Youssef Courbage, Emmanuel Todd

Predicting a "de-Islamicised Muslim World"

Two French demographers believe literacy and a decline in the birth-rate will lead the Islamic world into modernity – and away from religion. With their analyses they add a new dimension to the ongoing debate over the clash of civilisations. Maik Meuser reports

Emmanuel Todd, left, and Youssef Courbage (photo: John Foley/Opale)
Emmanuel Todd, left, and Youssef Courbage, of the Institut national d'études démographiques (photo: John Foley/Opale)

​​"There will not be a clash of civilisations" is the most important message they bear. But Emmanuel Todd and Youssef Courbage do not want merely to assuage the West's fear of Islamicisation. They want to prove that the Islamic world is in the midst of radical change that will eventually bring modernity to the seemingly entrenched societies of the Islamic world. A quiet, but inexorable and dramatic revolution. Mass literacy and a decline in the birth-rate in Muslim societies are making such far-reaching social change possible.

In their work, Todd and Courbage do not focus their attention on differences, as did American political scientist Samuel L. Huntington, but instead their potential commonalities. The original French title expresses this even more strongly: "Rendez-vous des civilisations" – in other words, a meeting and not a clash of civilisations.

The clash or coexistence of cultures

Todd and Courbage see the "convulsions" witnessed today in the Muslim world as the classical symptoms of the disorientation that characterises every social upheaval. Both demographers are convinced that precisely there where the change has already begun is where a heightened potential for violence prevails. And this calls for great vigilance on the part of the international community. The best example of this is Pakistan.

Fierce debates over the clash or coexistence of civilisations have been raging ever since Huntington's essay on the clash of civilisations. This book by Todd and Courbage adds a new approach to the discussion. They back their claim that there will be no clash of civilisations with statistical demographic analyses.

source: Éditions du Seuil
An anti-Huntington: In 1976, Immanuel Todd predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, with his colleague Youssef Courbage, he predicts the modernisation of the Islamic world

​​In the process, the two authors work exhaustively through case studies of Islamic societies from Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and Asian and African countries. The book is not always easy reading, but the analyses are very informative and thought-provoking. And this is exactly what a work engaging in such a difficult and important discussion should be.

The findings are surprising: that Iran, for instance, "allegedly an unenlightened, authoritarian, even totalitarian state, because of its religious nature" is more uniformly and deeply penetrated by individualism than Turkey.

A losing battle for reactionary forces

"After literacy birth control is the second basic element that pushes a population into a higher stage of awareness and development", write Todd and Courbage. And here as well the Muslim world will merge with the universal course of history, "of course at its own pace and on its own path, but toward the same vanishing point to which others aspire."

On its path into modernity the Islamic world is experiencing a transitional crisis, conclude the demographers. The reactionary forces are fighting what will ultimately be a losing battle, even if radical Islamism is momentarily the strongest political reaction to this transitional crisis.

"According to the historical law which stipulates that a decline in the birth-rate precedes a religious crisis, it looks more as if Islamism represents a movement of the moment and by no means the end of history."

Todd and Courbage predict a period after Islamism, a "de-Islamicised Muslim world" – after the pattern of the Christian Occident and the Buddhist Far East.

Is there a universal course of history?

Here is where critics pounce. Will this change follow the European model, as the two French authors predict? This conclusion from the explosive data is too easy. The existence of the certainly important indicators "literacy" and "decline in birth-rate" do not inevitably mean that the development in the Islamic world will take the same course as in the Western world.

It depends on "what the women read, and a decline in the birth-rate can also mean that advances in prenatal technology are being used to abort girls", writes Nils Minkmar, for instance, in the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. However, it would not be the first time that Emmanuel Todd was right on with a controversial prediction.

Maik Meuser

© 2008

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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