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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."

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.

Unemployment and Social Frustration Foment Unrest

SPIEGEL: Aren't poverty or affluence also crucial? Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen don't have bubbling oil revenues.

Todd: Of course, one can placate the people with bread and money, but only for a while. Revolutions usually erupt during phases of cultural growth and economic downturn. For me, as a demographer, the key variable is not the per capita gross domestic product but the literacy rate. The British historian Lawrence Stone pointed out this relationship in his study of the English revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. He saw the critical threshold at 40 to 60 percent.

SPIEGEL: Well, most young Arabs can now read and write, but how is the birth rate actually developing? The population in Arab countries is extremely young, with half of its citizens younger than 25.

Todd: Yes, but that's because the previous generation had so many children. In the meantime, however, the birth rate is falling dramatically in some cases. It has fallen by half in the Arab world in just one generation, from 7.5 children per woman in 1975 to 3.5 in 2005. The birth rate among female university graduates is just below 2.1, the level needed to maintain a population. Tunisia now has a birth rate similar to that of France. In Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, it has dropped below the magic threshold of three children per woman. This means that young adults constitute the majority of the population and, unlike their fathers and mothers, they can read and write, and they also practice contraception. But they suffer from unemployment and social frustration. It isn't surprising that unrest was inevitable in this part of world.

SPIEGEL: Is that why angry young men are taking the revolution into the streets, while there is a lack of recognized older forward-looking thinkers and leaders?

Todd: That isn't surprising. Young men led the revolutions in England and France. Robespierre was only 31 in 1789, and he was 36 when he was sent to the guillotine. His adversary Danton and his ally Saint-Just were also young men, one in his early 30s and the other in his mid-20s. Although Lenin was older, the Bolshevik shock troops were made up of young men, as were the Nazi storm troopers. It was young men who faced off against the Soviet tanks in Budapest in 1956. The explanation is banal: Young men have more strength and more to gain.

SPIEGEL: Why has it taken so long for the values of the modern age to reach the Islamic world? After all, the golden age of Arab civilization ended in the 13th century.

Todd: There is a simple explanation, which has the benefit of also being applicable to northern India and China, that is, to three completely differently religious communities: Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism. It has to do with the structure of the traditional family in these regions, with its debasement and with the disenfranchisement of women. And in Mesopotamia, for example, it extends well into the pre-Islamic world. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, granted women far more rights than they have had in most Arab societies to this day.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the Arabs conformed to older local circumstances and spread them across the entire Middle East?

Todd: Yes. The patrilinear, patrilocal system, in which only male succession is considered valid and newlyweds, preferably cousins in the ideal Arab marriage, live under the roof and authority of the father, inhibits all social progress. The disenfranchisement of women deprives them of the ability to raise their children in a progressive, dynamic fashion. Society calcifies and, in a sense, falls asleep. The powers of the individual cannot develop. The bourgeois achievement of marriage for love, and the free choice of one's partner, replaced the hierarchies of honor in Europe in the 19th century and reinforced the desire for freedom.

SPIEGEL: Is female emancipation the prerequisite for modernization in the Arab world?

Todd: It's in full swing. The headscarf debate is missing the point. The number of marriages between cousins is dropping just as spectacularly as the birth rate, thereby blasting away a barrier. The free individual or active citizen can enter the public arena. When more than 90 percent of young people can read and write and have a modicum of education, no traditional authoritarian regime will last for long. Have you noticed how many women are marching along in the protests? Even in Yemen, the most backward country in the Arab world, thousands of women were among the protesters.

SPIEGEL: The family is the private sphere par excellence. Why do changes in its structure necessarily spread to the political sphere?

Todd: The relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom is changing. When the authority of fathers begins to falter, political power generally collapses, as well. This is because the system of the patrilinear, endogamous extended family has been reproduced within the leadership of nations. The family patriarch as head of state places his sons and other male relatives in positions of power. Political dynasties develop, as in the case of the senior and junior Assad in Syria. Corruption flourishes because the clan runs things for its own benefit. The state is of course privatized as a family business. The power of obedience is based on a combination of loyalty, repression and political economics.

