Waning crescent: Slipping birth rates in the Muslim world

Article Highlights

  • All Muslim majority countries/territories for which data are available saw fertility decline in the past 3 decades.

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  • 4 of the 10 greatest fertility declines ever recorded in a twenty-year period took place in the Arab world.

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  • The critical determinant of actual fertility levels in Muslim & non-Muslim societies is attitudinal and volitional.

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There remains a widely perceived notion - still commonly held within intellectual, academic, and policy circles in the West and elsewhere - that "Muslim" societies are especially resistant to embarking upon the path of demographic and familial change that has transformed population profiles in Europe, North America, and other "more developed" areas (as UN terminology would have it). But such notions speak to a bygone era; they are utterly uninformed by the important new demographic realities that reflect today's life patterns within the Arab world, and the greater Islamic world as well.

Throughout the Ummah, or worldwide community of followers of Islam, fertility levels are falling dramatically, and traditional marriage patterns and living arrangements are undergoing tremendous change. Indeed, this "quiet revolution" is already evident at the national and subnational levels for most of the world's Muslim-majority societies. My colleague Apoorva Shah and I detail this remarkable, and still strangely overlooked revolution in a recent study for the American Enterprise Institute, from which the findings in this essay are drawn.

Along with the US Census Bureau, the United Nations Population Division (unpd) stands today as the authoritative "go-to" international source for worldwide demographic data. According to unpd's estimates and projections, all Muslim majority countries and territories for which data are available (48 out of 49 such spots on the map) witnessed fertility decline over the past three decades.

To be sure: for some high- or extremely high- fertility venues in sub-Saharan Africa, where six, seven, or even eight births per woman were typical a generation ago, intervening declines are believed to have been marginal (think of Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia, and Niger). In some other places, where a fertility transition had already brought childbearing down to about  three births per woman by the late 1970s, subsequent absolute declines also appear to have been somewhat limited (think of Kazakhstan). In most of the rest of the Muslim-majority countries and territories, however, significant or dramatic reductions in fertility have been registered - and in many of these places, the drops in question have been truly extraordinary."In most of the rest of the Muslim-majority countries and territories, however, significant or dramatic reductions in fertility have been registered - and in many of these places, the drops in question have been truly extraordinary." -Nicholas Eberstadt

Six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period recorded in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, the four largest of these absolute declines all happened in Muslim majority countries - each of these entailing a decline of over 4.5 births per woman in just twenty years. (The world record-breaker here, Oman, is estimated to have seen its total fertility rates (tfr) fall by over 5.3 births per woman over just the last two decades; a drop of over 2.6 births per woman per decade!) Notably, four of the ten greatest fertility declines ever recorded in a twenty-year period took place in the Arab world (Algeria, Libya, Kuwait, and Oman); adding Iran, we see that five of the "top ten" unfolded in the greater Middle East. No other region of the world - not highly dynamic Southeast Asia, or even rapidly modernizing East Asia - comes close to this showing.

A separate but largely congruent reading can be drawn from these same unpd data, ranking the "top ten" historical fertility declines during any twenty-year period by country in terms of proportional rather than absolute drops in tfrs. By this metric, "only" four of the top ten fertility drops to date have occurred in Muslim-majority countries - and "only" two of the top four were Muslim majority areas (Iran and the Maldives). Especially noteworthy here, nonetheless, is that places like Kuwait,  Oman, and Iran all effected fertility declines of over two-thirds in just twenty years - and that this pace of change exceeded the tempo of fertility decline in almost all of the Pacific Rim societies; the bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China); and the other non-Muslim emerging market economies.

Given these extraordinary fertility declines, a substantial share of the Ummah is now accounted for by countries and territories with childbearing patterns comparable to those contemporary affluent Western non-Muslim populations.

The figure on page 38 underscores the similarity between contemporary fertility levels in much of the Ummah and those of the United States. As may be seen, tfrs in a great many Muslim-majority populations look quite "American" these days. To go by these figures, for example, Algeria, Bangladesh, and Morocco all have fertility levels corresponding to the state of Texas, while Indonesia's is almost identical to Arkansas'. Turkey and Azerbaijan, for their part, are on par with Louisiana, while Tunisia's tfr looks like Illinois'. Lebanon's fertility level is lower than New York state's. As for Iran, its fertility level today is comparable with those of the New England states, the region in America with the lowest fertility rate. No state in the contemporary usa, however, has a fertility level as low as Albania's.

All in all, according to these unpd numbers, 21 Muslim majority populations would seem to have fertility levels these days that would be unexceptional for states in the usa (with the possible exception of Albania, whose fertility level might arguably look too low to be truly "American"). As of 2009, these 21 countries and territories encompassed a total estimated population of almost 750 million: which is to say, very nearly half of the total population of the Ummah. These numbers, remember, exclude hundreds of millions of Muslims in countries where Islam is not the predominant religion. Taking this into account, it could be that a majority of Muslims already live in countries where their fertility levels would look entirely unexceptional in an American mirror.

