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SAIS Review 21.2 (2001) 103-116
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Demographic Islamization: Non-Muslims in Muslim Countries
One hundred million non-Muslims are presently living in Muslim countries, i.e. countries with a Muslim demographic majority. Muslim countries comprise three quarters of the world's 1.26 billion Muslims. Most of them have an overwhelming Muslim majority 1 (see table, p. 106) and Islam as a state religion. 2 Non-Muslim communities in Muslim countries are shrinking, in relative size and in some places in absolute numbers. These communities are affected by a process of Islamization, understood as an increase in the percentage of Muslims.
Islam being the latest of the great religions, its expansion took place at the expense of the preceding ones. Four, and only four, processes have led to Islamization in the demographic meaning of the word: 3 conversion to Islam, differences in birth and/or death rates between Muslim and non-Muslim segments of the population, replacement of non-Muslims by Muslims through migration, and intermarriage, which automatically gives birth to a Muslim second generation.
This article focuses on non-Muslims living in the central part of the Muslim world, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where they form 4.4 percent of the total population. 4 It argues first that this is a period of rapid Islamization, and second that the present decrease in the proportion of non-Muslims is not the result of coercion or intolerance by dominant Islam as much as of intermarriage, a sign of the openness of these communities to their Muslim environment, and of international migration, a sign of their openness to the outside world. [End Page 103]
Pre-Islamic or Post-Islamic Minorities?
The religious minorities living in Muslim countries date back either to pre-Islamic or to colonial times, a nuance that affects today's inter-communal relations. On the eve of the Muslim conquest, most MENA peoples were Christian, with Jewish communities scattered throughout the region and a sizeable Zoroastrian population in Persia. Their conversion to Islam, mainly under economic constraint, is thought to have played the largest role in the region's Islamization. It has been a slow process which took several centuries after the moment a territory was conquered by a Muslim army. 5 By comparison, invasions by Muslim tribes (Arab or Turkish) never involved large numbers and were a much smaller cause of Islamization despite their importance in various narratives. In today's MENA countries, non-Muslim minorities are thus descended from People of the Book who had resisted abjuration of their faith; most of them are not ethnically distinct from Muslims. They have behind them a long past of dhimmi(s), 6 a status of protection by and subjection to Muslim rule, which excluded them from the military and imposed them a poll tax (jizya). The status of dhimmi was abolished only in the nineteenth century by the Ottomans and the Qajars. Now that almost all Jews have left MENA Muslim countries as a result of the creation of Israel in 1948, only Christian minorities remain there, with a few exceptions. 7
Along the periphery of MENA, in Indonesia and Africa south of the Sahara, religions have a different history. Islam arrived there centuries after its establishment in MENA, but Christianity was nonexistent and the population belonged to other religions. Since Islam only recognized People of the Book, such populations passing under a Muslim power generally had to convert to Islam en masse. Christianity only appeared later, in the wake of European missionaries and colonizers, and beyond the territory of Islam. It recruited believers among people of traditional beliefs, not among Muslims. Muslims and Christians were then lumped together when the Europeans carved new states out of traditional territories. In some cases, this colonial linkage remains a pretext for distrust. In addition, these Christian communities do not have the same long acquaintance with Muslims as do those whose ancestors lived for fourteen centuries under Islamic rule.
Sudan combines the two histories. The North had been [End Page 104] Christianized as early as the sixth century...