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.
Nevertheless, the number of polygamous Muslims and the opportunity presented by the redefining of marriage make it very likely that direct appeals for official recognition will ramp up over the next decade, as more Muslims join vocal non-Muslims already laying out the case that polygamists deserve no fewer rights than gays. In the meantime, watch for Islamists and their allies to prepare for ideological battle.
For starters, one hears a lot about the alleged social necessity of recognizing Islamic polygamy. The hardships encountered by second, third, and fourth wives who lack legal protections are regularly highlighted, while polygamy is promoted as a solution to the loss of marriageable black men in America to drugs, violence, and prison. Because polygamists who are not legally married are known to abuse welfare systems — for instance, Muslim women in polygamous marriages often claim benefits as single mothers — it would not be shocking to see legalization pushed even as a means of curbing fraud.
These practical arguments are supplemented with heavy-handed attempts to extol the supposed virtues of Islamic polygamy, as in a Georgia middle-school assignment featuring a sharia-lauding Muslim who tells students that “if our marriage has problems, my husband can take another wife rather than divorce me, and I would still be cared for.” Leftist academics such as Miriam Cooke, who has peddled the fiction that polygamy frees married Muslim women to pursue lovers, will have a role to play as well.
The good news for opponents of polygamy is that eventual legalization remains far from certain in the U.S. or elsewhere. State representatives will not be rushing to introduce pro-polygamy bills when, according to a Gallup survey from last year, almost nine in ten Americans still see the practice as morally wrong. Opinions can change, of course, as they have regarding same-sex marriage. Unfortunately for polygamy’s backers, however, the equality arguments employed to great effect by gay-marriage advocates may ring hollow, in that recognizing polygamy — which almost always takes the form of polygyny — would essentially endorse inequality between the genders.
Convincing American judges to overturn restrictions will be an uphill battle as well — and not just because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1879 rejection of the “religious duty” defense of marrying multiple partners in Reynolds v. United States. More recently, state supreme courts have explicitly held the line against polygamy in their rulings to extend marriage rights to same-sex pairs. See Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (Massachusetts, 2003) and In re Marriage Cases (California, 2008); the latter decision describes both polygamous and incestuous unions as “inimical to the mutually supportive and healthy family relationships promoted by the constitutional right to marry.”
Judicial criticism of polygamy is not unique to the U.S. In a case concerning self-proclaimed Mormon fundamentalists, the supreme court of British Columbia upheld Canada’s ban on plural marriage last November after the chief justice, in the words of the New York Times, “found that women in polygamous relationships faced higher rates of domestic, physical and sexual abuse, died younger and were more prone to mental illnesses. Children from those marriages, he said, were more likely to be abused and neglected, less likely to perform well at school and often suffered from emotional and behavioral problems.”
Focusing on polygamy in the Islamic world does not yield a happier image. Based on her experiences in Afghanistan, feminist university professor Phyllis Chesler has called the practice “humiliating, cruel, [and] unfair to the wives,” and noted that it “sets up fearful rivalries among the half-brothers of different mothers who have lifelong quarrels over their inheritances.” Likewise, Egyptian-born human-rights activist Nonie Darwish has elucidated polygamy’s “devastating impact on the healthy function and the structure of loyalties” within Muslim families.
Recent studies have bolstered these accounts. According to new research, Israeli Arab women in polygamous marriages are worse off than those in monogamous ones. A separate investigation uncovered similar negative effects on Malaysian Muslims. In addition, an academic paper released this year concludes that polygamous societies in general lag behind their monogamous counterparts and explores the reasons for this, including the increased tension and criminal activity that result from creating a surplus of single, low-status men.
There are many other arguments against polygamy that supporters of legalization will have to defeat, such as that expanding marriage to three or more people would require massive alterations of Western family law. However, neither bureaucratic obstacles nor public exposure of the social ills accompanying polygamy will deter polygamous Muslims from seeking what they desire.
Recognition of polygamous marriages would be a major win for stealth jihadists — and the time is nearly optimal for them to make their move. How ironic that laws benefiting gay couples may aid Islamists — followers of an ideology that despises homosexuals — in their campaign to establish sharia in the Western world.
— David J. Rusin is a research fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. This article initially appeared in the April 16, 2012, issue of National Review.