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Islamic Terrorism and Fertility

The demographic sophisticates who read this column know that the population bomb has fizzled, that the world's population will never double again, and that birthrates are falling faster and farther than anyone imagined a half century ago. But they also know that there are still pockets of moderately high fertility in the world, including a number of Muslim countries, and some wonder if such places could be breeding grounds (forgive the expression) for Islamic terrorism. I know they wonder, because every time I give a population talk someone in the audience raises the question of whether Islamic fertility contributes to Islamic fanaticism.

They are not alone. Many security experts, like Clinton's Deputy National Security Advisor Samuel Huntington, have long believed that “excessive” population growth in Muslim countries is a national security threat to the West. They argue that large cohorts of young people radicalize their societies, contribute to civil unrest and cross-border conflicts and, most importantly for us, provide an endless supply of new recruits for terrorist training camps.

But is it true that we will face continual terrorist attacks if Muslim countries do not reduce their numbers of young people? Do we need to be aggressively pursuing population control programs in the Muslim world in order to combat international terrorism?

The answer to both questions is no. The first problem with such proposals is that the numbers don't add up. It is true that majority Muslim countries cut a huge swath across northern Africa and Asia, stretching from Morocco to the southern Philippines, and from Chechnya down to Nigeria. But the average number of children born to the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims has been cut in half over the past 30 years, and is still falling, especially in the largest Muslim countries of Indonesia (243 million, 2.3 children), Pakistan (184 million, 3.3 children), and Bangladesh (156 million, 2.7 children), Egypt (80 million, 3.0 children), and Turkey (77 million, 2.2 children). In Iran (76 million), the fierce preaching of the Mullahs against large families (and in favor of sterilization) has resulted in families averaging fewer than two children.

Some might object that, as most anti-Western terror groups come from Arab-speaking Muslim countries, we ought to more narrowly focus on birthrates in North Africa and the Middle East. The problem with this thesis is that several of these countries too, including Tunisia, Libya and Lebanon, have already fallen to sub-replacement fertility. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that others, such as Algeria, will follow in the next few years. If demography were truly destiny, then why is Lebanon, with its anemic birthrate, home to so many terrorist organizations and operatives?

And how is it that dying countries are even capable of aggression? I think here of Serbia in the nineties which, despite an anemic birthrate and an aging population, launched a violent war of aggression against neighboring ethnic groups, the Kosovars in particular. The Serbs were all supposed to be sitting in their rocking chairs, not engaging in savage ethnic cleansing.

Demographics simply do not have much predictive ability when it comes to predicting social instability, wars, terrorism, and the like. The late Julian Simon, who surveyed the literature on population and war, concluded, “the data do not show a connection between population growth and political instability due to the struggle for economic resources. The purported connection is another of those notions that everyone … knows is true, and that seems quite logical, but has no basis in factual evidence.”

Osama bin Laden does not mastermind terrorist attacks against the U.S. because he's one of over 50 children, but because he grew up in a poisonous atmosphere of anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda and, unlike most of his siblings, decided to act on it. Neither does the terrorizing of civilian populations through random attacks have anything to do with demography. It is a weapon of our modern political age, adopted by Islamic fanatics for their own purposes.

Middle Eastern dictators, for whom the maintenance of civil order—and hence their own position—is the top priority, are happy to blame their countries' poverty and backwardness on outside forces. That's why they allow vicious and one-sided attacks on Israel, the U.S., and the West to dominate the state-run media, the schools, and the religious institutions. Terrorism is not bred by too many babies, but by dictators who encourage hatred of the wider world, lest their own people turn on them and rend them.

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