Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, in which the birth rate of Francophone Canadians fell to among the lowest from the highest in the industrial world, may offer lessons for the future of radical Islam. Quebecois nationalism peaked after the Quebec’s demographic fate was sealed, offering an embittered but futile remonstrance against inevitable decline. Last week I observed that Islamists have only one generation in which to establish the theocracy they want, before modernism catches up with the Muslim world and its birth rate crashes to levels associated with the infecund West ( The demographics of radical Islam August 23).

If the owl of wisdom flies at night, as Hegel said of philosophy, so does the buzzard of nationalism. When traditional life is placid and content in its faith and family life, nationalism does not require political expression. Europe’s nationalist movements sprang up in response to the threat of Napoleon. Quebec’s nationalists invented themselves in response to the imminent decline of the Francophone population of Canada. Something analogous may be said of the Islamists.

Islamism wells up from a profound and well-placed sense of fragility. Islam’s enormous population growth rate, I showed last week, is explained by illiteracy better than any other factor; as the modern world engulfs Muslim populations now living in near-medieval conditions of ignorance, the old way of life will disappear. In the absence of theocratic political structures, Islam will sink into the muck of globalized popular culture. These circumstances inspire the sense of urgency we perceive among today’s Islamists, who find themselves in a desperate race against time.

Islamists respond quite differently to the threat of cultural extinction than Francophone Catholics. In some respects the comparison is quite unfair. Quebecois nationalists did not strap on bomb-belts, to be sure, but rather sought an independent Quebec at the ballot box. But the element common to the behavior both is the sense of desperation in face of demographic decline. In 1995, the voters of Quebec rejected independence by a margin of just 1%; today the issue of independence is dormant. Quebecers have accustomed themselves to the mediocrity of their circumstances and reconciled themselves to the inevitability of decline.

Should the Islamists fail in this generation as badly as the Arab nationalists failed during the generation of Gamel Abdul Nasser, it is quite possible that the Islamic world will sink into demoralization as its population growth falls. In 1960, Quebec was the most Catholic and the most fecund province in the world. Church attendance ranged between 80% and 90%, and the Quebec fertility rate stood at four (that is, the average woman had four children). By the 1980s it had fallen to just 1.5, among the lowest in the industrial world. Culturally, Quebec belongs more to Europe than to North America, and the collapse of its faith and fertility followed the model of Spain, Italy and other European Catholic countries. 

In 1968, after the sharp collapse of the fertility rate, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) formed in a merger of independence movements, headed by Rene Levesque. The PQ formed Quebec’s provincial government in 1976 and dominated provincial politics until the late 1990s. In 1980, the PQ introduced a referendum on the subject of Quebec sovereignty, but it was rejected by three-fifths of the voters. Brought to the voters again in 1995, the independence issue lost by a single percentage point. As Exhibit 2 below makes clear, the surge in support for the PQ occurred after Quebec’s population growth rate had fallen precipitously.

The threat of Quebec secession as well as legal measures to suppress the use of English in government and business affairs provoked an exodus of entrepreneurs and professionals. Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, lost nearly half a million in population. Despite generous tax subsidies for families with newborn children, the fertility rate remained abysmal, while most new immigrants shunned Quebec in favor of Anglophone Canada. By the beginning of the present decade, voter sentiment shifted decisively away from the PQ, whose percentage of the popular vote fell to only 33% from 43% in 1998. The people of Quebec no longer care.

By the middle of this century the same thing may happen to Islam, as the corrosive effect of popular culture breaks down traditional society. Today’s 3% fertility rate in Muslim countries is founded on an adult literacy rate of only 50%. Islamist sentiment has surged in face of the threat of a sharp decline a generation hence. That is why the first half of the 21st century may be the time of maximum danger for confrontation between Islam and the West.

In last week’s essay on the demographics of radical Islam, I quoted a volume of essays, Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by Basheer M Nafi. Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes wrote on his website August 19:

Basheer M Nafi, co-editor and accused terrorist. Convicted criminals and even convicted terrorists do significant intellectual work (think of Antonio Negri, co-author of the acclaimed Empire). Still, it took me aback, as the Sami al-Arian trial is underway, to receive a serious volume of essays, Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, co-edited by a defendant in that trial. Basheer M Nafi’s name comes up all the time in the court hearings. (For a selection of news items on the trial that pertain to Middle East studies, see the Campus Watch page on the University of South Florida.) Specifically, he is charged with “conspiracy to murder, maim or injure persons outside the United States.”
August 23, 2005 update : I did not have long to wait. The Asia Times [Online] columnist who goes by the pseudonym Spengler in today’s issue respectfully cites “the Islamists Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer M Nafi” on the topic of radical Islam’s demographics. There’s nary a word about Nafi’s being under indictment for supporting terrorism.

I did not know of the accusations against Nafi before reading Pipes’ comment, but should have Googled him before citing him. In retrospect, I am not surprised. The Muslim intellectuals who best understand the demographic and social predicament of Islam are more likely than anyone else to employ violence to achieve theocracy while there is still time.

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