Arab Spring More Like "European Spring of 1848" than Collapse of Communism

SPIEGEL: The statistics reveal considerable differences. Tunisia can't be compared with Yemen. How is it that the spark of revolution still managed to jump to Yemen?

Todd: There is also an example of that in European history.

SPIEGEL: You mean the revolutions of 1848-49?

Todd: Yes. The Arab Spring resembles the European Spring of 1848 more closely than the fall of 1989, when communism collapsed. The initial spark in France triggered unrest in Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, Spain and Romania -- a classic chain reaction, despite major regional differences.

SPIEGEL: If the Arab world now enters the modern age, will the universal Western values -- such as freedom, equality, human rights and human dignity -- triumph once and for all?

Todd: I would be cautious in that regard. Democratic movements can take on highly different forms, as we can see with the example of Eastern Europe after 1990. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin undoubtedly has the support of the majority of the Russian people, but does that make Russia a flawless democracy?

SPIEGEL: Where do you draw the boundary of the West?

Todd: In fact, only Great Britain, France and the United States, in that historic order, constitute the core of the West. But not Germany.

SPIEGEL: Are you serious?

Todd: Oh, it's fun to provoke a representative of "the German news magazine." What I'm saying is that Germany contributed nothing to the liberal democratic movement in Europe.

SPIEGEL: What about the Hambach Festival in 1832, the March Revolution in 1848, the national assembly in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt, the 1918 November Revolution, the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, (former Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer's integration with the West and the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought about peacefully by the people?

Todd: Okay, the postwar history is all very well and good, but it had to be put into motion by the Western Allies. Everything that happened earlier failed. Authoritarian government systems consistently prevailed, while democratic conditions had already predominated in England, America and France for a long time. Germany produced the two worst totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Even the greatest philosophers, like Kant and Hegel, were, unlike David Hume in England or Voltaire in France, not exactly beacons of political liberalism. No, Germany's immense contribution to European cultural history is something completely different.

SPIEGEL: And now you're going to say something nice?

Todd: The Reformation -- and, with it, the strengthening of the individual, supported by his knowledge -- and the spread of reading through the printing press -- that's the German contribution. The fight over the Reformation was waged in a journalistic manner, with pamphlets and flyers. The spread of literacy among the masses was invented in Germany. Prussia, and even the small Catholic states, had a higher literacy rate than France early on. Literacy came to France from the east, that is, from Germany. Germany was a nation of education and a constitutional state long before it became a democracy. But Martin Luther also proved that religious reforms did not by any means require the support of a spirit of liberalism.

SPIEGEL: But Germany's Sonderweg , or "special path," has now come to an end.

Todd: Well, I believe that the Germans still feel a secret and, at the same time, slightly narcissistic fear, as if they sensed that they are not quite part of the West. It seems to me that their preferred form of government is the grand coalition, not the abrupt change of power that occurs in France and the Anglo-Saxon countries. Perhaps Germany would rather be like a large Switzerland or a large Sweden, a consensus democracy in which the ideological camps come to resemble one another and the political extended family in the government takes care of everything.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with that?

Todd: Nothing. The cultural difference between Germany and France shouldn't be buried under avowals of friendship. France is individualistic and egalitarian, at least far more so than Germany, where the tradition of the unequal, authoritarian tribal family still has an impact today, as in the debate over the right maternal image. Perhaps this also explains why Germany, despite its catastrophic birth rate, has so much trouble with immigration, and yet vastly outpaces France with its technical and industrial capabilities.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the German-French friendship is merely an illusion?

Todd: No, but the relationship is certainly shaped by an unspoken rivalry. However, if the European Union recognizes its diversity, even its anthropological differences, instead of trying to force everyone into the same mold with the false incantation of a shared European civilization, then Europe will also be able to treat the pluralism of cultures in the world in a reasonable and enlightened way. I'm not sure that the United States can do that.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Todd, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Romain Leick; Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan