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Are Arabs Leaving Islam?

Or is Islam still the fastest growing religion?

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Posted on: 
5 Jul 2019
Are Arabs Leaving Islam?
It was an eye-catching headline!
“Arab world turning its back on religion,” claimed the title of an article last week in The Guardian. Very interesting and certainly worth a closer look.
It turns out that in a recent BBC News Arabic survey of 25,000 people across ten Middle East countries and the Palestinian territories, trust in religious leaders is plummeting, including in radical Islamist movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, there is a discernible rise in the proportion of people describing themselves as “not religious” – from 11% in 2012-2014 to 18% this year.
Now this is welcome news, especially for Christians who stand with Israel and view Islamic ideologies as a major impediment to peace and normalcy in the region. And the figures do seem credible, as the growing number of young Arabs who identify as “non-religious” mirrors the secularization trend among millennials in the traditionally Christian West. While a seven percent increase over the past half-decade might not seem that large, in context we are dealing here with those living in the heart of the Muslim world, where custom has long held that leaving the Islamic faith is a sin punishable by death. So the real number of Arab-Muslim apostates is likely even higher.
Yet several reputable polling firms (Pew Research Center, Barna Group) have been gauging the long-term trends worldwide, and they are forecasting that the secular, non-religious segments of societies worldwide will actually lose ground to the religious camps over coming decades, and that Islam will remain the fastest growing religion in the world. This is largely due to the higher birth rates among families that belong to the world’s major religions – most notably Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – as well as a projected increase in conversions to Islam.
So what are we to make of all this? Are there a significant number of Muslims in Arab nations who are leaving Islam? Or is Islam still the world’s fastest growing religion and destined to be the dominant faith of the future?
The answer to these questions is complex and elusive, as demographic studies of this nature are an inexact science – the data is incomplete, the methodologies are often flawed, and the trends are fluid. But here are some of the main factors to watch for going forward.
1) Birth rates among Muslims have been dropping significantly in recent decades.
Islam is growing faster than any other religion, according to the Pew studies, and by 2070 it will overtake Christianity as the world’s most prevalent religion. Yet much of this projected growth for Islam is based on birth rates that are not sustainable. The current fertility rate among Muslims is 3.1 children per woman, compared to 2.7 among Christians, but that gap is closing every year.
For years, academics and commentators have been citing higher birth and conversion rates to predict that countries like Britain and Russia will have Muslim majorities by 2050. But both rates are slowing and should soon level out. Regarding Russia, for over a decade Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes has maintained a running column on the Muslim-takeover debate there, presenting views both pro and con.  In one update, he notes the Russian government’s proactive efforts to encourage the native youth to procreate, including mass teen rallies that eerily resemble the Hitler Youth gatherings and ‘Hitler Brides’ phenomenon of an earlier era.
Israel has had its own heated demographic debate over the high Palestinian Muslim birth rate and its possible impact on Israeli democracy and the peace process. PLO chief Yasser Arafat used to boast that the wombs of Palestinian women were the best weapons they had for destroying Israel. Yet today, the demographic trends are turning in Israel’s favor. A report in La Stampa in 2016 even claimed that waves of Jewish immigration combined with a soaring birth-rate among religious Jews has brought an equilibrium with the Palestinians. In fact, the birth rates among Arab women has been halved over the past twenty years, both in Gaza (from 8 children per woman now down to 4) and the West Bank (6 children to 3), while Jewish mothers in the Israeli settlements of Judea/Samaria are now having more children that their Palestinian neighbors.
2) Many converts to Islam in the West leave the faith after a few years.
It is quite easy to become a Muslim. All one has to do is recite the shahada (testimony of faith) three times before Muslim witnesses: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” But once you have to start rising well before dawn in order to pray the requisite five times each day, or once you are required to observe sharia law by holding infidels in contempt, then Islam is not so easy or attractive.
According to a Pew assessment in 2011, the number of people who become Muslims through conversion seems to be roughly equal to the number of Muslims who leave the faith. Meantime, sociologist Dr. Ilyas Ba-Yunus, a Pakistani-born American Muslim, concluded that 75% of new Muslim converts in the US leave Islam within a few years.
3) There is a code of silence among Muslims who fall away from the faith.
Once born a Muslim, it has always been a frightful prospect to ever leave the faith, due to the mortal threats against apostates sourced to the Koran itself. The eminent Sunni preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qarqdawi once said on Al-Jazeera that the application of the death penalty for those who leave Islam is a necessity, since “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam wouldn’t exist today.”
4) There is growing disillusionment with Islam, and many Muslims are looking for something else.
The sight of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded by ISIS militants on a beach in Libya in 2015 was repulsive, even to many Muslims. Such atrocities are having a double impact. First, it is turning Muslims off to their own faith, and secondly, to witness Christians refusing to renounce their faith in the face of certain death is a powerful draw.
Besides the barbarism of Muslim extremists, political Islam is also losing its shine. The recent municipal election results in Istanbul show that the Turkish public, for instance, has soured on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s draconian efforts to forge a "pious generation" in his country. And throughout the Muslim world, there is much to indicate that the vast majority of those identified with Islam today are cultural Muslims, rather than fundamentalists or strictly devout Muslims, just as much of the native populations of Europe today are rightly considered nominal Christians.
5) Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in the Global South.
Based on extensive research, Penn State professor Philip Jenkins has documented the boom in Christianity in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where the faith is experiencing a dynamism and fervency in missions that runs counter to the liberal, secular trends in Europe and North America – once the bastions of the faith. The fastest growing stream of Christianity is Evangelicalism, which now has an estimated 700 million adherents. Nigeria has far more practicing Anglicans than England. The Philippines has more baptisms per year than France, Italy, Poland and Spain combined. By 2025, two-thirds of all Christians are expected to live in the Global South.
China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, are both experiencing incredible growth in their respective Christian communities. China may now have as many as 130 million born-again believers, while India has at least 100 million and rising. Even in Arab and Muslim countries, the churches are growing rapidly, with Iran leading the way as the country with the highest rate of church growth, despite the ayatollahs attempts to suppress it.
The respected refusenik Natan Sharansky divides the world into free versus fear societies. He challenged the Soviet Communist system, which relied on intimidating people into submission through fear that even your own children would report you to the authorities. But that fear was finally broken, and while Communism has not disappeared from the earth, it no longer has half the world in its iron grip.
Islam, which means “submission,” operates in much the same way. Yet there are hopeful signs that its grip of fear over the Arab and Muslim world is waning. The fact that more Arab youths are not afraid to tell pollsters they are losing their religion is proof that Islam’s hold on the younger generation is slipping in the very cradle of its inception.


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