The Pew Forum have recently published their report into the demography of the world’s Muslim population. The report itself, aside from the obvious interest it has generated amongst demographers and others with an interest in population statistics, provides some welcome relief for policy makers as they strive to take account of their citizens’ religious affiliations.
Most of the report’s conclusions barely raise an eyebrow: for instance, it has been pretty well understood for some time that Muslims comprise one quarter of the world’s population. Concomitant with this common perception has been the understanding that Christianity remains the world religion with the greatest number of adherents (with Christians comprising around one third of the world’s 6.8 billion population). Once Pew have conducted their own research into the world’s Christian population, as they plan to do, some far more interesting conclusions can be drawn.
It is perhaps the distribution of Muslim populations that will cause consternation in certain quarters, though the figures are hardly a surprise to specialists in the field:
While Muslims are found on all five inhabited continents, more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest percentage of Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, more than half of the 20 countries and territories in that region have populations that are approximately 95% Muslim or greater.
So, whilst Asia remains the continent with the largest Muslim population, containing the countries with the four largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh), the experience of many Asian Muslims is of Islam as a minority religion:
More than 300 million Muslims, or one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population, live in countries where Islam is not the majority religion. These minority Muslim populations are often quite large. India, for example, has the third-largest population of Muslims worldwide. China has more Muslims than Syria, while Russia is home to more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined.
Although, according to the report’s authors, the respective percentages of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are not as accurate as the overall figures on generic Muslim populations, the results would tend to contradict the widely-held perception that approximately one fifth of the world’s Muslims subscribe to Shi’ism (compared to one tenth in the report):
Of the total Muslim population, 10-13% are Shia Muslims and 87-90% are Sunni Muslims. Most Shias (between 68% and 80%) live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.
From the perspective of global political Islamism and Islamist movements, the report provides the raw date with which we can establish the factors which influence and feed into the worldview of political Islamist ideology. For instance, for all of the major Islamist movements, the issue of Israel and the Palestinians looms large, indeed out of all proportion to the number of Muslims directly affected. Why is this? Why does this issue exercise the minds of say, Indonesian Muslims, whose experience of Islam is far-removed from that of Lebanese Muslims? The answer may lie in the fact that, whilst the majority of Muslims live in Asia, the cultural importance of the Middle East as the cradle of Islam and the significance of the Arabic language for Muslims worldwide drives the issue of Israel and the Palestinians to the forefront of the Islamists’ agenda. The perceived hegemony of Israel, Zionism and, more worryingly for followers of the history of anti-Semitism, Jews themselves, provides a rationale for Muslims everywhere to protest an entrenched ‘injustice’ against Muslims.
In terms of those groups whose raison d’être is the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islaami, it presents a challenge to their conception of a caliphate. Given that the majority of Muslims’ experience of Islam is anchored outside the Middle East, how can these groups and their respective ideologues garner support for a caliphate and all the attendant cultural biases (language, institutions etc.) unless they adapt their message significantly? Furthermore, the distribution of the world’s Muslim population raises questions about the existence of a global Muslim polity, a Muslim demos or a unified Ummah, all prerequisites for a caliphate.