January 27th, 2011
12:01 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Twenty years ago, the world had about 1.1 billion Muslims. Twenty years from now, it will have about twice as many - and they'll represent more than a quarter of all people on earth, according to a new study released Thursday.
That's a rise from less than 20 percent in 1990.
Pakistan will overtake Indonesia as home of the largest number of Muslims, as its population pushes over 256 million, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life projects.
The number of Muslims in the United States will more than double, to 6.2 million, it anticipates.
Afghanistan's population will nearly double, to about 50.5 million, making it home to the ninth largest Muslim population in the world.
Israel will become nearly a quarter Muslim. The Palestinian territories have one of the highest growth rates in the world.
Fractious Nigeria, where Christian-Muslim violence has left thousands dead in the past decade, will become a Muslim-majority country by 2030, the Pew Forum projects.
And two western European countries - France and Belgium - will become more than 10 percent Muslim. Sweden will hover just below that level, at 9.9 percent.
Iran, on the other hand, will see very slow growth. Iranian women have among the fewest children of anyone in the Muslim world. They use birth control at exactly the same rate as American women, 73 percent.
The Muslim share of the global population will rise primarily because of their relatively high birth rate, the large number of Muslims of childbearing age, and an increase in life expectancy in Muslim-majority countries, according to the report, "The Future of the Global Muslim Population."
Conversion will play relatively little part in the increase, the report anticipates. It says little data is available on conversion, but what little there is suggests Islam loses as many adherents via conversion as it gains.
Pakistan's rapid growth - adding an estimated 70 million people in 20 years - could create "a potentially lethal cocktail," said Ghaffar Hussain of the Quilliam Foundation, which calls itself and anti-extremism think tank and does work in Pakistan.
"Pakistan is an unstable country, there are literally hundreds of jihadist groups," he said.
And the government is not doing much to slow population growth, unlike in nearby Bangladesh, he said.
"In Bangladesh they have tax incentives not to have large families. Pakistan doesn't have that strategy - they're not even talking about it," said Hussain.
"More effort should be made to finding some solutions, especially in the border region with Afghanistan," he advised.
Governments in Europe, meanwhile, should do more to explain the value of immigration, he argued.
Muslim growth there "is coming from the first generation having large families" and will slow down, he predicted.
But the large new Muslim populations are not always welcome, he said.
"A lot of European countries don't tell their people we need immigration for (economic reasons)," he said, adding that government also should do more to help new immigrants assimilate.
European government need "some sort of strategy of what to do when people come. Integration has been managed very badly," he said.
The key phrase in the Pew Forum report is "growing but slowing," says Alan Cooperman, associate director of the think tank.
The increase in the last 20 years is greater than what we expect in the next 20 years," he said. Muslim population growth "is a line that's flattening out. They're increasing, but they're getting closer to the norm, the average."
In other words, Muslims are coming into line with global trends toward fewer children per woman and an aging population. But, the report points out, because of the existing Muslim "youth bulge," or unusually high percentage of young people, Muslim population growth has a certain momentum that will take decades to come into line with world averages - if it ever does.
The Pew report, more than a year in the making, is part of an ambitious attempt by the think tank to calculate the number of adherents to each of the world's major religions. The Islam report comes first, and a Christian project is in the works.
They started with Muslims, Cooperman said, because they are "the largest group for which data was lacking, and we saw public interest in knowing more."
Despite the rapid growth of Islam, Christianity seems set to remain the biggest religion in the world for the next 20 years. There are currently more than 2 billion Christians - 30 to 35 percent of the global population - making it very unlikely that there will be fewer than 2.2 billion Christians in 2030.
"There is nothing in these numbers to indicate that in 2030 there would be more Muslims that Christians," Cooperman said.
In fact, both Christianity and Islam could be growing, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the whole, he pointed out.
"We don't want people to jump to the conclusion that if Islam is growing, everyone else is shrinking," he said. "Christianity and Islam could both be growing at the expense of other religions."
Sub-Saharan Africa is a case in point, he said.
"Tremendous numbers are being added in sub-Saharan Africa, but... Christianity and Islam are both growing rapidly. There is not a change in the overall proportions of Muslims to Christians."
He's aware that the report has policy implication, but insists that the purpose of the Pew Forum is simply to provide unbiased data.
"It's not our role to say what should be done," Cooperman said.
What they're aiming to do, one of the project's leader said, is to make sure there's reliable information available.
"There has been a lot of speculation about the growth of the Muslim population around the world, and many of those who speculate don't have good data," said Brian Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum.
For example, the report undermines the notion that Europe is heading toward having any country with a Muslim majority. The continent will be about 8 percent Muslim in 2030, it projects.
"The data that we have isn't pointing in the direction of 'Eurabia' at all," Grim said.
"The Muslim population is growing and slowing. Instead of a runaway train, it's trending with the general global population," he said.
Cooperman hopes that information will help make for more intelligent discussions, he said: "In the midst of heated debate and speculation, we think that solid, reliable, empirical estimates are valuable."
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