Presidential candidate Rick Santorum got jeered for comparing the legalization of same-sex marriage to that of polygamy, but, whether or not the comparison is rationally sound, thoughts of the former’s facilitating the latter bring a smile to many Islamists. If the definition of marriage can evolve in terms of gender, some Muslims ask, why not in terms of number?
Islam sanctions polygamy — more specifically, polygyny — allowing Muslim men to keep up to four wives at once. Though marrying a second woman while remaining married to the first is prohibited across the Western world, including all 50 U.S. states, a Muslim can circumvent the law by wedding one woman in a government-recognized marriage and joining with others in unlicensed religious unions devoid of legal standing.
As Muslims have grown more numerous in the West, so too have Muslim polygamists. France, home to the largest Islamic population in Western Europe, was estimated in 2006 to host 16,000 to 20,000 polygamous families — almost all Muslim — containing 180,000 total people, including children. In the United States, such Muslims may have already reached numerical parity with their fundamentalist-Mormon counterparts; as many as 100,000 Muslims reside in multi-wife families, and the phenomenon has gained particular traction among black Muslims.
The increasingly prominent profile of Islamic polygamy in the West has inspired a range of accommodations. Several governments now recognize plural marriages contracted lawfully in immigrants’ countries of origin. In the United Kingdom, these polygamous men are eligible to receive extra welfare benefits — an arrangement that some government ministers hope to kill — and a Scottish court once permitted a Muslim who had been cited for speeding to retain his driver’s license because he had to commute between his wives.
The ultimate accommodation would involve placing polygamous and monogamous marriages on the same legal footing, but Islamists have been relatively quiet on this front, a silence that some attribute to satisfaction with the status quo or a desire to avoid drawing negative publicity. There have, of course, been exceptions. The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain made waves in 2000 about challenging the U.K.’s ban on polygamy, but little came of it. In addition, two of Australia’s most influential Islamic figures called for recognition of polygamous unions several years ago.
With the legal definition of marriage expanding in various U.S. states, as it has in other nations, should we anticipate rising demands that we recognize polygamous marriages? Debra Majeed, an academic apologist for Islamic polygamy, has tried to downplay such concerns, claiming that “opponents of same-sex unions, rather than proponents of polygyny as practiced by Muslims, are the usual sources of arguments that a door open to one would encourage a more visible practice of the other.” Yet some American Muslims apparently did not get the memo.
Because off-the-cuff remarks can be the most revealing, consider a tweet by Moein Khawaja, executive director of the Philadelphia branch of the radical Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). After New York legalized same-sex marriage last June, Khawaja expressed what many Islamists must have been thinking: “Easy to support gay marriage today bc it’s mainstream. Lets see same people go to bat for polygamy, its the same argument. *crickets*”
The “same argument” theme is fleshed out in an October 2011 piece titled “Polygamy: Tis the Season?” in the Muslim Link, a newspaper serving the Washington and Baltimore areas. “There are murmurs among the polygamist community as the country moves toward the legalization of gay marriage,” it explains. “As citizens of the United States, they argue, they should have the right to legally marry whoever they please, or however many they please.” The story quotes several Muslim advocates of polygamy. “As far as legalization, I think they should,” says Hassan Amin, a Baltimore imam who performs polygamous religious unions. “We should strive to have it legalized because Allah has already legalized it.”
Again and again the article connects the normalization of same-sex marriage and Islamic polygamy. “As states move toward legalizing gay marriage, the criminalization of polygamy is a seemingly striking inconsistency in constitutional law,” it asserts. “Be it gay marriage or polygamous marriage, the rights of the people should not be based on their popularity but rather on the constitutional laws that are meant to protect them.”
According to a survey carried out by the Link, polygamy suffers from no lack of popularity among American Muslims. Thirty-nine percent reported their intention to enter polygamous marriages if it becomes legal to do so, and “nearly 70 percent said they believe that the U.S. should legalize polygamy now that it is beginning to legalize gay marriage.” Unfortunately, no details about the methodology or sample size are provided, and in general quality data on Western Muslims’ views of polygamy are scarce and often contradictory. Results from a recent poll of SingleMuslim.com users, many of whom live in the West, show significant support for the religious institution of polygamy, while findings from a more professional-looking survey of French Muslims indicate little desire for legalization.