Forces for Change

The core issue, then, is less the ethnic character of a future Europe than its religious tone, and that question remains very open. Over time, Islam has come in many shades of practice, some much more open and tolerant than others. Everything depends on how people of Muslim origin will be affected by the secularizing climate of Europe, and one way to predict likely trends is to understand the recent experience of Christian populations. As Weigel and others have pointed out, Christian loyalties and practice certainly have declined in recent decades, to the extent that recent books bear titles like The Death of Christian Britain. Largely, secularization has resulted from potent social and economic pressures, from greater individualism, and the dominance of new values about family, gender, and sexuality. Sociologist Grace Davie argues that these forces have made Europe an exceptional case in global terms, an area of painfully weak religious adherence in striking contrast to the power of religious values in virtually all other parts of the world—in African and Asian societies but also in the United States.38 Yet this does not mean that Christianity has vanished or is approaching extinction, and there are intriguing signs of growth within that secular framework. The recent experience of Christian Europe might suggest not that the continent is potentially a graveyard for religion but rather that it is a laboratory for new forms of faith, new structures of organization and interaction, that can accommodate to a dominant secular environment.

The obvious question is whether Islam on the European continent might be subject to the same trends. And despite all the publicity justifiably accorded to Islamist extremists, there is already widespread evidence of accommodation to European norms. Historically, neither Christianity nor Islam is any more prone than the other to fanaticism, intolerance, or political activism, and no evidence suggests that Islam is any more immune to secularizing forces. Pessimists about the future of Europe ask, reasonably, whether any society has survived long with a sizable Muslim minority without religious tensions spilling over into civil conflict. The question is legitimate. But we should also point out that none of these apparent precedents involved societies with anything like the enormous pressures toward individualism, feminism, public secularism, and privatized religion that we see in contemporary Europe.

These changes affect communal identity and attitudes to other religions. Indeed, even strained contacts between religions produce a familiarity that is much more positive in its results than a prejudice born of ignorance. In 2006, the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey found many sources of tension and hostility dividing Muslims around the world from the West, but one positive development was in inter-religious attitudes. In Muslim nations, only small minorities held favorable attitudes toward Christians: views were most negative in Turkey and Pakistan, with favorable attitudes rising to 64 percent in Indonesia, the most moderate country. European Muslims, though, felt overwhelmingly positive about Christians in general, at a rate of 91 percent in France, 82 percent in Spain, 71 percent in Britain, and 69 percent in Germany. And although European Muslims were much less favorably disposed to Jews, their attitudes were far more positive than those prevailing in Muslim nations. The European Muslim community least sympathetic to Jews—that of Spain—still had friendlier views than those found in the most favorable Muslim nation, Indonesia.39

Apart from the implications for religious practice, Muslim accommodation to European norms is critical for all future demographic projections. Barring major new immigration, visions of Muslims achieving majority status in Europe within this century assume extraordinarily high and continuing rates of population growth. Moreover, the very high birth rates of "Muslim" communities would have to continue steadily on this incredible up-slope through the end of the century, despite all the pressures for cultural assimilation, particularly as they affect women. A growth of individualism and feminism would radically change demographic projections, since Muslim women dedicated to professional and personal fulfillment are much less likely to want large families, helping to bring ethnic birth rates into line with old-stock European figures. Education and literacy—especially for girls and women—also contribute mightily to lowering birth rates. Illustrating this point are the changing fertility rates for Muslim societies around the world (Table 1.2).

Earlier, I quoted Fouad Ajami's ominous remarks from 2004 about birth rates in Muslim societies—"3.2 in Algeria, 3.4 in Egypt and Morocco." As Table 1.2 suggests, though, he was using high and rather

Table 1.2 Fertility Rates in Muslim Nations


Total fertility



rate 2006



















Saudi Arabia










































Nations with fewer than five million people have been omitted Source: CIA Factbook, online at book/index.html.

Nations with fewer than five million people have been omitted Source: CIA Factbook, online at book/index.html.

dated estimates, understandably enough, as actual fertility rates are dropping so fast that it is difficult to keep track of them. Several Muslim nations are already below replacement, and others are rapidly approaching that situation. Incidentally, while it is not a hard and fast rule, it is difficult to avoid an impressionistic correlation between extremely high fertility rates (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq) and a country's tendency to social chaos and internecine strife, with combatants often claiming religious motivation. The Palestinian fertility rate is 5.78 in the Gaza Strip, 4.28 in the West Bank.40

There is of course no such thing as a "Muslim birth rate," since actual figures depend on social and economic settings. Moreover, some of the lowest rates are found in the western regions of the Muslim world, those that have the closest relationships to Europe, whether through migration patterns or mass media. While Italians worry about being swamped by Albanian Muslims, the Albanian fertility rate now stands at 2.03 and is falling precipitously; Bosnia's is 1.22. If current trends continue, it would be only a few years before all the nations of the

Maghreb—Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—reached the very low Spanish or Italian birth rates, and this region would find it ever harder to serve as a source of migrants. In that situation, Europe would have to dip ever deeper into Africa to find its labor force; and the further south it reaches, the more likely it is to draw in as many Christians as Muslims.41

The spread of subreplacement fertility has other implications. As I will argue, traditional and fundamentalist religion tends to flourish more successfully in societies with large extended families and many children, and declines along with family size. That is part of the explanation for the steep decline of institutional Christianity in Europe. But if that projection is correct, it has fascinating implications for the survival of extremist and clerical forms of Islam in the Maghreb, in Turkey and—surprisingly—in Iran itself. Between 1986 and 2000, Iran's fertility rate plummeted from 6 to 2, and the country now has a fertility rate lower than that of the United States. At first glance, one might think that this phenomenon reflects the impact of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, and the massive loss of young men; but identical conditions did nothing to stem the very high birth rate of neighboring Iraq. The changing fertility patterns of North Africa and the Near East constitute a vastly important phenomenon that would receive more attention from media and policy makers, if it did not prove so inconvenient for so many rhetorical purposes.

If in fact fertility rates in Europe's neighborhood portend its contemporary fate, then that destiny could be very different from either swamping or Islamization. And even if Islam threatens (or promises) to overwhelm Europe, then Europe could well, in its turn, transform Islam. Instead of Europe merging with the Arab Maghreb, we might equally imagine the Maghreb itself joining the southern portions of Europe.

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