By the year 2030, Pakistan will overtake Indonesia as the largest Muslim country in the world. This and other notable demographic trends were announced by the Pew Research Centre in its latest survey, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth and Projections 2010-2050.
The survey’s findings also forecast that by 2070 Islam will overtake Christianity as the world’s most populous faith for the first time in world history. The world’s largest Muslim population, however, will not live in a Muslim country but in India, which, while retaining its Hindu majority, will see its Muslim population rise from the current 15pc to 17pc.
Other projections of the survey include the fact that Islam, which has for a while been the largest-growing religion in Europe, will see a doubling of its demographic share. In 2010, there were 43 million Muslims in Europe, which made up 6pc of the total European population. In 2050, there will be 71m Muslims in Europe, making up more than 10pc of the continent’s population.
Numeric majorities are meaningless if they are submerged in poverty and conflict, largely uneducated and vulnerable to strife.
In the United Kingdom, this will mean a rise from the approximate 4.6pc today to 8pc in 2030. Similarly, in the United States the number of Muslims will double over the next two decades, rising from 2.6m in 2010 to 6.2m in 2030. While Muslims will still constitute a small portion of the total US population, rising from 0.8pc of the population to 1.7pc, they are likely to become just as numerous as America’s Jewish and Episcopalian populations.
Most of the world’s Muslims, however, will not be living in the developed nations of the West. More than 60pc of the world’s swelled-up Muslim population will be living in the Asia-Pacific region. The number of Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa will also be experiencing an increase in the coming decades, with more Muslims living in Nigeria than in Egypt. A vast majority of the world’s Muslims will consequently be living in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India, which will all experience the cost of swelling populations in terms of greater competition for resources.
Simply put, if more is better than the news presented by the Pew survey would be unequivocally welcome. Muslims everywhere could celebrate the news that in constituting a majority of the world’s population they would consequently command an equal proportion of the world’s resources. This is where the complications begin. Even while there will be a majority of Muslims in the world before the end of this century, the fact that a vast majority of them will be relegated to countries with limited resources is meaningful. Muslims may soon constitute the majority of the world’s population, but it will be a majority that lives in poverty, faces disease and is likely squashed by civil and international conflict.
The truth of this aspect of the world’s majority can only be found in the details (and not the headlines) of the Pew report. Countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, both of which will be home to enormous chunks of the majority Muslim world population of the future, are currently also ranked among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world. While the Pew survey carefully hedges against the possibility of war and natural disaster altering the course of its predictions, this fact is even more notable given where the majority of Muslims will live. The fact that high birth rates will result in a larger Muslim population must therefore be tempered by the reality that in at least these two countries — Nigeria and Pakistan — terrorist violence is annihilating young people, most of them Muslim, at a rate unseen in most other countries.
Also notable is the relationship of fertility rates to the level of women’s education. Fertility rates are highest in those Muslim-majority countries where Muslim girls receive the least education. So in the Muslim countries where girls receive the most education fertility rates are low. This means simply that most children are being produced by the poorest and most uneducated mothers, who bring new souls into the world but cannot guarantee either the quality of their lives or indeed how long or productive those lives may be.
Muslim majorities, then, are produced by women who have few other prospects than to produce children, who are denied the choices that would give them a better life. In terms of quantity alone, then, the birthing of their children is a victory, a mark to add to all the other millions of Muslims; but a closer look is likely to reveal cracks in this definition of triumph that assumes that mere existence is somehow an achievement.
While a Muslim-majority world may seem like a victory many would be eager to embrace, it must not be imagined as a ‘Muslim-controlled’ world or even one where this magnificent majority exerts any form of meaningful control over itself. Numeric majorities are meaningless if they are majorities that are submerged in poverty and conflict, largely uneducated and inherently vulnerable to divisiveness and strife.
Pakistan’s own situation is an example: having enjoyed a Muslim majority for all of its existence, the country is nevertheless susceptible to a staggering variety of divisions, which in turn births an equally varied panorama of conflict.
If being Muslim were enough and equivalent to some guarantee of communal harmony, hopeful progress and global leverage, then indeed all of these would be in the lap of the nation as a consequence of its nearly mono-religious demographics. Pakistan’s reality, one riven by communal conflict, where even belonging to the same sect is an insufficient guarantee of coexistence, defies the value of such a thesis. In sum, it suggests that a mostly Muslim world will likely not be a mostly peaceful one.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2015