Democracy Lab

The Islamic World's Quiet Revolution

Forget politics. Muslim countries are poised to experience a new wave of change -- but this time it's all about demographics.

Everybody who pays attention to these sorts of things knows Muslim societies are almost uniquely immune to the forces that have been driving down fertility rates on every continent for decades. But everybody, it seems, fell asleep before the final act.

Throughout the ummah (the Arabic term for the global Muslim community), the average number of children born to women is falling dramatically. (Apoorva Shah and I examine the evidence in detail here.) According to the UN's Population Division, all Muslim-majority countries and territories witnessed fertility declines over the past three decades. To be sure, in some extremely high-fertility countries of sub-Saharan Africa (think Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia, and Niger), declines have been modest. And in the handful of Muslim countries where a fertility transition had already brought childbearing down to around three births per woman by the late 1970s (think Soviet Kazakhstan), subsequent declines have also been limited. But in the great majority of the rest, declines in the total fertility rate have been jaw-dropping.

Indeed, as Table I shows, six of the ten largest declines in fertility in absolute terms for a 20-year decade period in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries. What's more, four of the six are Arab countries, while five of the six are in the Middle East. No other region of the world comes close in the sheer speed of its transition.

Table 2 offers another way to look at this demographic revolution. Again, we rank the top-ten fertility declines for a 20-year period since World War II. But here, the rankings follow percentage declines rather than absolute declines. By this metric, "only" four of the top ten (and two of the top four) were Muslim-majority countries. But all countries on this list count as Olympic-class sprinters in the reverse-fertility race, all recording declines exceeding 63 percent. Much of the ummah now has fertility rates comparable to affluent non-Muslim populations in the West.

Fertility rates vary considerably among Muslim-majority countries, of course -- but so do rates in regions within most countries. Consider the United States. Algeria, Bangladesh and Morocco all have total fertility rates in the same ballpark as Texas, while Indonesia's is almost identical to the TFR in Arkansas. Turkey and Azerbaijan, for their part, can be compared to Louisiana, while Tunisia looks like Illinois. Lebanon's fertility level is lower than New York's. Meanwhile, Iran's fertility level is comparable to that of New England, the region in America with the lowest fertility. And no American state has a fertility level as low as Albania's.


All in all, 21 Muslim-majority countries with a combined population of some 750 million - nearly half the population of the ummah -- have fertility levels comparable to states in the USA. These numbers, remember, exclude tens of millions of Muslims in low-fertility countries (like Russia and China) where Islam is not the predominant religion. So it is likely that a majority of the world's Muslims already live in countries where fertility levels would look entirely unexceptional in an American mirror.

What explains this light-speed transformation? A century of research has detailed the associations between fertility decline and socioeconomic modernization, as represented by income levels, educational attainment, urbanization, public health conditions, treatment of women, and the like.

But that's not the whole story here. A path-breaking 1994 study by Lant Pritchett, an economist now at Harvard, made a persuasive case that the desired fertility level (as expressed, for example, by women of childbearing age in the Demographic and Health Surveys conducted worldwide in the postwar era) was the single best predictor for actual fertility levels in less developed regions. Indeed, 90 percent of the statistical variance in their fertility levels predicted on the basis of desired fertility alone.

This flies in the face of the conventional views of population policy specialists, in which (to exaggerate only somewhat) women mechanistically respond to changes in the socioeconomic environment. In particular, it seems to contradict the received wisdom that family planning programs make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing countries: strikingly, desired fertility rates and the availability of contraceptives aren't that closely correlated. Social and economic factors, to be sure, may well indirectly affect desired fertility -- in fact, it's hard to imagine they don't. But at the end of the day, current fertility levels (in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies) seem to be a product of intangible factors (culture, values, personal hopes and expectations), not just material and economic forces.

Holding income and literacy constant, Muslim-majority countries actually seem to have significantly lower fertility levels than non-Muslim ones. Thus, despite more limited use of modern contraception (prevalence levels are approximately 11 percentage points lower than in non-Muslim countries, all else held equal), the ummah is looking ever more like other population groupings when it comes to fertility. To put it another way, where Muslim women want fewer children, they are increasingly finding ways to manage it -- with the pill or without it.

The quiet revolution in fertility now unfolding across the Islamic world is (so to speak) pregnant with implications for the future: it portends a radical revision of population projections for many countries; an unexpectedly rapid aging of many now youthful societies; and a new outlook for economic development in societies whose accomplishments to date in this realm have so often been disappointing. But the fact that this hidden-in-plain-sight revolution has come as such a surprise should emphasize just how little we really understood about the societies beneath the frozen political autocracies that controlled so many Islamic populations over the past generation.

Indeed, the standard measures of development simply don't explain all the great demographic changes underway outside the mature, industrialized countries. In particular, proponents of purely material models of development are confronted by the awkward fact that the fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth. Yet few people disagree that those same countries have exceptionally poor development records over the same period.

For over a generation, bien pensants in the international community have been sagely informing us that "development is the best pill." If this were really true, however, the great Middle Eastern fertility revolution could never have taken place. A new world is, quite literally, being born before our eye -- and we would all do well to pay much closer attention to its significance.


Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images


Gettin' the Gipper Wrong

Mitt Romney doesn’t know what he's talking about when it comes to Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

Earlier this week, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on how he would handle Iran's nuclear program differently than Barack Obama. That his "plan" was basically identical to President Obama's actual policy is certainly worthy of note -- but perhaps even more interesting was Romney's statement that "the overall rubric of my foreign policy will be the same as Ronald Reagan's: Namely, "peace through strength."

For those curious as to what a foreign policy agenda might look like with Mitt Romney in the White House such a statement provides helpful insight. If his words are to be believed, he'll govern like Ronald Reagan did. But there's one problem: Romney (like many of his fellow Republican presidential aspirants) appears to have very little understanding of what Ronald Reagan's foreign policy "rubric" actually looked like. If he did, he'd find himself articulating a very different and more pragmatic approach to managing America's global responsibilities.

To be sure, Romney's understanding of "peace through strength" is reflected in part by his proposals to build up the U.S. Navy and bolster the current ballistic missile defense system. Here, Romney demonstrates a general grasp of the "military build-up" part of Reagan's approach to foreign policy -- even if the Reagan build-up occurred in a completely different global context (i.e. the existence of a bipolar, superpower-dominated world). But not much else of the way in which Romney talks in this op-ed and elsewhere about foreign policy jibes with Reagan's approach to the world.

Indeed, Iran is a good place to start. Romney posits that the Iranian hostage crisis ended not because President Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate an agreement to end the impasse -- but rather because incoming President Reagan scared the snot out of them. "The Iranians," Romney writes, "well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was." According to the website Politifact, which interviewed seven scholars of the era in question, this is a "Pants On Fire" lie. Rather, the release of U.S. hostages had almost nothing to do with Iranian fears of what a Reagan presidency would foretell for their nation.

From this re-write of recent history, Romney uses his "Reagan model" to argue that the key for U.S. policy toward Iran today is firm "resolve." But Romney elides over a key historical fact; a central element of Reagan's policy toward Iran was not resolve but rather negotiation and diplomacy as part of an effort, wait for it, to free U.S. hostages (in this case ones held by Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon).

Also unmentioned is that, in this episode, Reagan violated another "Romney principle" of foreign policy, namely that the United States must never negotiate with terrorists.

But Romney's Iran confusion is in keeping with the GOP's larger misunderstanding about Reagan's foreign policy record. He was, in reality, the furthest thing from the resolute, unwavering, peace through "military strength" caricature they have created. Sure, there was the first-term Reagan: The strident anti-communist who ratcheted up the anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased defense spending, and supported authoritarian regimes and anti-communist rebels in Latin America, Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan -- during perhaps the single most dangerous period of the Cold War.

But that image of Reagan tells a very incomplete tale. He was also the sort of pragmatic commander-in-chief that seems anathema to the modern GOP. He sent troops to Lebanon -- and then "cut-and-run" after U.S. Marines were killed by terrorists. He allowed his U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to join in a Security Council condemnation of Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq -- an event that if it were to happen today would probably lead to impeachment proceedings against Obama. On immigration, Reagan even allowed for amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Such a proposal today would get one laughed out of Republican presidential debates.

For all of his hawkish image and supposed ability to scare foreign leaders into submission, Reagan only ordered one "major" military intervention in his entire presidency -- the invasion of Grenada. In three years, Barack Obama has been a lot more inclined to order U.S. troops into harm's way than Ronald Reagan was in eight.

Beyond his lack of propensity for foreign military excursions, Reagan's most telling foreign policy legacy looks very different from the tough guy image that Reagan at times cultivated -- and Republicans today appear fixated on. If anything, Reagan was beginning near the end of his first term something of a quasi-peacenik -- at least when it came to U.S.-Soviet relations. Of course, Reagan had spent much of his career bashing communism (March 8 is ironically the 29th anniversary of his "Evil Empire" speech). But in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the leadership of the Kremlin, Reagan took his measure of this reformist leader and decided this was someone with whom he could work with to end the Cold War.

Though the two men could not reach agreement at Reykjavik on reducing all nuclear weapons, the very fact that Reagan even entertained the notion is indicative of his pragmatism as a politician and his willingness to sit down with enemies -- not at all the sort of unbending image that Republicans today prefer to present as the ideal U.S. foreign policy president. Moreover, Reagan's near apostasy in Iceland went against the counsel of his closest advisers, many of whom argued -- a la Romney -- that the United States could show no weakness or give in the face of the enemy. In the end, Reagan's inclination to tone down Cold War tensions and give Gorbachev the political space to enact serious reforms in the Soviet Union helped far more than his tough talk and military build-up to contribute to the Communist regime's ultimate demise.

It's often forgotten today that, when Reagan left office in 1989, he was considered by many in the conservative foreign policy community as something of a disappointment for not more forcefully confronting Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. But Reagan, like so many presidents, found that the tough talk of the campaign trail didn't sit so well once ensconced in the White House and faced with the difficult and complex set of challenges and competing interests that defines every president's foreign policy tenure. As Obama noted the other day, it's easy on the campaign trail for presidential candidates to talk about the "casualness" of war and foreign policy in general. Governing is something else altogether -- a lesson that Ronald Reagan understood all too well.

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