How myths about Muslim population growth get the equation wrong

The belief that the Islamic doctrine is responsible for growth in the Muslim population seems to dominate the public imagination. But the notion is wrong.

 |  5-minute read |   21-08-2018
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This series of articles aims to unpack three different aspects of contemporary Muslim identities — Muslims as a population group, the nature of contemporary Indian Islam(s) and the official status of Muslims as a constitutional minority. Instead of offering an opinion or personal view on these issues, the author attempts to bring in an evidence-based narrative for an informed debate on Muslimness in India.

Being a census category — a category that is employed to count people on various bases, including religion — Muslims are predominately addressed as numbers to describe the demographic configuration of the country.

However, unlike other religious communities, Muslims as 'numbers' are always portrayed as an unsolvable national problem.

muslim-population-69_082118010204.jpgMore than a number, yet described as such: Muslims are predominately addressed as 'numbers', with implications. (Source: Reuters)

Three different, yet connected arguments are often given in this regard.

First of all, there is a popular development-centric argument. It is suggested that the unrestricted growth of the Muslim population affects the equitable and just distribution of national resources in a developing economy like India. This argument relies heavily on the growth rate of the Muslim population — a statistical tool to measure the comparable increase of population in percentage points. The traces of this explanation could easily be found in newspaper reports and prime-time TV discussions.

The English newspapers' headlines of August 25, 2015 — the very next day when the government released the latest census statistics on religious communities — is a good example. These demonstrate how the metaphor of Muslims as 'number' is used in public discourse. Being the most accessible form of information about Muslims in India, the population in percentage terms (Muslims constitute 14.22 per cent of India's total population, and their growth rate is 24.60 per cent, which is higher than Hindus) actually becomes a powerful symbol of Muslim identity.

Here are a few examples of how newspapers reported the census data on August 25, 2015:

a) Census 2011: Hindus dip to below 80 per cent of population; Muslim share up, slows down: The Muslim community has registered a moderate 0.8 per cent growth to touch 17.22 crore in the 10-year period between 2001 and 2011, up from 13.8 crore, while Hindu population showed a decline by 0.7 per cent at 96.63 crore during the period, the census data said.

b) Census 2011 shows Islam is the fastest growing religion in India: Proportion of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists shrank, while there was negligible change for Christians and Jains, data shows.

c) Bengal beats India in Muslim growth rate

Muslims as numbers are also used as an explanatory framework to understand the relationship between the Islamic faith and population growth. It is suggested that Muslims are more religious than other religious communities; this faith (read blind faith!) in Islamic scriptures, such as the Quran and Hadith, does not allow Muslims to become truly modern. As a result, an inward-looking Islamic culture of 'having four wives and 16 children' is legitimised. To get rid of this old Islamist mindset, Muslims are advised to embrace modern education in the true sense so that they can understand the significance of birth control.

This stereotypical conclusion is often rejected by professional demographers on the basis of factual inaccuracies. Yet, the belief that the Islamic doctrine is responsible for the Muslim growth rate seems to dominate public imagination.

muslim-population-gr_082118010404.jpgThe faith, the growth rate: Links are frequently made between the Islamic faith and the population of Muslims. (Source: AP)

The third argument is purely political. A section of intellectuals and political elite associated with Hindu nationalist politics invokes the supoosedly separatist tendencies inherent in the Islamic doctrine to argue that the Muslim population growth is an outcome of a planned strategy, a deep-rooted conspiracy to outnumber Hindus. The 1947 Partition of India is referred as a historical metaphor in these explanations to draw a simple conclusion: a stringent law to control Muslim population must be implemented. The resolution passed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in November 2015 illustrates this more sharply. It says: "The share of population of religions of Bharatiya origin, which was 88 per cent, has come down to 83.8 per cent, while the Muslim population, which was 9.8 per cent, has increased to 14.23 per cent during the period 1951-2011… The rate of growth of Muslim population has been higher than the national average in the border districts of states like Assam, West Bengal and Bihar, clearly indicating the unabated infiltration from Bangladesh."

These arguments, nevertheless, are critically evaluated on the basis of facts and statistics. The growth rate of the Muslim population is compared with other factors such as median age, average fertility and infant mortality rate by professional demographers and sociologists to produce a nuanced and informed counter-reading. Abdul Saleh Shariff's thoughtful rejoinder is relevant here. Questioning the 'ready to use political conclusion', Shariff argues: "Muslim population has increased from 13.4 per cent of the population to 14.2 per cent, which is 0.8 percentage points higher. But the rate of growth is considerably lower than in previous decades. Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus for a couple of more decades because they have the youngest median age and relatively high fertility among the major religious groups in India. In 2010, the median age of Indian Muslims was 22, compared with 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. Muslim women bear an average 3.1 children per head, compared with 2.7 for Hindus and 2.3 for Christians." 

muslim-690_082118010516.jpgWhose beliefs are these anyway? It's widely believed that 'the Muslim population is a threat'. Where do these notions come from? (Source: Reuters)

This counter-reading has an intellectual relevance of its own, especially in the present anti-Muslim context. The hollowness of the popular discourse on the Muslim population, which is systematically used by the political class for its vested interests, is also exposed in these writings.

However, this informed critique of stereotypical imaginations of a Muslim population survives primarily in academic discussions and seminars. It does not affect the popular belief that 'the Muslim population is a threat' to the nation. Even the so-called secular political parties do not show any interest in evolving an alternative political position on Muslims as numbers. The question is why.

The expert view, no doubt, encourages us to make a distinction between data and the meanings/interpretations of data. However, these kinds of overtly academic responses do not help us in unpacking the ways in which popular beliefs and stereotypes are justified by using 'scientific facts'.

This is precisely the reason why there is a need to have a more informed political position on Muslims in India — so that they might not be imagined simply as "numbers".

Also read: A new Independence, and a new partition


Hilal Ahmed Hilal Ahmed @ahmed1hilal

Author is associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

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