A revolution is sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. No, not the one you've been hearing about in the media -- all the protests against dictatorship and oppression, in Egypt and Tunisia, and most violently, in Libya. The revolution I'm referring to certainly affects all those countries, profoundly, but its effects promise to outlast any change of regime, or even any new constitutions. Barely noticed by the West, many Muslim societies are experiencing a demographic transformation that is going to make them look far more European: more stable, more open to women's rights and above all, more secular. That change underlies all the current political upsurges.
The magic number in this story is 2.1, which is the fertility rate a society needs if its population is to remain constant. If the typical woman has significantly more than 2.1 children during her life, then that society's population will expand, and it will be a youthful community. If the rate falls below 2.1, then populations will stagnate and decline, and the average age will rise.
According to a familiar stereotype, Europeans have lost the long term vision that would make them want to have large families, and religion no longer provides such an incentive: the closer a woman lives to Rome, the fewer children she has. When commentators look at modern Europe, they worry about the long term prospects for low fertility nations like Italy (1.39), Germany (1.41) and Spain (1.47). Pundits are all the more concerned when they compare these European rates with the notoriously high-fertility Third World demographic profiles that long prevailed across the Middle East. It's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which those mainly Muslim Middle Easterners outbreed and overwhelm the staid Europeans, creating an Islamicized Eurabia.
But here's the problem. In just the last thirty years or so, those very Middle Eastern countries that used to teem with children and adolescents have gone through a startling demographic transformation. Since the mid-1970s, Algeria's fertility rate has collapsed from over 7 to 1.75, Tunisia's from 6 to 2.03, Morocco's from 6.5 to 2.21, Libya's from 7.5 to 2.96. Today, Algeria's rate is roughly equivalent to that of Denmark or Norway; Tunisia's is comparable to France. Counter-intuitively, that remark about "the closer to Rome" also holds good on the southern, Muslim, side of the Mediterranean.
Just what is happening here? Everything depends on the changing attitudes and expectation of the women in these once highly-traditional societies. Across the region, women have become increasingly involved in higher education, and have moreover moved into full-time employment. That sea-change simply makes it unthinkable for women to manage a rampaging tribe of seven or eight children. Often, too, images of women's proper role in life have been upended by extended contacts with Europe. Migrants to France or Italy return home with changed attitudes, while families who stay at home find it hard to avoid the media portrayals of Western lives they see via cable and satellite dish. Maybe Europe and the Middle East are merging into one common Eurabia - but it's far from clear which side is doing a better job of imposing its opinions on the other. Presently, it looks as if the Maghreb is becoming European.
Such a wrenching change cannot fail to have political implications. In a country with a Third World fertility rate, it is very unlikely that women will seek or be granted education: their designated career path as mothers is starkly clear. Meanwhile, adolescents and young men proliferate, and provide ample cannon fodder for armies or militias, to whom life is cheap. (Yemen's fertility rate is still over 5.0, Somalia's is 6.4). But then imagine a newer, more European society, in which men and women are intensely concerned about their nuclear families, and have invested their love and attention into just one or two offspring. As citizens become more educated, they are not prepared to accept the demagoguery and systematic corruption that has long passed for government in those regions. They see themselves as responsible members of a civil society, with aspirations that demand to be met: they feel they deserve full democratic participation. Of course the recent turmoil began in Tunisia, with its very low fertility rate and its intimate ties to France.
Sudden demographic change also seems to be closely linked to secularization, a point of potentially great significance in the Middle East. Smaller family sizes can result from a decline in religious ideologies, but falling fertility can itself drive such a decline, as has happened in modern Christian Europe. When children abounded, as they did in the 1950s, strong pressures kept families close to religious institutions, as they sought common religious training and religious rituals. parents attended churches to ensure their children received the familiar cultural heritage. Church prestige rode high when priests were shepherding hundreds of local children through annual confirmation classes. But as the children became scarce from the 1970s onwards, so the churches emptied. At the same time, couples highly concerned with their own personal and emotional fulfillment became increasingly impatient about clerical attempts to enforce morality laws. Women, especially, became highly disaffected from the mainstream churches.
If the European precedent is anything to go by, that could well provide a model for religious developments in the Maghreb over the next decade or two. A society so dependent on women in the school and the workplace simply cannot support the kind of intransigent orthodoxies offered by the familiar Islamists. Extremists may not vanish overnight, but they will have to adapt substantially to present their message in a civil society with a powerful taste for democratic values and gender equality.
Demography is not, of course, the whole story. But it has to play a full part in any attempt to understand the current political revolutions in the Middle East.