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Friday, February 15, 2013
Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still Curiously Unnoticed

Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still
Curiously Unnoticed
Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah*
December 7, 2011
Keywords: Ummah, fertility decline; sub-replacement fertility; Middle East;
family planning; wanted fertility; population aging

Abstract: There remains a widely perceived notion 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. In reality, however, fertility
levels are falling dramatically for countries and sub-national populations
throughout the Ummah— and traditional marriage patterns and living
arrangements are undergoing tremendous change. This paper will highlight
some of these changes, examine some of their correlates and possible
determinants, and speculate about some of their implications.

* Dr. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the
American Enterprise Institute, where Mr. Shah also serves as Research
Fellow. They would like to offer thanks to Ms. Kelly Matush of AEI for her
assistance in the research for this paper, and also to Ms. Heesu Kim, Mr.
Mark Seraydarian, and Ms. Daksha Shakya. The opinions expressed here are
their own and not those of the American Enterprise Institute. The authors
can be contacted at eberstadt@aei.org and apoorvashah85@gmail.com.

Although upwards of one fifth of the world’s population today is thus
estimated to be Muslim, a much smaller share of the population of the ―more
developed regions‖ adheres to Islam: perhaps just over 3% of that grouping
(that is to say, around 40 million out of its total of 1.2 billion people).
Thus the proportion of the world’s Muslims living in the less developed
regions is not only overwhelming, but disproportionate: well over one fourth
of the population of the less developed regions—something close to
26%-27%--would be Muslim to go by these numbers.


Figures 4 and 5 afford a closer look at the scope and scale of fertility
declines in Muslim-majority countries and territories over the past
generation. [See FIGURES 4 and 5] With respect to absolute changes in TFRs,
the population-weighted average for the grouping as a whole amounted to a
drop of 2.6 births per woman between 1975/80 and 2005/10—a markedly larger
absolute decline than for either the world as a whole (-1.3) or the less
developed regions as a whole (-2.2) during those same years. Fully eighteen
of these Muslim-majority places saw TFRs fall by 3 or more over those thirty
years—with nine of them by 4 births per woman or more! In Oman, TFRs
plummeted by an astonishing 5.6 births per woman during those 30 years: an
average pace of nearly 1.9 births per woman every decade.

...As for relative or proportional fertility declines: here again the record
is striking. The population- weighted average for the Muslim-majority areas
as a whole was -41% over these three decades: by any historical benchmark,
an exceptionally rapid tempo of sustained fertility decline. In aggregate,
the proportional decline in fertility for Muslim-majority areas was again
greater than for the world as a whole over that same period (-33%) or for
the less developed regions as whole (-34%). Fully 22 Muslim-majority
countries and territories were estimated to have undergone fertility
declines of 50% or more during those three decades—ten of them by 60% or
more. For both Iran and the Maldives, the declines in total fertility rates
over those thirty years were estimated to exceed 70%.

Given the differences in timing for the onset of sustained fertility
declines in different settings around the world, it is possible that Figures
4 and 5 might present a biased picture. It is possible to imagine, for
example, that dramatic fertility declines might have taken place in other
regions at earlier dates, with fertility declines tapering off during these
years when the declines in the Muslim- majority areas were so manifestly
dynamic: if that were the case, Figures 4 and 5 would end up exaggerating
the robustness of these Islamic fertility declines in comparison to other
parts of the world. Yet while this is a theoretical possibility, empirical
results do not corroborate such a contingency.
Table 1
The 10 biggest declines in total fertility rates (births per woman) in the
postwar era:
most rapid 20-year Total Fertility Rate decline in absolute terms

Major area, region, country or area/Time Period/Absolute Decline
Oman 1985-1990 to
Maldives 1985-1990 to
Kuwait 1970-1975 to
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 1980-1985 to
Singapore 1955-1960 to
Algeria 1975-1980 to
Mongolia 1970-1975 to
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya 1980-1985 to
Viet Nam 1970-1975 to
Mauritius 1960-1965 to

Source: Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social
Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World
Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, available at
http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/unpp/panel_population.htm, accessed November
16, 2011.
As may be seen in Table 1, six of the ten largest absolute declines in
fertility for a two-decade period yet recorded in the postwar era (and by
extension, we may suppose, ever to take place under orderly conditions in
human history) have occurred in Muslim-majority countries. The four very
largest of these absolute declines, furthermore, all happened in
Muslim-majority countries—each of these entailing a decline of over 4.5
births per woman in just 20 years. (The world record-breaker here, Oman, is
estimated to have seen its 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 in Iran, we see that five of these ―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

