Inter-marriages on the rise also in the U.S.
Daniele Castellani Perelli 6 November 2007

What do the rising star in American politics, the greatest golfer in the world and the captain of the New York Yankees have in common? Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter are all American, and all three are the “product” of a mixed marriage. Once this type of marriage was even forbidden in the United States. It was not until 12th June 1967 that it was legalised, when the Supreme Court rejected the statute of Virginia because, like 15 other states, it forbade a white person from marrying a black person. Since then, the number of mixed marriages has risen exponentially: it has gone from 65 thousand in 1970 to 422 thousand in 2005. The sociologist from Stanford, Michel Rosenfeld, calculates that more than 7% of the 59 million couples who got married in 2005 were mixed, compared to a miserable 2% in 1970. There is an increase in inter-racial mixed marriages, and also inter-religious ones.

“Are there no official statistics? asks Ebrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest American association of Muslim rights -, but the impression which we have is this”. “Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are on the rise”, confirms over the telephone from Washington Jamal Najjab, expert on American Islam and journalist for the “Washington Report on Middle East Affairs”, who adds: “But the key point is that not even us Americans notice it anymore; it doesn’t really matter if our daughter goes out with a Muslim or a Jew, the important thing is that it is love”. Son of an inter-religious couple, Jamal lived in the Middle East for a long time and in Washington is also involved with the vote of the immigrants: “My father was a Palestinian Muslim, my mother grew up in a Baptist family from Arkansas – he tells us – and even though they were both very religious, they got married with a civil wedding and never had any problems of a confessional nature; they have always respected each other’s beliefs, just as the majority of mixed American couples do”. The story of Jamal’s represents an unicum for 1950s America (“In a certain sense they were prisoners”), but today the situation is different: “Now marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are much more common, also because obviously there are more Arabs and Muslims than twenty years’ ago”.

Another aspect has also changed however. Today there are many more Muslim women who have mixed marriages. The reason why is soon explained, and Hooper clarifies it referring himself to the Muslim tradition: “Islam only consents marriage between a Muslim and a Christian or a Jew, who does not necessarily need to convert to Islam. It is her choice, but she should not be put under any pressure”. Even Jamal confirms (“Islam has no problem is a Muslim man marries a Christian or Jew, that is to say, someone who is a Follower of the Holy Book”) and through his experience he tells us of how even things have changed as regards this aspect: “When I was young, in the nineteen-sixties, mixed marriages took place almost exclusively between Muslim men and non-Muslim women. Now things are different. My wife is from Yemen, she is Muslim like myself, and has many Muslim female friends who have got married to American lads. They make them convert, otherwise the family would not accept, but I can assure you that they are purely “written” conversions”. But when I was young I did not even know one Muslim women married to a non-Muslim”. How can this change be explained? “Everything changes, progresses, and women realise their own rights. My wife has two sisters, who are Muslim, who wanted to divorce their husbands. People today are more open and think “If he is a good person and loves my daughter, it does not matter which religion they belong to”.

America is no longer the America of Guess who’s coming to dinner?, the Sidney Poitier comedy who left the country in that very year, 1967, the year of the say-so of the Supreme Court “Loving v. Virginia”. Of course, 9/11 was a killing blow to the image of Muslims. It generated fear and reinforced prejudices. In this way Jamal’s memories have a nostalgic tone: “My father, in Arkansas, was looked upon with a lot of curiosity, and also for this reason every Sunday would be invited to speak in a different church, because he came from the Holy Land and belonged to the People of the Book”. But despite all of this, according to the surveys (such as those by the Pew Institute), Muslims from the United States are much more integrated than their European counterparts. “It does not surprise me. America has always been more open to the mix between different ethnic groups and beliefs”, Hooper dryly replies. And Jamal: “I do not know this aspect of Europe well enough, but America is definitely an open country, and I also believe that for an American, marrying an Arab is particularly fascinating, exotic, more than for a European. For my mother it was a very romantic thing, to marry an “Arab” (a word which at 17 years’ old, when she met him, did not even know how to pronounce properly)”.

The majority of American Muslims are only looking to live their own life; they don’t have any intention to return to their country of origin and they are not interested in terrorism. Despite 9/11, America is disengaging from the tribal idea which says that each person ought to stay within their ethno-religious group. The numerous mixed marriages are living proof that integration has worked, and they also contribute to creating an even more open and tolerant America: “Being exposed to another culture helps facilitate integration – argues Jamal -, it is inevitable. According to a survey, only one out of every five Americans knows a Muslim. A friend of mine once said: “I was thinking about Muslims and terrorists, and then you came into my mind and I understood that the equation Islam equals terrorism could not work”. This is even more true for a mixed couple, where there is the mix of two different families, two different cultures”.

This article was published in Reset, number 103.

Translation by Sonia Ter Hovanessian



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