On the latter point, a major takeaway of the Pew report (and its companion from this year) is that fertility has much less to do with religion and much more to do with economics, social services, women’s empowerment, and conflict. 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. This was still higher than the global fertility rate in 2015, but it’s a strikingly fast drop given the fact that it took some Western European countries nearly a century to transition from six children per woman to three.
The claim about Muslim overpopulation falls apart in fascinating ways when examined more closely. The fastest fertility drop in modern history happened in the Islamic theocracy of Iran. In 1950, Iranian women had about seven children each; today they have about 1.68, fewer than Americans. What changed? In 1989, the country’s leaders realized that the the high birth rate was straining the young republic. In response, the Supreme Leader issued fatwas encouraging birth control and contraception, and the Health Ministry propagated family planning counseling, rural health centers, and contraceptive distribution across the country. Iran also made girls’ education a development priority as it sought to rebuild civil society after the Iran-Iraq War, which ended in 1988, so more girls than ever started to attend (strictly gender-segregated) schools. Everywhere, there is an inverse relationship between years of schooling and fertility rates.
In the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, fertility rates dropped between the 1960s and the 1990s, from about 5.6 children per woman to 2.3, as the Suharto dictatorship instituted a vigorous, centralized family planning program and made improvements to girls’ education. Those government services were decentralized after democracy came to the archipelago in 1998 and, predictably, fertility rates have been creeping up again. Today, Indonesia’s majority-Christian but less developed eastern provinces have a higher birthrate than the more developed, Muslim-majority western ones—a testament to the correlation between economic development and fertility.
But it’s unlikely that these, or any, facts about Muslim demographics will change minds anywhere. In a demographics report, Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah, researchers at the American Enterprise Institute, write: “There remains a widely perceived notion—still commonly held within intellectual, academic, and policy circles in the West and elsewhere—that ‘Muslim’ societies are especially resistant to embarking upon the path of demographic and familial change that has transformed population profiles in Europe, North America, and other ‘more developed’ areas.”
In places like Burma, where the Muslim overpopulation trope is now deeply rooted, facts may have even less sway. “Repeated exposure is a big factor in determining the ‘stickiness’ of misinformation,” said Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. He pointed to the mere-exposure effect, a tendency to develop a preference for things simply because we’re familiar with them, and the illusory-truth effect, a tendency to believe information after repeated exposure. “Both point to the fact that the more a falsehood is repeated, the more likely people are to believe it,” he said, adding that political leaders have long understood this concept on an intuitive level. “Consider the ‘big lie’ law of propaganda: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ … We’ve seen many ‘big lies’ fly by in current debates, and some people continue to believe them.” (After reading a few hundred stories on the Rohingya crisis, I was almost one of them.)