The demographic bomb

Posted: Oct 17, 2001 12:00 AM
Two interrelated mysteries: Why do so many Arab Muslims think Western civilization is about to collapse? And how could so many well-educated hijackers live among us for so long and not be seduced by our cherished American way of life?

For example, according to Norman Podhoretz, from a textbook published by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Education: Western civilization "has begun to collapse to and to become a pile of rubble." "(T)he age of the American collapse has begun," chimes in a columnist in the Egyptian state-sponsored newspaper Al-Akhbar, two weeks before the Twin Towers attack.

Here we are in the early 21st century, a military giant, the world's oldest democracy, with a powerhouse economy creating new miracles of opportunity and ingenuity, still attracting huge migrations from all countries and cultures, a society which (whatever its limitations, and we do have some) is deeply steeped in decency, kindness and openness. How could they know us so well and still hate us so?

For that matter, how could Isanu Dyson, a fifth-generation American who (according to the New York Post) converted to Islam three years ago, say he wants to fight for the Taliban?

Here is my best guess at honest self-examination: The Achilles' heel of AmerEuropean civilization is our sexual culture, which even to many Americans looks not only deeply destructive, but ugly. Fatherless children, fragmented families, the demotion of sex into a product -- these are the surface symptoms of an even deeper problem: a hollowing out of sexual meaning and purpose.

"The U.S. might be an economic and military superpower, but Islam is a religious and manpower superpower -- we are 1 billion people," brags Dyson.

If Western civilization does face collapse, it will not come from outside invaders -- they can sow terror but not destruction -- but from the baby bomb. In Western countries people have for two generations stopped caring enough about having children to reproduce our population. Historian Paul Johnson writes about his vision of a long-term clash between Islam and the casually mentioned demographic bomb: "Should present trends continue, both these traditionally Catholic countries (Spain and Italy) will become majority Moslem during the 21st century." Not just because of migration, but because the native birth rates have entered a sudden, dramatic, sustained collapse.

"The result of a crisis in ... family lifestyles," writes Russian demographer Anatoly I. Antonov in a recent issue of The Howard Center's The Family in America, "depopulation now threatens 20 economically developed countries around the world."

At the heart of this collapse (in my opinion) is an idea, still contested, but gaining vast ground. The New York Times Sunday magazine devoted a whole issue to variations of it. It happened to be best expressed by a gay couple (but certainly it is not confined to homosexuals): "From time to time we have had affairs with other people, or moments of sexual release, but they were recreational," explained Steve. "It is only sex; it has no deep-seated meaning," agreed Chuck.

Sex has no deep-seated meaning, no public purpose beyond providing an enjoyable set of internal physical or emotional sensations. Sex is a consumer good. People who believe this end up having unstable marriages, fragmented families or no families at all.

For hundreds of years, traditional Islam has failed to produce a society that is attractive: regimes of secular corruption alternate with regimes of religious repression. But Islam remains a successful civilization because it fulfills the two minimum functions any culture must: It channels intense social energy of individuals into the two great sacrifices of self: war and babies. The children in Islamic societies suffer, and the women even more. But though individuals suffer, the family system itself works. The society perpetuates itself. It even finds new adherents in our country, primarily among those who have suffered most deeply from our current sexual disorder, African-Americans.

The way forward is never the way back. Still, up until about 1970, Western civilization combined democracy, freedom, capitalism and neighborliness with a functioning family system. Who can now say the same?