there lessons for Muslims from the Jewish and Episcopalian experience?

As a non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take stands on policy debates — and that includes issues such as how much influence religious groups should have in the United States.
But we do have some factual information on the Muslim population of the United States from our 2007 report, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream , as well as from this new demographic study. We estimate, for example, that about two-thirds (64.5 percent) of U.S. Muslims today are foreign-born. But by 2030, more than four-in-ten (44.9 percent) will be U.S.-born. In addition, Muslims in the U.S. are quite ethnically and racially diverse. We know from the 2007 study — based on a very large survey that the Pew Research Center conducted in English, Arabic, Urdu and Farsi — that no more than about 8 percent of all U.S. Muslims come from any one foreign country. About four-in-ten (38 percent) are white, about a quarter (26 percent) are black, a fifth (20 percent) are Asian and the rest (16 percent) describe themselves as mixed or other.

In addition, education and income levels among U.S. Muslims are roughly comparable with those of the U.S. population as a whole. That’s a rather different picture than in some European countries, such as France, Germany, Great Britain and Spain, where Muslims are much less affluent than the general population. All this points to the [rising] influence of the Muslim community in the United States in the years ahead.