Muslims are again in the thick of a furious debate in India. The controversy over the divorce procedures among Muslims was still in embers when the worn out theory of a Muslim population bomb was reignited once again. The latest census data in India has shown some interesting facts. The anti-Muslim lobby has cherry picked those findings that suit them to bolster their claims that Muslims pose a population threat.

Indian Population Growth Trends By Religion 

A common myth being perpetuated by the anti-Muslim brigade is that in the long run Muslims will outnumber Hindus. There have been multiple online postings that express concern that the Indian Muslim population will expand to 925 million and the number of Hindus will decrease to 902 million by 2035. Hindu festivals will no longer be celebrated by 2040. The more hysterical postings claim large-scale conversions to Islam will occur and that there will be widespread killing of non-Muslims. The most “apocalyptic” prediction of all is that by 2050, the Muslim population will be 18.90 million and India will become a Muslim country. But Muslims are not the only targeted religious group.

The Muslim share of India’s population increased by 0.88% between 1981 and 1991, it increased by 0.84% between 1991 and 2001, and now it has increased by 0.80%. Muslims form 14.2% of the population now; their share was 13.4% in 2001, 12.6% in 1991, and 11.7% in 1981. This slight increase in the total Muslim population is on account of the higher growth rate among Muslims in comparison to others. But this is expected to bottom out in the foreseeable future.

It is also true that the growth rate of Muslims has declined from 29.5% of the previous decade to 24.6% now, but the national average has also declined from 21.6 to 17.7%. In relative terms, the national average has declined by about 18% and Muslim growth declined by 17%.

  • First, the rate of Muslim population growth dropped from 29 per cent between 1991-2001 to 24 per cent between 2001-2011. Although it is still higher than the national average of 18 per cent, the Muslim community’s share of the total population grew by a much smaller 0.8 per cent than in previous decades. The growth would have been even less but for an unusually sharp, though not entirely surprising, spike in West Bengal and Assam states of India attributed to allegedly illegal migration from Bangladesh. The influx of Bangladeshi migrants has been a particularly contentious issue in Assam state and been widely debated.
  • Second, the Muslim population has increased from 13.4 per cent of the population to 14.2 per cent, which is 0.8 percentage points higher. But the rate of growth is considerably lower than in previous decades. Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus for a couple of more decades because they have the youngest median age and relatively high fertility among the major religious groups in India. In 2010, the median age of Indian Muslims was 22, compared with 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. Muslim women bear an average 3.1 children per head, compared with 2.7 for Hindus and 2.3 for Christians.
  • Third, in 2011, Hindus constituted 79.8 per cent of the population, compared to 80.5 per cent in 2001. This is the result of a rate of decline over the decade of 3.5 percentage points. It is the difference between the decadal growth rate of Hindus in 2001, which was 20.3 per cent and their growth rate between 2001 and 2011, which is 16.8 per cent. Compare these with the ratios for Muslims, who had a decadal growth rate of 29.5 per cent in 2001. This growth rate, between 2001 and 2011, has declined steeply to 24.6 per cent. This decline works out to be a high 4.9 percentage points.
  • Fourth, when these percentage point declines are compared between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims have shown a 50 per cent higher decline in growth rate than Hindus. However, it is true that the fertility rate of Muslim women is still higher than the Hindu women. Why is it so? The data collected by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) clearly backs the fact that the fertility rate is high among the poor and uneducated section of the population. It decreases as we go higher in economic prosperity and education level. This positive higher decline of Muslims compared with Hindus has been occurring since 1981, and is expected to continue in a manner such that the Muslim growth rate will soon be similar to that of the Hindus. The fast pace of decline in Muslim women’s fertility rate is occurring while they have a much lower mean child-bearing age, which in itself is evidence that falling Muslim fertility is choice-based and irreversible in the near future.
  • Fifth, overall, there is considerable improvement in the sex ratio (number of females per 1000 males in the population) of 933 in 2011. In 2001, there were improvements among Hindus. This is a very positive story of Census 2011. Yet, Muslims have better sex ratios compared to Hindus, which is also a contributing factor in the relatively higher number of births.
  • Sixth, it has been pointed out since the mid-1980s that the prevalence rate of contraceptives among Muslims has been increasing faster than among Hindus and is likely to catch up with the national average earlier than expected. The rate of increase in contraception among the Muslim community, even in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, has been high. This finding debunks the myth that Muslims loathe birth control and family planning.

