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The Population Myth

Demographic experts point out that population change is determined by three demographic variables fertility, mortality and migration and not by fertility alone. You can have a high fertility rate, but if your mortality or migration rates are high, your population won’t increase. These demographic variables also have much less to do with religion and much more to do with socioeconomic factors.

Moin Qazi | New Delhi |

Muslims are again in the thick of a furious debate in India. The controversy over Muslims’ divorce procedures has still not worn out when the theory of a Muslim population bomb has been reignited. The antiMuslim lobby has cherry picked several findings from population statistics that suit them to bolster their claims that Muslims pose a population threat. A common myth perpetuated by the anti-Muslim brigade is that in the long run Muslims will outnumber Hindus.

There have been multiple posts expressing concern that the Indian Muslim population will expand to 925 million and the number of Hindus will decrease to 902 million by 2035. Why does the overpopulation myth continue to persist, even though it is typically nowhere near the epidemic that its proponents would make us believe? It is true that the global Muslim population is growing. But it is not growing at the same speed across regions. And the trope seems to be making more noise not where Muslim populations are actually growing the fastest ~ like sub-Saharan Africa – but in places where they are culturally distinct minorities.

Global trends clearly show that the growth of the Muslim population has slowed down and will match the average demographic equation in the coming decades. A recent study from the Pew Research Center on religion and public life demonstrates that neither the UK nor Europe is in danger of a Muslim takeover, whatever conservative America may believe. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030” is a major and comprehensive study that focuses on the Muslim populations in North America, Europe, Africa and the Asia-Pacific and provides a revealing look into the future of the Muslim population worldwide and the future religious makeup of the world.

According to the report, the global Muslim population is expected to increase about 35 per cent over two decades, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion in 2030. The study says that while the global Muslim population is expected to grow at a faster rate than the non-Muslim populations, it is projected to grow at a slower pace than it did during the previous two decades. The Pew findings confirm that fear of a Muslim takeover is largely the product of hysteria. In India, the population share of various religions has come down in the 2001-2011 decade.

Among the Hindus, it reduced from 79.9 to 76.75 percentage points. Likewise, among the Muslims too it went down to 24.60 from the high of 29.52 per cent in the preceding decade. By 2101 the Indian population will stabilise around 1.7 billion, with 1.27 billion Hindus and 320 million Muslims. However, the stabilisation of the Muslim population will be slower by 40 years due to the lag in demographic transition. The Lancet last year suggested that by 2048 India’s population will peak at about 1.61 billion and decline to 1.093 billion by 2100.

The Total Fertility Rate ( TFR), which is the number of children born per woman, is an indicator of how well a society is controlling its population growth. Despite such differences, the fertility gap between Hindus and Muslims in India is only narrowing with each successive survey. The greatest birth-rate disparities now remain between states and not among religions. The growth rate of the Muslim population is compared with other factors such as median age, average fertility and infant mortality rate.

Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus for a couple of more decades because they have the youngest median age and relatively high fertility among the major religious groups in India. In 2010, the median age of Indian Muslims was 22, compared with 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. Muslim women bear an average 3.1 children per head, compared with 2.7 for Hindus and 2.3 for Christians. Demographic experts point out that population change is determined by three demographic variables ~ fertility, mortality and migration ~ and not by fertility alone.

You can have a high fertility rate, but if your mortality or migration rates are high, your population won’t increase. These demographic variables also have much less to do with religion and much more to do with socioeconomic factors (type of residence, education, economic status, etc) as well as culture, sense of security, etc. There’s nothing inherent in Islam to link it to higher fertility ~ in fact, it’s not a particularly natalist, or pro-birth, religion. The fertility rate across all 49 Muslim-majority countries fell from 4.3 children per woman in 1990-95 to about 2.9 in 2010-15. The TFR of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh is 3.10, while it is 1.86 in Kerala ~ much less than that of Hindus in UP (2.67), according to the fourth round (2015-16) of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4). Poverty has a direct bearing on family demographics.

Those living in extreme poverty feel their children are more vulnerable to sickness and they can’t afford proper medical care. In order to offset the fear of losing children to mortal diseases, they hedge this risk by having a larger number of children. There is a direct relationship between poverty and fertility and inverse relationship between fertility and higher per capita income. There are a few factors that reliably decrease the fertility rate in any developing country: more schooling for girls, the expectation that one’s children will survive (due to healthcare and freedom from conflict), access to contraception, and job opportunities for women. Rural women particularly Muslim women, live in the stranglehold of harsh customs.

They are mostly un-empowered and are often unable to act on their own behalf to obtain family planning services to regulate their childbearing. They believe that bearing many children will provide a bulwark against poverty in their old age. The financially better-off have easy access to many financial security programmes for planning for a peaceful and hassle-free old age. In poorer countries where social protection is a faraway concept children are the most assured social security for old parents. The poor also carry a wrong perception that having more children will provide additional sources of earnings and thus they will have a better kitty to cope with life’s eventualities.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness among the new generation of women. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy that all women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society. Muslim women’s activism for education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory world views nurtured through exposure to modern education. The new wave of awareness of the priority of education has catapulted Muslim women from the hearth to important positions in various fields. It has enhanced their decision-making power in the family and society. Women now have greater agency irrespective of their financial standing.

The ripple benefits of this new awakening are now manifesting in both social and economic independence of women. The modern woman is far more enlightened and clearly understands the implications of a negative demographic profile. The current decline also is directly related to the fact that the younger generation of Muslims has a more nuanced understanding of religion. Educated and aspirational Muslim women are as careful about family planning as their Hindu counterparts in India. I know countless young Muslim couples in their 30s who have no children despite family pressures because they do not want a child unless they could give it their best.

Muslim population growth is out of sync with global trends, but if the latest findings hold up, it should get there soon. The truism is that there is not much to despair about on the population front or to conjure fantasies of Muslims hegemony. We should remove the political lens and instead use the economic and social lens to analyze the entire issue and respond to it more meaningfully. Interventions that help in improving the health and economic wellbeing of families indirectly help focus on programmes refining the demographic equation.

Commentators seem more focused on ringing political alarm bells than on presenting facts. The reality is that there is no threat of takeover by any religious group, but there is a danger of intolerance that threatens the very fabric of society. We are not witnessing a clash of civilizations, but a clash of cultures fostered by those who portray Islam as a monolith. They see religious and cultural diversity solely as a threat rather than as a potential source of strength and enrichment.

(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He can be reached at [email protected])