Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate: A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution

In a SPIEGEL interview, French social scientist Emmanuel Todd discusses the demographic roots of the Arab revolution, which he argues was spurred by rising literacy and rapidly shrinking birth rates. He also muses on the ghost of Osama bin Laden, arguing "al-Qaida was already dead," and on why he believes Germany is not a part of the "core West."

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SPIEGEL: Monsieur Todd, in the middle of the Cold War, in the days of Leonid Brezhnev, you predicted the collapse of the Soviet system. In 2002, you described the economic and imperial erosion of the United States, a global superpower. And, four years ago, you and your colleague Youssef Courbage predicted the unavoidable revolution in the Arab world. Are you clairvoyant?

Todd: The academic as fortune-teller -- a tempting idea. But Courbage and I merely analyzed the reasons for a possible -- or let's say likely -- revolution in the Arab world, an inexorable change, which could also have unfolded as a gradual evolution. Our work was like that of geologists who compile the signs of an imminent earthquake or volcanic eruption. But when exactly the eruption takes place, and its form and severity -- these things cannot be predicted in an exact way.

SPIEGEL: On what indicators do you base your probability calculation?

Todd: Mainly on three factors: the rapid increase in literacy, particularly among women, a falling birthrate and a significant decline in the widespread custom of endogamy, or marriage between first cousins. This shows that the Arab societies were on a path toward cultural and mental modernization, in the course of which the individual becomes much more important as an autonomous entity.

SPIEGEL: And what is the consequence?

Todd: That this development ends with the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens. Although this follows a global trend, it can take some time.

SPIEGEL: The impression we have at the moment is of a breathtaking acceleration of history, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.

Todd: At this point, no one can say what the liberal movements in these countries will turn into. Revolutions often end up as something different from what their supporters proclaim at the beginning. Democracies are fragile systems that require deep historic roots. It took almost a century from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 until the democratic form of government, in the form of the Third Republic, finally took shape after France had lost a war against the Germans in 1871. In the interim, there was Napoleon, the royalist restoration and the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the "little one," as Victor Hugo said derisively.

SPIEGEL: Can the crises of transition that usually follow revolutions benefit the Islamists?

Todd: This cannot be completely ruled out when the power lies in the streets. Chaos creates the desire for a return to stability, for a sense of direction. But I don't believe that will happen. The Islamists did not play a role in Tunisia and in Egypt the course of events seems to have taken the Muslim Brotherhood by surprise. The Islamists are now trying to organize as political parties within a pluralistic system. These freedom movements are not anti-Western. On the contrary, in Libya, the rebels are calling for more support from NATO. The Arab revolution has set aside the cliché of a cultural and religious uniqueness that supposedly makes Islam incompatible with democracy and supposedly destines Muslims to be ruled by at best enlightened despots.

SPIEGEL: It's noticeable that you downplay the significance of the religious and economic factor in your interpretation. What makes you so sure?

Todd: I don't disregard it; I just think it's secondary. I am a statistician, a "cosine academic," should you find the expression amusing. The condition for any modernization is demographic modernization. It goes hand-in-hand with a decline in experienced and practiced religiosity. We are already experiencing a de-Islamization of Arab societies, a demystification of the world, as Max Weber called it, and it will inevitably continue, just as a de-Christianization occurred in Europe.

SPIEGEL: But appearances contradict your assumption. Women are not removing their headscarves, and Islamist terrorism hasn't been defeated by any stretch of the imagination.

Todd: The Islamist convulsions are classic companion elements of the disorientation that characterizes every upheaval. But according to the law of history that states that educational progress and a decline in the birth rate are indicators of growing rationalization and secularization, Islamism is a temporary defensive reaction to the shock of modernization and by no means the vanishing point of history. For the Muslim world, that vanishing point is far more universal than people are willing to admit. The notion of unchanging Islam and the Muslim essence are purely intellectual constructs of the West. The tracks along which the world's various cultures and religions move are converging toward an encounter rather than the battle that Samuel Huntington believed would take shape.

SPIEGEL: Osama bin Laden sought to conduct this clash of civilizations with spectacularly staged acts of terror. Does his death mark the political end of al-Qaida?

Todd: His ghost may continue to fascinate people. His admirers can try to keep the flame alive. But the horribly brutal action taken by the United States actually came at the worst possible moment. Al-Qaida was already politically dead before the death of Bin Laden. The organization never became a mass movement. It existed solely through the propaganda of the deed, like the European anarchists of the 19th century. Bin Laden shared with them the romantic dimension of the lone hero, the avenger of the disenfranchised.

SPIEGEL: He also called for the overthrow of Arab despots.

Todd: He failed. The popular movements of the Arab Spring have nothing in common with mythical visions like pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism. The basic fallacy consists in seeing the ideological or religious crises in the Islamic countries as phenomena of regression. On the contrary, these are crises of a modernization that destabilize the ruling regimes. The fact that the turmoil in the region and the advance of fundamentalism are coinciding is a classic phenomenon. Doubt and fanaticism are two sides of the same development. Examples can also be found in European intellectual history. Descartes, the founder of methodological doubt, gave himself the urgent task of proving the existence of God. And Pascal, a mathematician and physicist, perceived such a strong religious need that he made a bet that was as famous as it was questionable, arguing that one can lose nothing but gain everything by believing in God. He became a follower of Jansenism, a fundamentalist version of the Christianity of his day.

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About Emmanuel Todd
Myr Muratet
Emmanuel Todd, 60, studied political science in Paris and history in Cambridge. He has coducted research at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris since 1984. Todd sees himself as an "empirical Hegelian" who recognizes a universal course of history. For Todd, family structures, population and educational policy factors are more important than the economic system. He has published many respected studies, such as "The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere" (1976), "The Fate of Immigrants" (1994)," "The Economic Illusion" (1998), "After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order"(2002) and "A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World" (2007), about the changes in the Islamic world. An English translation of the book was published this month.
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