Given the extraordinary—indeed, as we have just seen, often historically
unprecedented—fertility declines that a number of Muslim-majority
populations have sustained over the past generation, it is now the case that
a substantial share of the Ummah is accounted for by countries and
territories with childbearing patterns comparable to those contemporary
affluent Western non-Muslim populations. The low fertility levels for the
Muslim-majority societies in question, it should be noted, have generally
been achieved on substantially lower levels of income, education,
urbanization, modern contraception utilization, and the like than those that
characterize the more developed regions with which their fertility levels
currently correspond today.

All in all, according to these UNPD figures, 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 persons: 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 the world’s Muslims already live in countries where their fertility
levels would look entirely unexceptional in an American mirror.

To be sure—just as fertility varies among the 50 United States of America,
so it differs by region in many predominantly Muslim societies. But such
geographic differences further emphasize the extent to which fertility
levels for a great portion of the Ummah has come to correspond with levels
taken for granted nowadays in more-developed, non-Islamic Western societies.

Let us take the example of Turkey. For the period 2000-03, according to
Turkey’s most recent DHS, the country’s overall TFR was 2.23. That average,
however, was strongly influenced by the distinctively high fertility levels
of eastern Turkey (a largely Kurdish region), where a TFR of 3.65 was
recorded. [SEE FIGURE 7] In much of Turkey, TFRs of 1.9 or less prevailed.
Istanbul’s TFR, for instance, was less than 1.9—which is to say, it would
have been equivalent to the corresponding level for France in those same
years. Placed in an American perspective, eastern Turkey’s fertility levels
are off the scale—but for Turkey as a whole, fertility levels are comparable
to Hawaii, and even for comparatively fecund south Turkey, fertility levels
are just about the same as in Nebraska. ...

Consider next the case of Iran. As we have seen, over the past generation
Iran has registered one of the most rapid and pronounced fertility declines
ever recorded in human history. By the year 2000, according to Iran’s DHS of
that same year, the TFR for the country as a whole had dropped to 2.0, below
the notional replacement level of 2.1. But there were also great regional
variations within Iran, with some areas (such as the largely Baluchi
province of Sistan and Baluchestan in the east and the largely Kurdish West
Azarbaijan province in the west) well above replacement, and much of the
rest of the country far below replacement. [SEE FIGURE 9] Note in particular
that Tehran and Isfahan reported fertility levels lower than any state in
the USA. [SEE FIGURE 10] With a TFR of 1.4, indeed, Tehran’s fertility level
in 2000 would have been below the average for the EU-27 for the year 2002
(TFR 1.45), well below year 2000 fertility in such places as Portugal (1.54)
and Sweden (1.54), and only slightly higher than for such famously
low-fertility European countries as Italy (1.26) and Germany (1.38)8.

Admittedly, our use of the USA as a comparator for fertility levels in
Muslim-majority areas perforce excludes the tremendous swath of the
present-day Ummah where fertility levels are (at least for now) higher than
in present-day America. The point of our selection, however, is to emphasize
just how very much of the Ummah can be included in such a comparison
nowadays. This is a very new development: thirty years earlier, barely any
Muslim-majority country or territory would have registered fertility levels
low enough to permit approximate comparison to corresponding fertility
levels in any US state. As of 1977, period TFRs for Utah, always America’s
most fertile state, were just under 3.6, while according to UNPD estimates
the very lowest TFRs in the late 1970s for any Muslim-majority populations
would have been for Kazakhstan (3.1) and Azerbaijan (3.6). 9 Thus in just 30
years, the total population of Muslim-majority areas whose fertility levels
could be reflected in a contemporaneous American mirror has thus risen from
under 20 million to nearly three quarters of a billion. By any benchmark,
this qualifies as a remarkable change.

