Revenge of the cradle

17:00, May 15 2010
burqua
A birth-rate numbers game will see fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims challenge the globe's secular liberal democracies by 2050.

FRANCE AND Belgium are moving to ban the full-face burqa. Coming from the opposite direction, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams provoked horror and dismay by floating the idea that aspects of sharia law might be allowed within English communities. Elsewhere in Britain, men have been thrown out of swimming pools because Muslim women were there.

What is the right response of liberal democracies to socially challenging manifestations of fundamentalist religion? How much tolerance, or protection, of difference is too much?

It doesn't help that, to many in western societies, those liberal ideals are soft and squishy compared with the rigid and treasured precepts of the fundamentally religious. For example, you can argue against burqas on a technical basis – courts and banks need to see your face – though on a societal level any distaste about their possible repression of women is complicated by matters of individual and religious rights. But UK-based academic Eric Kaufmann, while explicitly casting no judgement on fundamentalist groups, nevertheless says that countries like New Zealand and his homeland, Canada, are allowing to go unchallenged aspects of multiculturalism that run strongly counter to the principles of liberal democracies.

book
Shall The Religious Inherit The Earth?, Eric Kaufmann, Profile/Allen & Unwin, $39.99

"Places like NZ and Canada are probably a little bit – I wouldn't say naive, but they're still supporting a kind of multiculturalism which I think is affording too much slack to some of these movements which are not as benign as we may think. I would say toleration but not encouragement. Maintaining your standards on expressive freedom and gender equality, those non-negotiables. And try to, as much as possible, limit the expansion of phenomena such like faith schooling... where [illiberal ideas] can incubate and local communal pressures can be brought to bear on individuals that would curtail their own freedom of expression."

He wouldn't advocate the French model, but argues for maximum tolerance as long as such groups are abiding by general laws and norms of the society. If such groups get to a majority, it raises a lot of "tricky problems".

Kaufmann, a London-based political scientist who usually specialises in ethnic conflict, is the author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, in which he argues that by 2050 the globe's seemingly inevitable shift to secular liberal democracy will be challenged by a sharp population rise among groups of religious fundamentalists, isolating as he does particular sects within the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

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His argument has many strands, but the clincher is demography – data from the World Population Program in Austria suggests that even as societies westernise, improve education standards and become more secular, their birth rates plummet, some to below replacement level, the fertility rates of fundamentalist groups within those societies remain sky-high. And the sides will inevitably come into conflict. "That's where I pose this question of the contradictions of liberalism. Because, on the one hand, if you clamp down on these groups you contradict the principles of liberalism, you sell your soul, if you like. But if you then tolerate illiberalism you also endanger liberalism."

Kaufmann thinks liberal societies should have "non-negotiables", and emphasise unity rather than difference.

As for symbols sometimes seen as repressive of women such as burqas, tolerance is better, he says, but he suggests New Zealand's leaders could send a "symbolic statement rather than through the law".

Whereas secular birth rates are low and static, fundamentalists – Kaufmann focuses on ultra-orthodox in Israel, Muslims in Europe and Christian groups in the US, who embrace the literal reading of traditional texts, enforced morally conservative and strongly patriarchal codes – have many more children, rarely marry outside their faith and seldom leave. Moreover, he argues, nowadays they often acknowledge their high birth rate as not only pious but politically advantageous down the track, and that as a "strategy" works far better than proselytisation.

Doug Phillips, doyen of a fast-growing fundamentalist Protestant movement called Quiverfull, "preaches a `two-hundred-year plan' for fundamentalist dominion based on high fertility and membership retentions".

In America, secularisation is growing fast, following Europe, but it will plateau in the high teens by about 2050. Fundamentalist Christian groups, meanwhile, will grow faster. In the past century, the Amish have grown from 5000 in 1900 to 250,000 members today. By the middle of the century, Mormons will become the third-largest religious group, and by 2020, Muslims will nudge Jews into fifth place. This will "change the calculus" of political lobbying in the US, says Kaufmann, though he acknowledges the Muslim lobby "is less aligned with the average US voter" than the Jewish one. Still, last month the New York Times reported the Obama administration had been quietly making overtures to the Muslim community in line with its election pledge.

The ultra-orthodox Haredim in Israel will, from "a few percentage points" on the population curve in 1960, constitute the majority of the population after 2050, thanks to a fertility rate of 7.5 children per mother. A third of Jewish primary-school pupils will be studying in Haredi classrooms by 2012. Ultra-orthodox communities are subsidised so the men don't have to work or serve in the army, and were previously fairly apolitical – but are steadily becoming more hawkish and politically active. Other migration trends going on in Israel will only make the country more orthodox.

In Islamic countries, by comparison, "religious fundamentalism now dominates the public culture", writes Kaufmann.

"While Islamists only hold power in Sudan, Iran and parts of Somalia and Pakistan, they have successfully set the tone of the mass culture and limited the freedom of seculars and minorities."

Pious Muslims traditionally had more children because they were rural and poor, not because they were religious. But Islamists have been able to influence population policies, "delaying the implementation of family planning and female emancipation".

Along the way to raising the demographic temperature, Kaufmann debunks a few myths. Europe is not going to become Eurabia, for example, Muslims comprising 50% of the population, even in projections to 2100. Swift fertility declines in source countries and within European Muslims will see their fertility converge with the rest of the population, and the growth of other religious groups such as Buddhists and Sikhs will rise. But polarisation between fundamentalists and "seculars", as in America, will increase, he says.

But fundamentalist groups will inevitably hold more political sway in liberal democracies. How? In a number of ways, Kaufmann says, initially at the local level.

"If you think of Israel, it might be the greater Jerusalem area. Or if you think of the United States, it might be in Texas or South Carolina." If fundamentalists get to sufficient numbers they can try to infiltrate the school board or local Republican Party branch, he says.

"Because they are more cohesive, the Haredim can get all their people to vote a certain way or to boycott a certain product. In my book I'm largely talking about them setting the cultural agenda in issues like women's rights, alcohol, freedom of expression. My argument isn't so much about violence – I'm not saying that religion is more violent than, say, ethnic nationalism or secular nationalism, but I'm saying that when it comes to curtailing freedom of expression, it's certainly a greater threat.

"It's going to take a little while before the median voter is fundamentalist. It's going to be a delayed effect by as much as a half-century. So they may, for example, start out controlling particular locales, so Jerusalem's mayor, ultra-orthodox, you get that phenomenon for the first time, then maybe, slowly but surely, increased support in the Knesset, then once the median voter is ultra-orthodox, then you get a majority and begin to impose policy. And in the Muslim world you already see cultural policy being dictated by fundamentalism. You pretty much can't be a secular atheist in the Muslim world and express that opinion. You go in fear of your life, basically."

But does population always equal power? Social theorist Francis Fukiyama argued advanced weapons systems would help prevent the modern liberal societies from "succumbing to vigorous barbarians" as in the past, says Kaufmann. They count for a lot, but there's no question in geopolitics the major powers have also been the major population powers, he says.

More than 100 million people is seen as the absolute minimum, especially if you're sending troops abroad. "In that hard politics sense, yes, numbers do matter." And by the middle of the century, it's clear the liberals won't have them.

Sunday Star Times