For German readers, the question of Turkish fertility may seem, so to speak, especially pregnant. In a great deal of German-language commentary, there seems to be an impression that Turkish families - both in Germany and overseas - are extraordinarily prolific. Yet in reality, whatever the problems of Turkish integration into mainstream German society may look like today, the fact of the matter is that birth rates have been plummeting both in Turkey and for Germany's Turkish ethnics. In Germany, for example, the fertility rate for ethnic Turks fell by more than half between the early 1970s and the late 1990s - at which time it was just above the replacement level, comparable, say, to rates for white Americans in the state of Kansas at the time. And in Turkey itself, according to estimates and projections by the US Census Bureau, the number of births per woman has dropped by more than half over the last generation, from 4.7 in 1980 to around 2.1 (the replacement level, or average number of births required for long-term population stability without immigration) today.

Note, incidentally, that Turkey is "achieving" replacement fertility at a much lower level of per capita income than Germany enjoyed in the early 1970s, when German national fertility crossed the replacement threshold. And Turkey's national fertility level, furthermore, is a nationwide average: many regions of Turkey are already well below the replacement level.

According to Eurostat, for example, Istanbul's fertility level in 2009 was 1.73 births per woman - slightly below the levels for such places as Inner London (1.77 in 2009), Oslo (1.88 in 2009), or Antwerp (1.93 in 2008) Along Turkey's Western coast - in regions like Bati Marmara and Izmir - the total fertility rate today is down to 1.5 births per woman - not so different from such parts of German speaking Europe as Saxony (1.44), Western Austria (1.45), or Zurich (1.51)!

How are these remarkable demographic transformations in Muslim societies today to be accounted for? Typically, demographers and other social scientists in our era attempt to explain fertility changes in terms of the socioeconomic trends that drive (or at least accompany) them. Indeed: a century of social science research has detailed the historical and international associations between fertility decline and socioeconomic modernization (as represented by increasing income levels, educational attainment, urbanization, public health conditions, and the like). Those associations, not surprisingly, are immediately evident in simple cross-country correlations between national fertility levels and these respective socioeconomic variables. But just as clearly, these broad associations between fertility change and material measures of modernization or socioeconomic development are not the whole story.

Over a decade and a half ago, a path-breaking study by Lant Pritchett made the persuasive case that desired fertility levels (as expressed by women of childbearing age in demographic and health surveys (dhs) and other such questionnaires about childbearing intentions and attitudes)  were the single best predictor for actual fertility levels in the less developed regions. There is in fact roughly a 90% association between wanted fertility and actual fertility levels in the less developed countries for which such recent data were available.

This finding still flies in the face of much received opinion in population policy circles. In particular, it seems to challenge the notion that family planning programs, by encouraging modern contraceptive use, may make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing countries, especially by reducing what is called "excess fertility" or "unwanted fertility." But there is no observable correspondence whatsoever between these two factors in our analyses of recent data from dhs survey for low income countries. Socioeconomic factors, to be sure, may well affect the desired family sizes that women of childbearing ages report - in fact they surely do. But the critical determinant of actual fertility levels in Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike at the end of the day would appear to be attitudinal and volitional, rather than material and mechanistic.

Why should this be so? Muslim majority countries apparently tend to have substantially lower fertility levels nowadays than non-Muslim comparators when holding income, literacy, contraceptive use, and desired fertility constant. Muslim majority countries also tend to have significantly lower levels of modern contraception use than non-Muslim countries at the same income levels: indeed, holding income constant, modern contraception usage was approximately 14 percentage points lower in Muslim than in non-Muslim majority societies in the 1980s, and remained about 11 percentage points lower twenty years later. Despite such characteristically more limited use of modern contraception, the pervasive, dramatic, and in some cases historically unprecedented declines in fertility in Muslim-majority societies that we have been examining here nevertheless took place.

What should be emphasized at this point is the critical role human agency appears to have played in this transformation. "Developmentalist" perspectives cannot explain the great changes underway in many of these countries and territories - in fact, various metrics of socioeconomic modernization serve as much poorer predictors of fertility change for Muslimmajority populations than for non-Muslim populations. Not to put too fine a point on it: proponents of "developmentalism" are confronted by the awkward fact that fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth - while well-informed observers lament the exceptionally poor development record of the Arab countries over that very period.

By the same token, contraceptive prevalence has only limited statistical power in explaining fertility differentials for Muslim-majority populations - and can do nothing to explain the highly inconvenient fact that use of modern contraceptives remains much lower among Muslim-majority populations than among non-Muslim societies with similar income levels, despite the tremendous fertility declines recorded in the former over the past generation.

It seems curious, to put it mildly, that this monumental change in human living conditions should have gone all but overlooked by well-informed scholars, researchers, and policymakers the world over. In the Middle East, to be sure, politics was, until the "Arab Spring," essentially frozen for a generation or more: perhaps this brute fact encouraged the presumption that the societies beneath were frozen as well. Most clearly, they were not: rather, they were being recast, sometimes radically, by men and women through their own actions and on the basis of their own preferences and desires. We should see in this saga important commonalities with our own ways of life: and perhaps some underappreciated hopes for the future as well.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle. In spring 2008, Eberstadt was the Bosch Fellow in Public Policy at the American Academy in Berlin.



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