Where is the Arab Spring leading the Middle East? What will be the longer-term outcome of the popular protests that have shaken the region since the beginning of this year? Of course, it’s still too early to say with any certainty, even in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that succeeded in toppling their authoritarian regimes. Some trends have emerged, however, and they’re on the agenda at a conference in Venice I’m attending entitled “Medio Oriente verso dove?” (Where is the Middle East heading?). The host is the Oasis Foundation, a group chaired by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Roman Catholic patriarch of this historic city, and guests include Christian and Muslim religious leaders and academics from the Middle East and Europe.
In one of the most interesting — and hotly debated — presentations, the French Islam specialist Olivier Roy described the Arab Spring as “a break with the culture and ideologies that dominated the Arab world from the 1950s until recently.” It marks a clear change in the demographic, political and religious paradigms operating there, he said. The old dichotomy of the authoritarian regime or the Islamist state has broken down, he argued, and Islam is taking on a new role in the political process. In the end, the region — or at least the states where the Arab Spring brings real change — could see democratic politics marked not by major efforts to establish an Islamic state but by Muslim “culture war” controversies not unlike the way hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage emerge in U.S. political debates.
The first trend Roy cited to back up this thesis is the sharp drop in fertility levels in the Arab world since the late 1980s and the 1990s. Several Arab countries, especially those in North Africa, now have birthrates of around two children per woman, close but still above the European average. Tunisia’s birthrate is actually lower than France’s. “The generation that is now on the job market is the last generation of big families,” said Roy, who is now director of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. “It’s a generation that has many fewer children and marries much later.”