The demographics of radical Islam

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-Aug-05 | Author: Spengler| Source: Asia Times

General staffs before World War I began war planning with demographic tables, calculating how many men of military age they might feed to the machine guns. France preferred an early war because its stagnant population would not produce enough soldiers a generation hence to fight Germany. Only Israel’s general staff looks at demographic tables today, to draw prospective boundaries that will enclose a future Jewish majority.

Demographics still provide vital strategic information, albeit in quite a different fashion. Today’s Islamists think like the French general staff in 1914. Islam has one generation in which to establish a global theocracy before hitting a demographic barrier. Islam has enough young men - the pool of unemployed Arabs is expected to reach 25 million by 2010 - to fight a war during the next 30 years. Because of mass migration to Western Europe, the worst of the war might be fought on European soil.

Although the Muslim birth rate today is the world’s second highest (after sub-Saharan Africa), it is falling faster than the birth rate of any other culture. By 2050, according to the latest UN projections, the population growth rate of the Muslim world will converge on that of the United States (although it will be much higher than Europe's or China's).

Falling fertility measures the growing influence of modernity upon the Muslim world. Literacy rates, especially female literacy, best explain the difference between the very high fertility rates of pre-modern society and the moderate fertility rates of industrial countries, as I showed in a recent study (Death by secularism: The statistical evidence, August 1, 2005).

This is clearly the case in the Muslim world where the lowest rates of adult literacy correspond to the highest population growth rate. Literacy alone explains 58% of the variation in birth rates among Muslim countries.

Urbanization, literacy, and openness to the modern world ultimately will suppress the Muslim womb, in the absence of radical measures. In a new volume of essays on modern Islamic thought, the Islamists Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer M Nafi observe, “Rather than being a development within cultural traditions that is internally generated, 20th century Islamic thought is constitutively responsive; it is substantially a reaction to extrinsic challenges.” [1] The challenge stems from the transformation of Muslim life:
In the Middle East of 1900, for example, less than 10% of the inhabitants were city dwellers; by 1980, 47% were urban. In 1800, Cairo had a population of 250,000, rising to 600,000 by the beginning of the 20th century. The unprecedented influx of immigrants from rural areas brought the population of Cairo to almost 8 million by 1980. Massive urbanization altered patterns of living, of housing and architecture, of the human relation with space and land, of marketing, employment, and consumption, and the very structure of family and social hierarchy. [2]
The sharp fall in the Muslim population growth rate expresses the extreme fragility of traditional society. Translated into the Islamist vocabulary (citing again Taji-Farouki and Nafi), this means that:
A Muslim sense of vulnerability and outrage is further exacerbated by the seemingly unstoppable encroachment of American popular culture and modes of consumerism and the transparent hypocrisy of the American rhetoric of universal rights and liberties. It is also stoked by Western ambivalence towards economic disparities in the world. [3]
Rapid urbanization, to be sure, produced growing pains in every case on record. Britain transported its displaced population to America and then to Australia, including the “clearing” of entire Scots villages forced onto ships for Canada. But Britain’s urbanization coincided with rapid economic growth and improving living standards. The Arab world’s urbanization has only created a stagnant pool of urban poor. As the London Economist summarized in the United Nations Arab Development Report for 2002:
One in five Arabs still live on less than $2 a day. And over the past 20 years growth in income per head, at an annual rate of .5%, was lower than anywhere else in the world except sub-Saharan Africa. At this rate, says the report, it will take the average Arab 140 years to double his income, a target that some regions are set to reach in less than 10 years. Stagnant growth, together with a fast-rising population, means vanishing jobs. About 12 million people, or 15% of the labor force, are already unemployed, and on present trends the number could rise to 25 million by 2010. [4]

Excluding Indonesia, the Muslim’s world literacy rate stands at only 53%, against 81% for China; Arab literacy is only 50%. Only 1% of the population owns a personal computer. It is delusional to believe that the Arab world, which now exports (net of oil) as much as Finland, might come to compete with China, India and the rest of Asia in the global market for goods and services.

Just as the Muslim population peaks, the one bounty that nature has bestowed upon the Arabs, namely oil, will begin to diminish. According to the US Department of Energy, conventional oil production will peak just before 2050 at the present 2% rate of production growth.

In short, the Muslim world half a century from now can expect the short end of the stick from the modern world. It has generated only two great surpluses, namely people and oil. By the middle of the century both of these will have begun to dwindle. But at the moment it has 25 million idle young men. No leader can remain in power who does not give them a destination to march to.

By no means does that imply that all of these 25 million will become suicide bombers, but a great many of them are likely to emigrate to Europe, including Eastern Europe, where populations are stagnant and about to decline. A Muslim takeover of Western Europe surely is a possible outcome.

[1] Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer M. Nafi, Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (Tauris: London 2004), p 9
[2] Ibid, p 2
[3] Op cit, p 14
[4] Economist, July 4, 2002