Many countries in the Muslim world, including Iran, are also in demographic freefall.
David P. Goldman, who blogs at the Asia Times as “Spengler,” has written an insightful book challenging the truisms of the commentariat on both the rise of Islam and the decline of the West: How Civilizations Die: (and why Islam is dying too)
History buffs will recognize that the pen name Spengler honours Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), author of Decline of the West. Goldman’s initial observations about the decline are most helpful but not unprecedented. From a much less religion-friendly perspective, American demographer Phillip Longman has been saying the same thing, and so has Canadian demographer David Foot.
It is what Goldman says about Islam that will surprise many readers: Islam is dying too because the Muslim birth rate - according to reliable statistics - has crashed. How badly?
Across the entire Muslim world, university-educated Muslim women bear children at the same rate as their infecund European counterparts.
Whatever they believe about Islam, they have one or two children, but rarely three or four. Not enough to deliver their societies from demographic collapse, given the size of the families they came from. For example,
The average young Tunisian woman - like her Iranian or Turkish counterpart - grew up in a family of seven children, but will bear only one or two herself.
Education for women doesn’t in itself cause birth dearth, but abandonment of the land does. Muslims are not immune from the urbanization that turns children who were once a source of wealth into a major cost centre. Increasing numbers of people, there as here, hope that others will undertake the trouble.
But surely some Muslims have large families? Those who do live in areas that are considered backward, and they cannot indefinitely prop up an unsustainably low urban birth rate. But because demographic decline happened so quickly in Muslim societies, the Western problem of too few young people supporting too many seniors will be much more severe, especially in countries with few natural resources, like Turkey.
One might ask, why can’t Islamism reverse the decline by demanding that urban women do their duty? A look at Iran, Goldman says, reveals a related crisis of effective faith. For example, according to a suppressed report, more than 90 percent of Tehran prostitutes are said to have passed the university entrance exam, and 30 percent of them are studying. Their career choice is, they say, voluntary. Drug abuse among students is rampant, fuelled by cheap opium from neighbouring Afghanistan. The Islamist could exemplarily punish a few prostitutes or drug addicts - but thousands?
More generally, when modernization comes quickly, without warning, and from elsewhere, a declining birth rate can be accompanied by worse, not better, conditions for modern women. In Turkey, for example, only 22 percent of women sought employment outside the home in 2009, down from 34 percent in 1988 - despite their intervening fertility crash. About this, Goldman observes, “If we are surprised by Muslim demographics, it is because we have not listened carefully enough to what Muslims themselves have been trying to tell us.” Islamism is more of a last stand for many than a resurgent force, hence the glamour of suicide. If all this is correct, demographic collapse will increase rather than decrease the risk of terrorism, because “there is no such thing as rational self-interest for people who believe they have nothing to lose.”
Those inclined to dismiss Goldman’s contrarian analysis might point out that if there are few young people for the Islamist to recruit, there will be few suicide terrorists. Not necessarily; a culture’s suicidal resistance often increases at precisely the point where a huge conflict is irretrievably lost. This was true of the South in the closing days of the Civil War, and of Germany and Japan in World War II, for example. Many won’t be trying to win, only to inflict damage on the victor.
Compounding the problem is that Islam is - at present - much less well-adapted to political systems that produce stability in a modern environment. The rule of life among Islamists is authoritarianism in every facet of life. Authoritarianism results in either accepted oppression or revolt, but not the consensual stability that a modern society needs. And imams provide little guidance as to how to get there, because many see the very behaviours that hamper progress as ordained by Allah. For these reasons, Goldman thinks, the threat to the West from Islamism is generally overrated; internal demographic collapse is a much more serious threat. No civilization has ever survived a situation in which a small number of young adults must support a large number of retirees as well as raise children to support them.
Interestingly, he think that the United States has a much better chance of surviving the collapse than Europe or the Muslim world, for reasons we will explore in Part II next week.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.