This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
The population of Egypt has increased from 44 million to 84 million people in the past 30 years! According to World Bank statistics, it is expected to reach 130 million in 2050. That is undoubtedly a stunning explosion, and it surely must elicit various reactions and comments, including panic and despair, as the issue here strikes directly at human development, through demographics, economics, sociology, state policies, and religion (stands w.r.t. birth control).
Even more depressing is the news that Egypt is not a special and lone case with such a population explosion occurring over the last few decades. Let us look briefly at the figures for a few other important Muslim countries:
· Algeria’s population increased from 19 to 35 million between 1980 and 2010 and is expected to reach 50 million in 2050;
· Iran’s population increased from 39 to 74 million in the past 30 years and is expected to reach 96 million in 2050;
· Pakistan’s population increased from 83 to 173 million in the past 30 years and is expected to reach 321 million in 2050;
· Even Malaysia (a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and well-managed country) is seeing the same doubling of population trend: from 14 to 28 million in the past 30 years, reaching 39 million by 2050;
· Finally, Saudi Arabia is a complicated case: the figures show even more staggering explosions (from 9 to 26 million in the past 30 years, reaching 42 million in 2050), but these numbers include expatriates (about a third of them), varying with economic growth and recession; still, the numbers are stunning.
The trends are indeed clear and startling; as I said above, they induce panic and despair when one thinks of the standards of living that these countries could then be expected to produce for their populations now and in the next few decades.
Now, if economic growth cannot be expected to match such population increases (over many years and decades), the only other option is to limit population growth. But one cannot envisage a Chinese-style “one child per couple” policy, for cultural and religious reasons.
Which leads me to the question of birth control and Islam. Although Muslim scholars have now largely accepted contraception as a permissible procedure that couples can adopt (though this was a matter of debate and disagreement for many years until recently, just like in the Catholic Church), they still set stringent conditions, among them that the procedure be freely adopted by the couple and not imposed by the state. Many scholars also distinguish between the contraceptive pill, which they usually accept, and between the “Copper-T” Intra-Uterine Device (IUD), which is often described as a destructive tool that acts after fertilization has occurred. And juristic (Islamic) schools differ over the period (weeks to months) over which abortion – under special circumstances (e.g. serious health risks to the pregnant woman) – can be practiced. Furthermore, “permanent” procedures like vasectomy (in males) and tubecotomy (in females) are largely rejected (on grounds that they involve “changing human physiology”).
And if one prods the scholars a bit hard, they will mostly reject economic and standard-of-living reasons for family planning and population growth. They will insist that Allah will provide bountifully for pious people, and better education and quality of life depends more on other factors than on the size of a family.
It was thus very interesting for me to notice an Egyptian state TV campaign attempting to convince people (especially the less educated farmer communities of the south) to limit the number of children they should have. In a funny scene, “Uncle Said” asks a not-so-young fellow why he wants to marry a second (younger) wife, and when the latter tells him he wants more children (“now that the others have grown up”), “Uncle Said” brings a jug of juice and a few empty glasses and shows him how dividing the juice among 6 glasses yields less (per glass) than if it is divided among two or three…
I should also mention some interesting statistics provided by the World Bank regarding the usage of contraceptives in various countries. Here are the numbers for the Muslim countries mentioned above for recent times (the data often not being available before the 80’s or the 70’s); what is available is still very interesting:
· In Algeria the fraction of women (between the ages of 15 and 49) who regularly use contraceptives was only 7 % in 1977, then it jumped to 47% in 1992 (due to a large state campaign after it was discovered that the country’s birth rate had for the previous two decades been one of the highest in the world), and it is now at 61 %;
· In Egypt, it was 24% in 1980 (there are no data figures previous to that), and it has similarly increased to about 60% now;
· In Iran, 23 % of women used contraceptives in 1978 (the earliest data figure, just before the Islamic revolution), steadily increasing to about 80 % now;
· In Pakistan, the fraction has increased from 11 % in 1984 to about 30 % now;
· For Malaysia, we only have data from the 1980’s when the fraction was about 50 %;
· And for Saudi Arabia, the only figure available is from 1996 when 32 % of women were reported to be using contraceptives, though again, no information is given on whether those were Saudi women or a mixture of Arab/Muslim and non-Muslim/expat women.I find all these statistics highly significant and critical to these countries’ future development, and I am surprised that little is made of them in terms of public discourse by government officials and state planners, not to mention reporters and public intellectuals…