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The Muslim Overpopulation Myth

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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 once again. The anti-Muslim 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’s typically nowhere near the epidemic that its proponents would make us believe? The global Muslim population is indeed growing. But it’s not growing at the same speed across regions. And the trope seems to be making more noise not where Muslim populations are increasing 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. In India, the population share of various religions has come down in the 2001-2011 decade. Among the Hindus, it was reduced from 79.9 to 76.75 percentage points. Likewise, among the Muslims, it went down to 24.60 from the high of 29.52 percent in the preceding decade, further decline in the population growth rate both among the Hindus and the Muslims. By 2101 the Indian population will stabilize around 1.7 billion, with 1.27 billion Hindus and 320 million Muslims. However, the stabilization of the Muslim population will be slower by 40 years due to the lag in the demographic transition. The Lancet last year suggested that by 2048 India’s population will peak at about 1.61 billion and declined to 1.093 billion by 2100.
Demographic experts point out that population change is determined by three demographic variables – fertility, mortality, and migration – and not fertility alone. You can have a high fertility rate, but your population won’t increase if your mortality or migration rates are high. 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.) and by culture, sense of security, etc. There’s nothing inherent in Islam to link it to higher fertility. 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. To offset the fear of losing children to fatal diseases, they hedge this risk by having a more significant number of children. There is a direct relationship between poverty and fertility and an 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 existing 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 primarily un-empowered and are often unable to act on their 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 has easy access to many financial security programmes to plan for a peaceful and hassle-free old age. In poorer countries where social protection is a faraway concept child are most assured of social security for aging 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 the 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 powers in the family and the social circle women now have more excellent agency irrespective of their financial standing. The ripple benefits of this new awakening are now manifesting in women’s social and economic independence. The modern woman is far more enlightened and clearly understands the implications of an adverse demographic profile. Muslim population growth is out of sync with global trends, but it should get there soon if the latest findings hold up.
The truism is that there is not much to despair about on the population front or to conjure fantasies of Muslim 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 improve families’ health and financial well being of families indirectly help focus on programmes refining the demographic equation.

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