Furthermore, indications suggest that the change has progressed still
further since the 2005 period. Whereas the UNPD offers only 5-year-span
estimates and projections for fertility levels, USCB provides annual
figures. According to these numbers, the total fertility rate for Saudi
Arabia in 2011 would be 2.31—a lower level than recorded recently for such
US states South Dakota and Idaho. At projected TFRs of 2.96 and 2.97,
respectively, Libya’s and Egypt’s fertility levels for 2011 would be roughly
on par with fertility for America’s large domestic Hispanic population with
a TFR of 2.91 as of 2008). Even places like Pakistan (USCB projected TFR for
2011: 3.17) and the West Bank of Palestine (3.05) would, in this assessment,
appear to be rapidly approaching the day where their fertility levels could
be comparable to levels displayed by geographic regions or broad national
ethnic groups within the United States today. Put another way: unbeknownst
to informed circles in the international community, and very often even in
the countries in question, fertility levels for Muslim-majority populations
around the world are coming to look more and more ―American‖.

Some Implications of Today’s Rapid Fertility Declines in the Islamic World

We have made the empirical case in this chapter that a sea-change in
fertility levels, and by extension, in attendant patterns of family
formation, is now underway in the Islamic world—even if this sea-change
remains curiously un-recognized and un-discussed even in the societies it is
so rapidly transforming. Why this should be the case is an important
question, but one that will not detain us here. Instead, we shall conclude
by touching a few of the more obvious implications of these big demographic
changes for the years ahead.

1) Downward Revision of Population Projections: In its 2000 revisions of
World Population Prospects, UNPD ―medium variant‖ projections envisioned a
population for Yemen of 102 million people; in its 2010 revisions, the 2050
―medium variant‖ projection for Yemen is 62 million. (USCB projections for
Yemen for 2050 as of this writing are even lower: under 48 million.)
Unanticipated but extremely rapid fertility declines would likewise militate
for downward revisions in the trajectory of future demographic growth in
other Muslim-majority areas.

2) Coming Declines in Working-Age (15-64) Population: If the current
prospect for Muslim-majority countries and territories entails coping with
the challenges of finding employment for continuing and even increasing
increments of working age manpower, in the foreseeable future an increasing
number of Muslim-majority countries may face the prospect of coping with
manpower declines. If current USCB projections prove accurate, Lebanon’s
15-64 cohort would peak in the year 2023—twelve years from this writing—and
would shrink more or less indefinitely thereafter. On the trajectories
traced out by current USCG projections, another 13 Muslim-majority countries
would also see their conventionally defined working-age populations peak,
and begin to decline, before the year 2050.13 Over thepast generation, we
should remember, demographic authorities for the most part underestimated
the pace and scale of fertility decline in Muslim regions—sometimes very
seriously. If underestimation is still the characteristic error in fertility
projections for these populations, this would mean that manpower declines
would commence earlier than envisioned for the countries in question—and
that additional countries and territories might experience workforce decline
before 2050.

3) A Wave of “Youthquakes?: With rapidly declining fertility rates, the
arithmetic of population composition makes for inescapable ―youthquakes‖:
temporary, but sometimes very substantial, increases in the fraction of
young people (say, aged 15-24 or 20-29) as a proportion of total population.
Depending on the social, economic and political context, such ―youthquakes‖
can facilitate rapid economic development—or can instead exacerbate social
and political strains. Tunisia passed through such a youthquake some time
ago, and
The other countries would be Algeria, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Iran,
Kazakhstan, Maldives, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the
United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan.
Iran is experiencing the tail end of one today; Yemen and Palestine, among
other Muslim- majority societies, have yet to deal with theirs. [SEE FIGURE

4) Rapid Population Aging on Relatively Low Income Levels: The lower a
country or territory’s fertility, the more powerful the demographic pressure
for population aging over the subsequent generation. With extremely rapid
fertility decline—and the descent into sub-replacement fertility—a number of
Muslim-majority populations are already set on course for very rapid
population aging. As Figure 21 indicates, over a dozen Muslim-majority
populations, under current USCB projections, would have higher fractions of
their national populations over the age of 65 by the year 2040 than the USA
today. [SEE FIGURE 21] Today these same places enjoy only a fraction of US
per capita income levels; even with optimistic assumptions about economic
growth, it is hard to envision how they might attain contemporary OECD
income levels—much less contemporary OECD educational profiles or knowledge-
generation capabilities—by the time they reach contemporary OECD aging
profiles. How these societies will meet the needs of their graying
populations on relatively low income
levels may prove to be one of the more surprising more, and unanticipated,
challenges of the fertility revolution now underway in the Ummah.

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