Where civilizations meet, by Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd

Original text in French : http://orientsoccidents.hypotheses.org/19 (translation by Sami Mebtoul)

This book of Y. Courbage and E. Todd could be a classic one on the history of the demographic transition in countries where the population is largely Muslim (“Muslim world”). a phenomenon that Philippe Fargues has already begun to study in detail, questioning several clichés about the “Arab family” or the birth rates in Muslim countries. This is the approach, combining a demographer and an historian, the “empirical” method (p. 39) of following demographic indicators in several countries over the long term to compare and to identify a general trend, and its thesis that make this book a stimulating essay.

The argument of Y. Courbage and E. Todd is organized into several chapters of a short book, written with vivacity, and sometimes polemical tone as announced by the title of the book, a clear reference to the thesis of Samuel Huntington.

Mobilizing current and former demographic indicators of the Muslim world, comparing them with other demographic histories of space (especially Europe’s, but also China’s, Japan’s and Russia’s), the authors show “convergence models” (p. 5): the demographic transition experienced by almost every country in the Muslim world repeats the transition experienced by European countries in the 18th century, and leads these societies to family and social patterns that are those of more advanced countries. There is therefore no more Islamic demographic specificity than Christian demographic specificity. The demographic history that this book presents is a story that is both comprehensive in its geographical extension and universal because it tends to be that of humankind after hitting Europe: “a long cycle in which literacy, dechristianization and fertility decline first highlight the differences between religious areas, and then lead to convergence between them”(p. 158).

It is this process of transition and in particular the striking movement of fertility decline that is the main object of this book. Fertility rate in the Arab world has passed between 1975 and 2005 from 7.5 to 3.6 children (p. 65), while remaining very diverse between countries, since the indices go from 1.7 to 7 children per woman of childbearing age (p. 157). To explain this general trend and the variety of its forms, the two authors mobilize variables such as the role of female literacy associated with birth control, oil revenues, the effects of migration, the role of the State, conflicts (Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanese Civil War, Kosovo), and variables rarely discussed, such as the role of male literacy in fertility decline, and variables for which they engage in a real scientific discussion. This is the case of the role of religion in demographic behavior as the authors show that it depends much less on Islamic family structures than ancien family structures – the main theme of Emmanuel Todd researches. Internal divisions in Islam (Sunnism and Shi’ism mainly) sometimes occur in their analysis, and according to them, they will be temporary as the differences in demographic behavior between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. These structures, like the strong patrilineality, patrilocality and endogamy in the Arab countries, Iran and Pakistan, and their variations within the same country (eg Syria, p. 75 -79) are often previous to the Islamization of the Middle East, as matrilocality in Malay and Indonesian societies or polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa (chapter 4).

These different analyzes are conducted for each major geographic areas distinguished by the authors in the Muslim world : the Arab world (Chapter 5), the non-Arab countries of the Middle East (Chapter 6), the Balkan countries , the Caucasus and post-Soviet Central Asia (Chapter 7), East Asia (chapter 8) and sub-Saharan Africa (chapter 9).

Of this general thesis derives the interpretation Y. Courbage and E. Todd make of the current situation of the Muslim world, in particular the troubles and violence in these countries. The assumption of a “decisive” role (p. 159) of birth control in the evolution of mentalities and societies led the authors to see in these crises “crises of transition” (Chapter 2) that are not the sign of regression, but of a –painful- progression in the general movement of literacy progress and fertility decline that the authors describe for each country. Behind the dramatic demographic changes they describe, the authors uncover the destabilization of authority relations in the family entailed by literacy and fertility rates decline. This “dark side” comes with all demographic transitions evoked by Y. Courbage and E. Todd, and leads them to the identification of “risk areas” (p. 36) combining cultural modernization, collapse of traditional authority structures, political unrest with varied ideological content and transition violence.

The analysis is especially carried out in the Arab world (Chapter 3), Iran and Turkey (Chapter 4), and Pakistan with more caution (p. 109-110). Attachment to the status of women and Islamism (“ideology of transition” as the authors write, p. 54) are described as products of demographic modernization, just as were the French Revolution or the Communist revolutions in Russia and China (p. 54-56). It may be noted that the argument would have been strengthened by a discussion as consequent of undergoing Asian or even African transition crises (p. 63-64).

We can certainly not reproach  this essay to pass quickly on the ideological background of the crises of transition, since it interests more in the common form of the trajectories studied  (religious tensions, in the context of demographic transition) than ideological content depending on family structures disrupted by modernization. But the argument, sometimes controversial, establishes causality that the reader may sometimes struggle to follow. Without putting into question the “objectivity of demography” or the central thesis of the book, it is allowed for example to remain skeptical about the comparison of the democratic “predispositions” of Iran with a more militaristic Turkey, a comparison that may be too quickly connected to a divide between Sunni and Shia versions of Islam (p. 101-102), a regular temptation to make Shiism the equivalent of Weberian Protestantism.

The emphasis on a “core” Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Pakistani and Bangladeshi area (p. 44) defined by the authors by the similarity of its family systems, may be related also to the Islamist phenomenon or  authors specializations. If it is particularly welcome and illuminating for readers who have followed the Arab revolutions, however, it accentuates the tendency to relegate Muslim countries of sub-Saharan Africa to the peripheries of the book (8 pages for Chapter 9)where there is only an inventory of demographic and socio-economic fixtures for countries of the region.

The book of Y. Courbage and E. Todd imposes itself to readers interested in the comparative history of civilizations as a required reading, especially because the demographic approach remains little known and breaks many original clichés about the Muslim world and its relations with other parts of the world. The historical and geographical scope that authors embrace with vigor and conciseness make of this book a stimulating reading, concluded with optimism.

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