Admittedly, Muslims have shown a propensity to have larger families– but not because there is an Islamic conspiracy to “take over’’ India. Studies show that this has to do with socio-economic factors, especially educational backwardness. Historically, Muslims had had a lower population growth rate when they were economically more prosperous and it rose as their socio-economic condition deteriorated.

Poverty has a direct bearing on family demographics. Those living in extreme poverty feel their children are more vulnerable to sickness for which they can’t afford expenses. In order to offset the fear of losing children to mortal diseases,they hedge this risk by producing larger number of children. There is a direct relationship between poverty and fertility and inverse relationship between fertility and higher per capita income. The new economic programs are slowly delivering results and improvement in living conditions is bound to transform the mindset of this segment of the population.

Rural women, particularly among Muslim families, live in the stranglehold of harsh customs. They are mostly unempowered and are often unable to act on their own behalf to obtain family planning services to regulate their childbearing. They are also the group most likely to believe that bearing many children will provide a bulwark against poverty in their old age. The financially better off have easy access to so many financial security programs for planning for a peaceful and hassle-free old age. The poor carry a wrong perception that having more children would provide additional source of earnings and thus they would have a better kitty to cope with life’s eventualities.

Fortunately there is a growing awareness among the new generation for women. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy that all women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society. Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. The new wave of awareness of the priority of education has catapulted Muslim women from the hearth to positions in various fields. The ripple benefits of this new development are bound to impact their thinking and will definitely impact the demographic profiles.

The current decline also is directly related to the fact that the younger generation of Muslims is more educated and aspirational. Especially, educated and aspirational Muslim women are as careful about family planning as their Hindu counterparts. I know countless young Muslim couples in their 30s who have no children despite family pressures because they don’t want a child unless they can give them their best.

The Muslim population growth is still out of sync the national trend but, if the latest findings hold up, it should get there soon.  The truism is that there is not much to despair on the population front or to conjure fantasies of Muslims hegemony. What is required is not a political lens. It is the economic prism through which we should view the whole issue and focus on programs that can further refine the demographic equation and correct the skewed profile.

Global Population Growth Trends By Religion

Muslim-Population-Growth-InlineWe have been discussing trends in the Indian population, but  global trends also show that the growth of the Muslim population has slowed down and in the foreseeable future will match the average demographic equation. A recent study from the Pew Research Center on religion and public life demonstrates that neither the UK nor Europe are in danger of a Muslim takeover, whatever the American Right may believe. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030” is a major and comprehensive study that focuses on the Muslim populations in North America, Europe, Africa and the Asia-Pacific and provides a revealing look into the future of the Muslim population worldwide and the future religious makeup of the world.

According to the report, the global Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% over the next two decades, rising from a population of 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion in 2030. The study says that the global Muslim population is expected to grow at a faster rate than the non-Muslim population, but that the Muslim population is projected to grow at a slower pace than it did during the previous two decades. The Pew findings demonstrate that fear of a Muslim takeover is largely the product of hysteria. France is not headed toward becoming an “Islamic republic” by 2048, as has been claimed, and Germany is not on its way to becoming a “Muslim state” by 2050.

It is strange that these Pew findings and projections are less likely to circulate as widely or quickly as statistics about predictions of a Muslim takeover. Commentators seem more focused on ringing false alarm bells than on presenting facts. The reality is that there is no takeover, but that there is a danger of intolerance that threatens the very fabric of society. We are not witnessing a clash of civilizations, but a clash of cultures fostered by those who portray Islam as a monolith. These people see religious and cultural diversity solely as a threat rather than as a potential source of strength and enrichment. The liberal democratic heritage and fabric of our societies must be safeguarded and fear mongering, religious and racial discrimination rejected and marginalized in a future based on facts not fiction.