15 May 2006

The Future of Polygamy In America

The story of polygamy in the United States has historically been one of fringe Mormons. The dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints disavowed the practice in advance of Utah's admission to the United States as a state. A polygamous community in Hinsdale, Arizona and Arizona City, Utah survived for a while, and there are more mainstream, less public expressinos as well, exemplified now in the TV series "Big Love." But, this is not where the polygamy issue is going to be most prominent in the next century or so.

There is another religion with millions of practioners in the United States which has not disavowed polygamy, and which offers examples of polygamous living not just in pioneer days, but today, openly, publicly, by respected, affluent people. This is, of course, Islam.

You don't have to be a Victorian moralist to have a problem with polygamy as practiced in Hinsdale. When teenage girls not old enough to have a driver's license marry men on Medicare, it doesn't take a genius to know that hte fundamental premise of marriage in America, the sincere consent of the parties to the marriage by people capable of making that decision, is questionable. When a community code to "Be Sweet" shifts from a creed of perseverance to a way to hide child abuse, and dissenters are kept in line with the threat that they will loose their families and homes, the notion that there is something in the institution worth protecting is hard to fathom. When tax evasion and scamming government benefit programs are a community passtime, the inclination to respect those who want to live that way as ordinary decent people with a different lifestyle fades.

While Islam has its own baggage in America, polygamy has not historically been a major part of it. There are no mosques that are out there openly advocating polygamy that I am aware of, and those Americans who have encountered American Muslims up close, rather than through the evening war news, have tended to offer Muslims grudging respect. It isn't that there aren't culturally driven tensions. An Aurora couple from Saudi Arabia is facing deportation and the husband is facing rape charges for treating a maid like a virtual slave. The more typical example is an African-American man featured in Sunday's Denver Post (I can't find a link to the story for the life of me) who grew up in the home of his Baptist minister father, and married a Muslim woman born in Dallas, Texas, living an ordinary life with a healthy measure of self-discipline and self-respect.

Unlike fringe Mormon sects, Islam doesn't encourage polygamy, indeed, if anything, it is discouraged by scripture that discusses just how difficult a lifestyle this is to maintain, even though it is permitted. In many Muslim countries, polygamy is practiced, but is rare. Most people who practice polygamy at all have two wives, not many. And, rather than being an institution dominanted by crackpots who also have weird beliefs about a whole panopoly of issues, your typically Muslim polygamist is more affluent than most, and typically particularly conventional in his religious observance. Children of polygamous Muslim families do not grow up to be basketcases. They are peppered throughout the better colleges of Europe and the United States, generally not making a big deal about that fact.

When the time is ripe, or in the nature of these things, a few years before the time is ripe, some natural born American citizen, who is also a Muslim, who has married two natural born American citizens, who are Muslim, out of undisputed love, as adult, who lived as a family in the Middle East for many years, and have many children (all American citizens by parentage) who are happy smart kids, are going to want to return home to Detroit or Dallas or Denver and continue their family life. They are going to argue that laws mandating that marriage be between one man and one woman are unconstititional violations of their freedom of religion (or equal protection of their ethnicity), probably not under the U.S. Constitution, which has settled law to the contrary, but under a more broadly interpreted state constitutional free exercise clause.

At that point in time, laws banning polygamy are going to start looking a lot like religious discrimination for the very simple reason that they are, and indeed, were designed from the outset to discriminate against the practices of other religions. Societies will form to regulate rather than prohibit polygamy, so that abuses a la Hindsale, and not a few Muslim countgries as well, are curtailed, while the institution itself, is not banned per se. As more than one commentator has noted, the virulent anti-gay passages of the Torah and Christian Bible are not nearly so emphatic about polygamy, appearing often to tolerate it, at the very least. This may leave evangelical opposition to polygamy muted. Truly secular Americans and liberal Christians, meanwhile, having just worked so hard to legitimatize same sex relationships, may well have internalized the idea that civil marriage is a right and that the government should tread lightly in regulating private, personal family relationships.

Opposition to polygamy will be widespread, if fairly superficial and unprincipled. Just as much of the opposition to gay marriage is rooted in straight people being grossed out by the mental image of two men having sex, opposition to polygamy may very well come from mainstream Americans, who aren't very ideological, who can't get their heads around the hedonistic image of some Aladdin or Book of Esther style harem. Some hothead will decide to firebomb a polygamous household, killing a bunch of little kids in the process. Some other gang will attack a young Muslim man out with a couple of his sisters claiming that he is flouting his polygamous family. The debate will get heated and ugly.

The debate may very well have some ugly hate inciting spinoffs. Indeed, fear of those spinoffs may be one of the factors that have kept pro-polygamy sentiment at a very low simmer in the United States. Legislation to legalize polygamy is an invitation to drudge up a whole panopoly of indignities women face in the Islamic world from female genital mutiliation in Africa to honor killings is Jordan to widespread non-consentual marriage in Afghanistan (it is estimated that more than a third of marriages there are over the objections of the bride) to a culture of women under the veil in areas where this is taken to the extreme, like Saudi Arabia, to lingering instances of slavery in monarchies like Kuwait. Some of this may spur generalize anti-Muslim sentiment, which is already bubbling up as a result of 9-11 and multiple wars in Islamic countries.

You only need one woman facing stoning for adultery charges in Northern Nigeria after being raped, and one man facing beheading for converting from Islam to Christianity every couple of years to keep fierce aversion of Islam alive, and examples like these will become more common, rather than less so, as the world inevitably becomes a smaller and smaller place.

The retaliation, of course, will not come against those who have actually done any of the things that Americans find intolerable. Instead, they will come against those who are closest at hand, American Muslims with nothing to do with any of these things.

One can imagine in turn some really nasty policies emerging in compromise efforts. For example, one will probably see a proposal to require Muslim immigrants to note only assert that they themselves are not in a polygamous marriage, but to denounce polygamy in general, despite Koranic verses clearly stating that it is acceptable, and the righteous religious objects to it that may result. Or, one can imagine a policy that would deny student visas to children of polygamous families on the ground that they would be a bad influence and that their families might want to come to see them graduate. Even worse, one can imagine a policy that would deny visas to those coming to the United States for medical treatment if they are part of polygamous familes.

Will polygamy become the next anti-abortion or gay rights movement? I honestly don't know. But, as the focus turns to its Islamic dimension, this total non-issue has the potential to become one of the most explosive ones in American life.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The Utah Supreme Court has recently held that its polygamy ban is constitutional.

Modern Day Prophet said...

I find the opinion of mainstream Christianity, and thus the United States, toward polygamy to be a slap in the face to the deity of the Tanakh (what they call the "Old Testament"). It is as if they are stating that He was wrong for allowing for such, for even making provisions for such, and thus saying there is nothing wrong with a man having more than one wife? Do these so-called Christians no more than the Holy One of Israel that they claim to worship?

Anonymous said...

as a 35 year old single, childless, educated, african american woman, i find polygamy to be a viable option.
no matter how much society says it's [polygamy] wrong, i think it's natural for a man to have more than one woman. i'd rather be a second or third wife, than be a mistress with no one to help support me when i really need it. i'm interested in finding black women who are in polygamous relationships in order to learn more about the culture and what it takes to make these relationships work.