Turkey is emerging as an economic superpower in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East with greater influence in regional politics. Promoting itself as a “model Muslim democracy,” and widely admired by other Middle Eastern nations, Turkey now faces a novel problem that Europe has long contended with: a falling birth rate.
Since the 1990s, Turkey’s fertility rate has steadily declined, due to, among other factors, rising household incomes, expanded access to higher education for women and increased birth control practices.
“The use of birth-control methods has increased in Turkey a lot, but that is not the only reason for the decline in population,” an obstetrician named Ka?an Kocatepe told Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish newspaper.
“Many women want to have a successful career. That’s why the maternity age has increased, as women have started giving birth to their first child in their 30s.”
Indeed, Dr. ?smet 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.
The number of children produced by the average Turkish woman has plunged to two from three over just the past two decades, coincident with Turkey's rise as an economic power.
But there is a wrinkle to this whole phenomenon.
The Kurdish community of Turkey, which currently represents at least 15 percent of the population and dominates the southeastern region, has such a high birth rate, that some observers – most prominently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- believe Kurds could become a majority in Turkey within two generations.
The proposed scenario is somewhat similar to the Palestinian situation in Israel, where Arabs could become the dominant ethnic group in the 'Jewish State' within 30 years or so; or the southwestern United States, where Hispanics and Mexican-Americans are likely to become the majority within a few decades.
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.
The prime minister, who has repeatedly called on Turkish couples to have three children and even suggested financially rewarding such fecundity, once declared: “Our population is getting older. Right now we are proud of our young population, but if we don’t pull these numbers up, Turkey will be in a difficult position by 2038.”
Some Turkish academics scoff at Erdogan's solutions as unrealistic.
Cem Behar, an economics professor at Istanbul’s Bo?azici University, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review: “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.”
Behar added: “There is no family policy in Turkey. And I don’t think anyone is going to have more children just because [Erdo?an] 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.”
A rapidly rising Kurdish population would pose sharp problems and challenges for the Turkish state and society.
Kurds have long faced discrimination, deprivation, even state-sponsored violence, throughout their long and epic residence in Turkey. As such, many Kurds seek a separate homeland, or at the least, autonomous self-rule in the southeast.
Kurds represent a dominant and highly 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.
Of course, many, perhaps most, Kurds in Turkey do not support the PKK and seek to assimilate with mainstream Turkish society – while retaining their distinct Kurdish culture, language and customs.
Now, with the Kurds having more babies than the Turks, will Kurds really become a majority in a country where they have long suffered abuse and deprivation? And if that were to happen, how would that affect the Kurds' status in Turkey?
International Business Times spoke with an expert on Turkey and demographics to explore this topic.
Dr. Tino Sanandaji is a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Chicago who does research on demographic change and its link to policy.
IB TIMES: Is the overall fertility rate in Turkey declining because the country is becoming wealthier, household incomes are rising and more women are using birth control methods?
SANANDAJI: Yes, sooner or later this happens in all industrialized countries -- parents prefer to have fewer children and invest more time and resources on them rather than having a large family.
IB TIMES: The birth rate for Kurds is more than double that of Turks. Is this due to the fact that Kurds are generally poorer and less educated?
SANANDAJI: Poorer, less educated and more rural. However, other factors should not be ruled out since low-income Kurdish women also have higher birth rates than low-income Turkish women.
IB TIMES: Prime Minister Erdogan warned that Kurds could become a majority in Turkey by 2038. Is this a realistic prediction?
SANANDAJI: No, that is impossible. Demographic change is a slow process even when birth rates differ sharply, because so many generations are already born and will be around for decades.
In the 1930s, the Kurds constituted about 9 percent 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 percent level.
Since it takes a long time, underlying forces can change in the meanwhile. Therefore, we should be careful about extrapolating current trends into the future. Nor can demographic trends be dismissed using the equally silly argument that since demographic predictions were sometimes wrong in the past, all predictions are always wrong in the future. Plenty of predictions turned out to be accurate.
This is a sensitive topic to some. When people read that the population share of their “tribe” is shrinking there is often a primal psychological response of fear, anger or denial, and wide exaggerations in both directions.
IB TIMES: In the event Kurds become a majority in Turkey, will that render the Kurdish nationalist and separatist movements irrelevant and moot?
SANANDAJI: If history is any guide, that development would raise tensions with the Kurdish separatist movement, because they will be more likely to win a democratic or military struggle once they are the majority population.
IB TIMES: If the Kurds are becoming more assimilated, why is this even a problem? If the Ankara government does not even classify Kurds as a separate ethnic group, why would they even care about their higher birth rates?
SANANDAJI: If Kurds are slowly assimilating but growing their population share rapidly, the net effect might still be more voters with an ethnic Kurdish identity. Once Kurds realize time is working on their side, they might become less willing to abandon their national identity, anticipating that if they hold on long enough their sheer numbers will change the balance of power.
If the rate of assimilation into a national Turkish identity is sufficiently rapid, Turkey will not necessarily break apart. But Turkey will likely be a different country in many other ways if Kurds become the majority.
IB TIMES: What, if anything, is the Turkish government doing to prevent these demographic trends?
SANANDAJI: One choice is to try to stabilize the Turkish birth rate, though no country I am aware of has successfully done this in modern times.
A second alternative for the government is to convince the Kurds in Turkey to accept the Turkish national identity, making the population issue less important.
Another option is to lower the Kurdish birth rate by promoting economic development, education and women’s' health in Kurdish areas.
But if current trends continue for generations, Turks might eventually reach a point when they must reluctantly decide between keeping a smaller Turkish nation state or risk becoming the minority population in a Kurdish-majority Turkey.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.