Turkey is emerging as a powerhouse in the Eastern Mediterranean: an economic power that has greater influence in the region and that promotes itself as a “model Muslim democracy”. However, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is worried about a problem that many Western nations are used to: a declining fertility rate and demographic problems in the medium future.
As the International Business Times reports, rising household incomes, greater access to education for women and increased use of birth control has seen the Turkish fertility rate steadily decline since the 1990s.
“Indeed, Dr. Ismet Koç, a demographer at Hacettepe University in Ankara, warned that Turkey’s fertility rate is now below 2.1, the replacement level, which suggests the population will eventually decline. The fertility level in more prosperous western Turkey is now about 1.5 — roughly the same as in Western Europe.”
But that is not the end of the story. While Turkey’s fertility rate as a whole is falling, the Kurdish minority of Turkey (currently 15 per cent of the population) has such a high birth rate that some (not the least of which is Prime Minister Erdogan) believe that they could become the majority in Turkey within two generations:
“According to Turkish government statistics, the average Kurdish woman in Turkey gives birth to about four children, more than double the rate for other Turkish mothers.
Thus, Turkey is facing a demographic time-bomb – Kurds, who tend to be concentrated in the country’s impoverished southeast and are generally poorer and less educated, could conceivably outnumber Turks within about 30 years should present patterns persist.
Erdogan seems to be certain this will happen.
If we continue the existing trend, [the year] 2038 will mark disaster for us, Erdogan warned in May 2010.”
Why, if the Kurds were to become a majority in 2038, would it be such a “disaster” according to Erdogan? Kurds have had a long history of “discrimination, deprivation, even state-sponsored violence” throughout the history of Turkey and many seek a separate homeland in the southeast of current Turkish borders. Thus, it is not surprising that Kurds represent a contentious theme in Turkish politics.
“For many years, it was, in fact, illegal for Kurds to speak their own language, use Kurdish names, play Kurdish music, etc. – part of a comprehensive attempt by Ankara to wipe out the separate ethnic identity of the Kurds. Indeed, some Turks regarded Kurds simply as ‘Mountain Turks.’
The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist militant movement which Turkey, the European Union and the U.S. brand as a terrorist group, has fought for a separatist nation for decades. The PKK’s periodic conflicts with the Turkish military have cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides – seemingly with no resolution in sight.”
How likely is it that Erdogan’s fears will be realised? According to Dr. Tino Sanandaji, a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Chicago who does research on demographic change and its link to policy, it is “impossible” that Kurds will be a majority in 2038: “In the 1930s, the Kurds constituted about 9 per cent of the population of Turkey, and though they had higher birth rates than the Turks it still took until the 1990s until they reached the 18 per cent level.”
Whatever the accuracy of the predictions, the fears are real and the Prime Minister is calling on Turks to do their patriotic duty and have more children so that the “disaster” of a Kurdish majority will not occur. Some however, believe that he is barking at the moon for all the good that his calls for more children will have. Cem Behar, an economics professor at the Istanbul’s Boazici University argued that:
“It’s clear that Turkey is going to face a decline in the growth rate of its population. Yet you cannot address such an issue by telling people to have more children…There is no family policy in Turkey. And I don’t think anyone is going to have more children just because [Erdogan] told them to do so. If the government really wants to promote having more children, it needs to prepare the necessary conditions for it, such as lowering taxes for those families or strengthening pre-school education.”
Even that may not be enough. Perhaps Kurds want to have more children than their Turkish neighbours…