Federal Liberal Party member Danna Vale has been ridiculed for linking high rates of abortion in Australia with concerns about the high fertility rate of Australian Muslims. Her basic assertion was that Muslims will come to dominate the population of Australia because the fertility of non-Muslims is low as a consequence of the high abortion rate. The presumption was that this was a bad thing.
Many of the factual claims underlying Vale’s views (if not the views themselves) are correct. Moreover, her political concerns regarding the development of a substantial Muslim population in Australia do reflect widespread, though often misguided, community concerns. Attempting to disregard her, by ridiculing her views, ignores the reality of suchconcerns. For example, in a recent survey, over half of Victorian schoolchildren view Muslims as terrorists. There is a problem.
The social concerns of non-Muslim Australians derive partly from recent European experience. Bernard Lewis shocked European politicians by claiming that Europe would be Islamic by the end of this century ‘at the very latest’. Moreover, such possible profound demographic changes are not developing at all smoothly. In 2005, riots in France were blamed on Islamic radicals living in the country who did not identify themselves as French. There have been many other newsworthy incidents (see here and here). More generally, to quote a recent report:
Europe is undergoing a massive population shift — some say the largest in more than a millennium – as Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa cross the Mediterranean in search of work and a better life. The Muslim population of Europe is increasing dramatically; in countries like France, it is already about six million, or 10 percent of the total, and could easily double in percentage terms in the coming 20
Declining birthrates mean that Europe needs these immigrants to stay vibrant. And indeed, many of them have integrated successfully, gaining education, wealth and prestige. Yet across the continent, some of Europe’s Muslims are drifting off into separate troubled societies. In some European cities, nearly half of Muslim youths drop out of high school and unemployment rates are high. Racism is on the rise, helping to drive Muslims back into their communities. The situation was crystallized in a report last year by the French domestic intelligence agency, which surveyed 630 communities with a heavy concentration of Muslim migrants. Half of them, the report said, are “ghettoized” along religious lines.
On the fertility facts in Australia:
- Australia does have a relatively high abortion levels relative to fertility. 250,000 children are born each year and 100,000 pregnancies end in abortion. While I would never think of legislating to limit women’s right to abortion – there are reasons for abortion – I don’t derive joy from these figures. Overall Australian fertility is at the high end of generally low developed country TFR’s. It has dropped from 3.5 in 1961 to 1.77 in 2005, after getting a slight upwards nudge recently, apparently in response to public ‘baby bonuses’.
- Muslim women do have much higher fertility than do other Australian women. According to ANU demographer Peter MacDonald, Islamic women have 40% more children than the average, with a TFR of 2.68. Moreover, these high fertility rates do not ‘wash out’ quickly as Muslims are almost unique in retaining high fertility into the second generation. High fertility among Muslim women is global with most high fertility countries being Muslim.
The history of Muslims in Austraklia is widely-documented. After World War 2, fewer than 3,000 Muslims lived in Australia but numbers grew to 281,000 in 2001, when the latest census was held. Today, at 300,000, the Muslim population remains a tiny percentage (1.5%) of Australia’s total. But its growth rate is high. According to the 2001 census it had grown by 40% in five years, while the Australian population as a whole grew 5.7%. Natural fertility, not immigration, is the main factor behind the high rate of population increase among Muslims.
Is the increase proportion of Muslims in the Australian population a difficulty for non-Muslims? Well, if there is a problem, in my view, it has to do with the economic disadvantage many Muslims face in Australia not their religion.
There seem to be five major reasons the community has concerns with current population trends.
- Some concern with Muslim immigration is connected with the general problems the West has had in its relations with Muslims since the September 11 attacks. Some of this concern is just nasty racism; some is a misguided desire to protect our society from extremism by attributing to a large community the actions of a minority of fanatics. Most Muslims not only oppose terrorism – some are actively working to prevent it.
- Concerns stem from different cultural attitudes held by Muslims toward religious freedom, the treatment of women, religious beliefs, failure to intermarry (particularly by Lebanonese) and so on. This is compounded by extreme statements by minority groups in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It seems to me however that non-Muslim Australians have culturally much in common with Muslims. As an atheist I don’t share religious views with any faith but it the Semitic religions do share much in common. Divergence in religious viewpoint should not be an insurmountable social obstacle.
- Other more important issues are related to the high levels of welfare dependency among some Australian Muslims. Bob Birrell’s work, based on the 1996 census, noted a welfare dependency rate in the largely Muslim Lebanese community of three times the average. Migrants from Turkey also have high welfare dependency. As in the European example cited above, being Muslim in Australia often goes with socio-economic disadvantage.
- A forthcoming study by Betts and Healy (referred to here) focuses on disadvantage in second and even third generation Muslim Australians. They highlight one of the biggest problems associated with high fertility: the explosive combination of highly-concentrated numbers of young people and almost endemic unemployment.
- It seems to me inevitable that difficulties will arise if fundamentalist Islam gains influence among economically-disadvantaged young Muslim men.
High crime rates in southwestern Sydney and the Cronulla riots cannot be ignored as a foretaste of the problems Australia will encounter if it has a substantial economically-disadvantaged Muslim minority.
It is sensible for Australia to try to protect our society from such developments. This means exerting our national right to offer Australian citizenship to only those groups who will not prove a long-term liability. Specifically Australia should:
- Restrict immigrant entry to those with skills who are unlikely to become part of disadvantaged and disaffected groups, and;
- Address disadvantage where it currently exists among pre-established migrant communities.
In my children’s lifetime it is doubtful that the proportion of Muslims in the Australian population would exceed 10%. And even if it did that is of no concern to me at all. I am however concerned with the prospects of a disadvantaged minority developing who may come to feel alienated from mainstream society eventually posing a costly long-term threat to it.
The issue is to address these sources of disadvantage.