Crisis of faith in the Muslim worldPART 1: Statistical evidenceGiven the prominence of what Westerners call "Islamic fundamentalism", it seems odd to speak of a crisis of faith in the Islamic world. Several authors, including George Weigel  and Phillip Longman , support my contention that death of religious faith in Western Europe underlies its demographic decline. In slower motion, Islam faces a crisis of faith that will bring about a demographic catastrophe in the middle of the present century. I have called attention to the disturbing demographics of Islam in the past (The demographics of radical Islam, August 23), and here will offer evidence that the source of its demographic troubles is to be found in a failure of faith.
Striking statistical evidence supports this conclusion, which I shall present below. A wide range of fertility rates characterizes the Islamic world. Most of the variation in fertility can be explained by a single factor, namely, literacy: as Muslims (and especially Muslim women) learn to read, they drift away from traditional faith. The birthrate drops in consequence.
Radical Islam should be interpreted as a cry of despair in the face of the ineluctable decline of Islamic society. Read carefully, the leading Islamists say precisely this. At the close of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe, and its former territories today comprise the incurables ward of geopolitics. From this vantage point, America's attempt to foist its own form of democracy on the Islamic world seems delusional.
As I have reported before, the demographic position of the Islamic world has set a catastrophe in motion. It is hard enough for rich nations to care for a growing elderly population, but impossible for poor nations to do so. Iran, along with most of the Muslim world, faces a population bust that will raise the proportion of dependent elderly in the population to 28% in 2050, from just 7% today.
If America faces discomfort, and Europe faces crisis, Muslim countries face breakdown. America now has a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of US$40,000 and a diversified economy. Iran has a per capita GDP of just $7,000 and depends on oil exports for the state subsidies that keep its population fed and clothed - and Iran will no longer be able to export oil after 2020, according to some estimates.
America can ameliorate the impact of an aging population by raising productivity (so that fewer workers produce more GDP), attracting more skilled immigrants (and increasing its tax base), and, in the worst of all cases, tightening its belt. American life will not come to an end if more people drive compact cars instead of SUVs, or go camping for vacation instead of to Disney World. But the Islamic world is so poor that any reduction in living standards from present levels will cause social breakdown.
In 2002, the United Nations' Arab Development Report offered a widely-quoted summation of the misery of the present position of the Arab World, noting:
Negotiating the demographic decline of the 21st century will be treacherous for countries that have proven their capacity to innovate and grow. For the Islamic world, it will be impossible. That is the root cause of Islamic radicalism, and there is nothing that the West can do to change it.
Among the Muslim states, Iran has seen the future most clearly, and drawn terrible conclusions. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad understands that life as Iranians know it is coming to an end, and has proposed drastic measures commensurate with the need.
In a program made public on August 15, Iran's new president proposed a pre-emptive response to the inevitable depopulation of rural Iran. He plans to reduce the number of villages from 66,000 to only 10,000, relocating 30 million Iranians out of a population of 70 million. In relative terms, that would be the biggest population transfer in history, dwarfing Joseph Stalin's collectivization campaign of the late 1920s.
A generation hence, Iran will not have the resources to provide infrastructure for more than 50,000 rural villages inhabited mainly by elderly and infirm peasants. In response, Iran will undertake the biggest exercise in social engineering in recorded history, excepting perhaps Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
America's fertility rate - the average number of children per woman - has stabilized at just around the replacement level. That is why America's elderly dependency ratio will stabilize around 2030. But the fertility rate of the Muslim world is falling much faster.
In the case of Iran, Algeria and many other Muslim countries, the fertility rate in 2050 is expected to fall below two children per woman. Replacement is 2.1. Even Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Islamic conservatism, will show a fertility rate below the replacement level, according to UN projections. I think the UN estimates err on the high side. Modernization is likely to push fertility down further than the demographers now calculate.
What is killing the fertility rate in the Muslim world? There really is no such thing as a "Muslim" fertility rate, but rather a wide spectrum of fertility rates that express different degrees of modernization. Where traditional conditions prevail, characterized by high rates of illiteracy (and especially female illiteracy) the fertility rate remains at the top of the world's rankings.
But where the modern world encroaches, fertility rates are plummeting to levels comparable to the industrial world. No single measure of modernization captures this transformation, but the literacy rate alone explains most of the difference in fertility rates among Muslim countries. Among the 34 largest Arab countries, just one factor, namely the difference in literacy rates, explains 60% of the difference in the population growth rate in 2005.
The population of Somalia, where only a quarter of adults can read, is growing at an enormous 4% per year. At that rate, the number of Somalis will double in just 18 years. But in Algeria, where 62% of adults can read, the population growth rate is only 1.4% per year. At that rate it would take 50 years for the population to double. Qatar, with a literacy rate close to 80%, has a population growth rate of just 1.2%.
 See here.
 The Empty Cradle, by Phillip Longman (Basic Books: New York, 2004). See my review in ATol, Faith, fertility and American dominance.