Hugh Fitzgerald: Is Islam the World’s Fastest-Growing Religion?


This triumphalist statement is a staple of Islamic propaganda. If Islam is the “world’s fastest-growing religion,” then this must surely reflect, its adherents believe, its innate superiority to other faiths. And it suggests that this rise is inexorable and irreversible. But the picture is not quite so clear. Look at the figures being given for the world’s Muslim population. There still seems to be no agreement. The numbers range enormously, from a low of 1.4 billion to a high of  1.8 billion.

In Muslim countries, the way Muslims are counted is to take the total population, subtract those who have definitely identified themselves as non-Muslims (Christians, Hindus, etc.), and then count all who remain as Muslims. But we know there are people in those countries who may not wish to be identified, for reasons of safety, as non-Muslims. Some may be practicing Christianity or another religion in secret. There are also those who have fallen away from Islam, and are no longer Muslims in any sense, but are terrified of revealing this, as the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. So these silent apostates from Islam continue to be counted as Muslims.

One place where mass defections from Islam have apparently been taking place is Iran. Many Iranians have become fed up with the nearly 40 years of a brutal and corrupt Shi’a theocracy. The more the Iranian people are  oppressed by the theocrats, from the religious police hauling in women for not wearing their chadors correctly, all the way up to the ruling ayatollahs who have been quietly enriching themselves by the millions or even, as in the case of Ayatollah Khamenei, by the billions, the less they like Islam. Even as far back as 2013, Muslim leaders in Iran were warning about a “tsunami of atheism,” declaring that many mosques were practically “empty,” and that disaffected Muslims were not just becoming atheists, but turning to Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and New Age beliefs. In Iran, the fastest-growing religion is Christianity. And yet, these ex-Muslims, whose numbers keep increasing, are still officially counted by the government as Muslims.

The Kurds are another people who are turning away from Islam. Their experience at the hands of the Arabs has led many of them to regard Islam as “the Arab religion,” and either to embrace Christianity or to “return,” as they see it, to their original pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism. When Saddam Hussein killed 182,000 Kurds, Kurdish activists have noted, no Arab leader, and no non-Kurdish Muslim cleric, denounced his mass murders. The Kurds say that Erdogan, while relentlessly re-islamizing Turkey, is also intent on crushing any Kurdish opposition. The two  — Islamization, and anti-Kurdish repression — become commingled in Kurdish minds: more Islam is linked to more repression. In Iran the rulers of the Islamic Republic also keep up a low-level but steady military campaign against Kurdish separatists. The Kurds see Islam, then, as the religion of their oppressors — Arabs, Turks, and Iranians — and this makes them more susceptible to leaving the faith. In Iraqi Kurdistan, 100,000 Kurds are reported to have accepted Zoroastrianism.

The Berbers in North Africa have had an experience similar to that of the Kurds. Their own culture and language have in the past been largely suppressed by the ruling Arabs, especially in Algeria. They have come to understand that Islam itself has been a vehicle for Arab supremacism. After all, think of the many ways that the Arabs are considered central to Islam’s narrative. The message of Allah for the world, set down in the Qur’an, was given to an Arab, Muhammad, and in his language, Arabic. Muslims everywhere must turn toward the Hejaz, in western Arabia, five times a day in prayer, and recite those prayers in Arabic. The Qur’an itself should ideally be read in Arabic, and the only true version of that text is the one in Arabic.  Many non-Arab Muslims, aware of the prestige of being an Arab, adopt Arab names. Some adopt such names not just to show a putative Arab lineage, but even to show descent from the tribe of  Muhammad himself. Pakistan, for example, has several million people who call themselves “Sayids,” which identifies them as descendants of the Prophet’s own tribe.

Berbers know full well that the Arabs consider themselves the best of Muslims and Islam as the Arab national religion. Treated with contumely by  Arabs, some Berbers clearly find Christianity appealing. As of 2012, the American government’s own estimate was that there were 500,000 Christians in Algeria alone, mainly in the Berber region known as the Kabyle. The Algerian government does not provide any census figures about the numbers of Christians; unsurprisingly, it still counts as Muslims converts who keep quiet about their new faith. If the real figures were known, then one would see that in Algeria, as in Iran, the fastest-growing religion is Christianity. And if Christians were not fearful of revealing their true beliefs, we would have a much better picture of how the Christian population is increasing. But it’s an impossible task, since very few converts dare to make their conversion known. In early 2018, on Al Jazeera, two Muslim scholars concluded that six million Muslims had recently converted to Christianity in Africa, but gave no breakdown by country.

We don’t know how many Muslims in the U.S convert out of Islam. Pew Research believes the number of people in the U.S. leaving Islam is equal to the number of converts to Islam. Some ex-Muslims in the U.S. say the number of apostates is grossly underreported, because many of those who leave Islam fear alienating their families and possible retribution.

When it comes to the Muslim claim  that Islam being the “world’s fastest-growing religion,” there are only three things we can say with confidence. The first is that Muslim families are certainly larger than those of any other faith. That is the kind of growth that has nothing to do with the innate superiority of the faith; it’s merely a matter of the effects of polygyny and outbreeding the Infidels in a demographic Jihad. The second is that Islam has proven itself attractive to prisoners in the West. These prison conversions to Islam are mainly the result of prisoners wanting to join the biggest gang behind bars, the Muslim gang, for obvious reasons of personal security. The third is that we do not, and cannot have, a real sense of how many people convert out of Islam, because it remains so dangerous for apostates to declare themselves. We do have anecdotal evidence in Iran, and among the Berbers and Kurds, that suggest numerous conversions out of Islam to Christianity. In Iran, and in the Kabyle region of Algeria, Christianity is the fastest-growing religion.

Meanwhile, since 80% of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs, it would be useful to publicize among them all the ways that Islam is and always will be a “a vehicle of Arab supremacism.” Resentment of that supremacism can be exploited, and not only among Kurds and Berbers, in order to kindle the spark of inquiry, criticism, doubt, and disaffection.

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