The decline in fertility in Middle Eastern Islamic countries —
including Iran — is "amazing", says
the head of the UN's population division, Hania Zlotnik. Eight of the
15 countries that experienced the biggest drop in population growth
since 1980 are in the Middle East.

“In most of the Islamic world it’s amazing, the decline in
fertility that has happened,’’ Ms. Zlotnik told reporters at a
population
conference
this week. High birth rates in the Middle East are now
an exception. “Even in cultures that are Muslim, advances of a very
big quantity can be made, if the government has enough commitment to
provide the services and the social infrastructure that validates
those changes.”

The UN appears to believe that nearly all of the drop in fertility
is due to the implementation of its policy of government-sponsored
drives for contraception. As it says in a
recent policy brief,
"Expansion of access to family planning
requires
government commitment and effective action to
disseminate
information about contraceptive
methods and the benefits of smaller
families.
"

This seems unlikely, since fertility is declining everywhere, even
without government programs. But the decline in the Middle East
certainly does defy stereotypes about Muslim fertility. From 1975 to
1980, the fertility rate in Iran was about 7. But by 2010, it will
probably drop to less than 2, that is, less than replacement,
according to recent UN statistics. The other Arab countries in the
top 15 include Tunisia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Libya,
Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco. Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the
region, has resisted the trend, with a fertility rate of about 5.

Fertility is a political issue in the Palestinian territories and
Israel. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it has fallen from about
7 in 1980 to about 5. The corresponding rates for Israel are about
3.4 to 2.8 — although that includes Arab Israelis.

Readers of a New York Times blog entry on this topic were
jubilant: "good news… this report makes my day…" and so
on. However, Philip Longman points out in a recent article in USA
Today
that a rapid decline in fertility leads to rapid ageing a
generation later:

"Under the grip of militant Islamic clerisy, Iran has seen
its population of children implode. Accordingly, Iran's population is
now aging at a rate nearly three times that of Western Europe. Maybe
the middle aging of the Middle East will bring a mellower tone to the
region, but middle age will pass swiftly to old age." ~ New
York Times Dot Earth, Apr 3

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.