The Future of Islam
By Nayyer Ali MD
Any Muslim reading the newspaper these days has reason for despair. Between the chaos and extremist violence in the Middle East, South Asia, and even Europe on the one hand, and the drumbeat of Islamophobic attacks from right-wingers in the US and Europe, and even from otherwise liberal atheists like Bill Maher, it seems that Islam is going through a very rough patch.
That may all be the case, but if we take a longer view of this coming century, there are some big shifts in store in demographic terms, which really drive underlying grand historical trends. In 1900, there were only 180 million Muslims on Earth, making up about 15% of the global population. Today, that number has risen nine-fold to over 1.6 billion and almost 25% of the world population. Christianity continues to be the largest world religion, with 2.2 billion adherents. But over the next 35 years, the gap between the two will close, based on the recently release Pew Research Center report on Global Religious Futures Project.
Based on extensive number crunching and data analysis, Pew created a roadmap of the coming century. By 2050, Muslims will number about 2.75 billion, just behind Christians at 2.9 billion, and they project that Muslims will take the lead around 2070. There are several major factors driving these trends. First is the relatively high birth rates of Muslims. Looking at Total Fertility Rate (TFR, the average number of children born to each woman), Muslims have a TFR of 3.1, higher than Christians at 2.7 and Hindus at 2.4. This is an aggregate number, and TFR can vary widely between countries such as Malaysia (low) and Afghanistan (high), or Germany (low) and Kenya (high). The other major factor is the larger fraction of the population that are still children. 34% of Muslims today are under age 15, while only 27% of Christians are and 21% of Jews. This high fraction of children means the overall population will still grow faster even if TFR was the same for all religious communities.
What this means in the real world is that many Muslim countries are going to have very marked rises in their populations over the next 35 years. For example, Pakistan is expected to grow from 185 million now to 270 million in 2050. Saudi Arabia will go from 27 million to 42 million in 2050, remarkable when we consider that Saudi only had three million people back in 1950.
For several Muslim countries wracked by conflict, it is imperative that they end their civil wars and get to the business of developing their societies for the future. Iraq is going to grow from 30 million today to 80 million in 2050, Syria from 20 million to 30 million, Afghanistan from 30 million to 75 million, and Yemen from 24 million to 60 million people. These countries will be vast dens of misery if they don’t get their houses in order.
The rise of Muslim populations will not just be in Muslim countries. Europe is expected to be 10% Muslim by 2050, compared to 6% today. India will actually have the world’s largest Muslim population, with over 300 million people, making up 18% of India’s population. Unless India fully integrates its Muslim minority, its economy and global role will be held back. Russia is projected to have a shrinking overall population, but its Muslim share will rise from 10% today to 17% in 2050. Moscow will have a very large Muslim share.
America too will see a modest rise in its Muslim population, from three million currently to about eight million in 2050. Jews in America will shrink slightly from six million to five million. When Muslims reach eight million, there will be a “Muslim vote” to factor into national elections.
Another region of the world where demography is going to play a huge role is Israel and Palestine. In 1947, before Israel was created, there were 1.3 million Palestinians and 650,000 Jews living in Palestine. Today there are 6 million Jews in Israel and that will rise to about 8 million by 2050. There are 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel, and another 4.5 million in Gaza and the West Bank. By 2050, there will be 3 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, making up over 25% of the population of Israel, and 10 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Long before then Israel’s stranglehold and subjugation of the Palestinians will have to end, the world will not put up with the apartheid that the occupied Palestinians are subjected to forever.