The Myth Of Soaring Muslim Fertility Rates

It is considered common wisdom among Western analysts that Muslim countries are plagued with large families and ever-swelling masses of young people are a threat to stability. Only problem is all the hard evidence to the contrary.

Lebanon has a birth rate of 1.6 children per woman (CMC)
Lebanon has a birth rate of 1.6 children per woman (CMC)
Anna Lietti

This story starts with a myth. It is the myth that the Muslim world is uniformly dedicated to making many (too many) babies, and that this has gone on for centuries.

This mythology also has its very own Bible: "Factors Affecting Muslim Natality," by Dudley Kirk, an American professor of Population Studies. Published in 1965, this study embodied, scientifically speaking, the notion of a demography unique to Muslim countries that won't transition to a family model with two children, as it did in the Western world.

Kirk's theories have influenced this debate in a lasting way. Thirty years later, they were still inspiring Samuel Huntington in his work "The Clash of Civilizations," where he presents his theory of an eternal conflict between the West and Islam. The demographic threat plays a central role in his thesis.

However, today Kirk's point of view has been spectacularly disproved by science. In recent decades, the Muslim world has experienced a demographic transition that was as acute as it was late: in 30 years, the number of children per woman has dropped by more than 50%. In Iran, the drop represents 75%; in North Africa it is 70%. Once you realize that it took Europe two centuries to go from 5 to 2 children per woman, you can appreciate the severity of this collapse in birth rates.

These numbers are known, but not absorbed within the public discourse. In late 2011, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank close the Republican party, published a study on the declining fertility rates in the Muslim world, describing the phenomena as "strangely unnoticed." On March 12, an editorial in the New York Times picked up, again, the "scoop:" that the crowd of "hundreds of millions of young people with little to do" is destined to dry up. The West will not be overwhelmed after all.

Youssef Courbage, Arab world specialist at the Institut national d"études démographiques (INED) in Paris, scoffs: "These people are inventing the wheel! We have been documenting the phenomena for a quarter century now. Especially in North Africa, which has been a trailblazer in the demographic transitions among Arab countries." Today, many countries have dropped well below the population replacement rate: in Lebanon, there are 1.6 children per woman. That is slightly more than Switzerland (1.49), but less than France (2.02).

A worldwide phenomenon

But the Muslim world is not limited to the Middle East and North Africa. It includes countries like Niger (7 children per woman) and Bosnia (1.3), each at different extremes of the fertility spectrum. In addition, the late and brutal demographic transition is not unique to Muslim countries: Vietnam, Brazil and Thailand have had similar changes. We should really ask ourselves whether there is any sense at all in talking about fertility rates in "Muslim counties?"

For Courbage, who is French-Lebanese, the answer is clearly no, unless it is to "deconstruct the cliché."

"Of the three major monotheistic religions, all of which encourage fertility, Islam is the one that encourages procreation the least," he explains. The factor that explains different fertility rates around the world continues to be, not religion, but education levels. In addition, there are other political and sociological factors that differ from country to country, and which the examples below illustrate.

In short, a demographic Homo Islamicus does not exist. And instead of clashing civilizations, the world is headed towards demographic convergence. That, at least, is the thesis advanced by Courbage in a book he wrote with three others in response to Huntington.

The future? In all countries - although to different degrees and at different rates - fertility rates are dropping. At what rate will they stabilize, if they stabilize? Most developed countries flutter around the replacement rate (2.1). Is humanity fated to converge around 2.1 children per woman?

Iran: the Mullah's Little Pills

If there is one example that totally disproves the idea of a cultural link between Islam and high fertility, it is Iran. Under the secular Shah, Iranian women had an average of seven children each. Today, they no longer have the right to walk around without a veil but they have fewer children (1.8) than French women.

The collapse did, in fact, start with the arrival of the Mullahs in the beginning of the 1980s. The Mullahs decided on a "pragmatic" policy, explains Youssef Courbage. Contraception, which had been practiced traditionally in the form of the withdrawal method, was "strongly encouraged and abortions tolerated."

Iranian women are also generally very well educated and extremely active in the professional world, including in supervisory roles. Taken together, that means they think twice before having children. And that reexamination of the "traditional" family might be an omen for the country's future. "As a demographer, I wouldn't put money on the Iranian regime's survival. I don't know when it will be, but a new revolution is inevitable."

Israel and Palestine: the fertility of conflict

Behind the supposed religious reasons for fertility, there is often a political motor, like the "cradle war" in the Middle East.

Until the second Intifada, Palestinians had a very high fertility rate in spite of having one of the highest education and urbanization levels in the Arab world. You could say they had a "combat" fertility, since it is true that Yasser Arafat asked families to have 12 children: "two for themselves and 10 for the struggle." During the first Intifada, fertility in the Gaza strip increased to a peak of 8.76 children per woman.

But after the second Intifada, things changed, and the pro-fertility propaganda stopped having any effect on Palestinian women. At the same time fertility rates were rising among Jewish women in Israel, who were also actively encouraged to procreate. In 2005, for the first time the fertility among Palestinian women in East Jerusalem (3.94) dropped below the fertility rate for Jewish women (3.95). Today, the birthrate among Palestinian women in the West Bank is 3.8, in Gaza it is 4.9 and among Jewish Israelis it is 3, while in the Jewish colonies in the West Bank the fertility rate approaches 6 children per woman.

Courbage explains that these changes are due to the increased poverty among Palestinians, especially since the second Intifada as well as to changes in mentality. "Palestinian women are becoming more individualistic, while we have seen an increasingly family-centered ideology among Israeli Jews," Courbage says.

North Africa: the Demographic Spring?

After a brutal, and unexpected, drop in the 1980s, we expected to see the fertility rate in North Africa drop under the replacement rate. But here we have a "new surprise," write Zahia Ouadah-Bedidi, Jacques Vallin and Ibtihel Bouchoucha in a recent article: Not only have none of the North African countries dropped below the replacement rate, but in Algeria the fertility rate has risen from 2.2 to 2.9 in 10 years, while in neighboring Tunisia it has stabilized around the ideal rate of 2.1. And even if, in Morocco and Libya fertility rates continue to drop, the study's authors suggest that the region may have a "unique demographic transition pattern."

What makes these countries unique, they clarify, is that the reduction in the number of children has been largely supported by an increase in the median age for marriage. The average Libyan woman marries at 33, while in Tunisia and Algeria women get married, on average, at 30. These trends, according to Zahia Ouadah-Bedidi, are the result of the convergence of "new aspirations' among women and "material constraints' that prevent young couples from moving in together.

Will the Arab Spring push young people to break the taboo of sex outside of marriage? Or will it have the opposite effect, as an Islamic revival pushes women back inside the kitchen? An increase in veiled heads and beards on the streets can go hand-in-hand with increasing secularization of minds, Youssef Courbage says. He does not believe in the "North African exception," and expects the countries in the region to follow the Southern European model.

There are clearly differences in birth rates between regions and individual countries, but they can be attributed to many factors. What is certain, though, is that a "muslim fertility rate" does not exist.

Read more in Le Temps.

Photo - CMC

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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