Islam, race and marriage

There’s recently been some heated discussion going on at Izzy Mo’s blog about the subject of inter-racial and inter-cultural Muslim marriages, which has produced another discussion over at Ginny’s blog. Ginny has recently posted much material to her blog about the trauma of her broken marriage to a Gambian who was violent to her, and may (judging by recent comments there) have been taking advantage of her. Someone posted a comment there claiming that inter-racial marriages always have ulterior motives behind them. A lot of people become Muslim in western countries with very egalitarian views, and with a particular hostility for snobbery and racism, and are very shocked to discover that both are found in a lot of Muslim societies, which affects natives as well as converts. Pakistan is well-known for its “biraderi” phenomenon, by which farmers and landlords - and their descendents in the UK - both consider themselves better than the other. This is known to have infiltrated politics in the UK, with some Pakistanis unwilling to vote for a Pakistani of the other group. The BBC reported on a community leader from Kashmir coming over to appeal to Pakistanis in three constituencies to vote for Parliamentary candidates of three different parties (the three main ones), because they were each of his biraderi! And, of course, anyone seeking to marry across biraderi lines has considerable difficulty. The same biraderi politics also gets into mosque committees, as Mas’ud Khan recently mentioned on his blog.

Then there’s the whole business of certain families’ hostility to cross-cultural marriages, which is what affects converts. (Then again, if you’re not Pakistani, I don’t suppose you can be a Jat or a Rajput, even if you are a farmer or landowner.) I’ve personally had three sisters reject me because their parents told them they could only marry from their own background. Two were Bengali, and the third Moroccan. A brother on the New Muslims’ forum I subscribe to has recently reported similar problems - the sister willing, and the parents refusing even to meet him. A brother from Ghana told me that black converts tend to have it even harder than us white guys: he knows of a family - Asian, I think - in which one of the daughters married a white man, and another a black man. They get on fine with the white guy, and are hostile to the black guy. On the other hand, someone could get the impression of racism when, in reality, the family just doesn’t like his or her personality; there’s also the issue of the various sects to which black converts in both the US and the UK belong. I wouldn’t marry any daughter of mine to a Wahhabi or to any WD Muhammad follower.

An Afro-American woman called Cynthia posted a comment to Ginny’s blog claiming that people usually marry not for love but rather “simply because of societal pressures”. She went on with the outrageous generalisation:

People also have a tendency to treat those that have a similar background as them differently than those who don’t share that background. This is why the majority of the people marry within their own groups. When people marry outside their groups, there are always ulterior motives for those unions

I commented in reply that I thought this was drivel. Where, after all, does any rejection of cross-cultural marriages end? The cultural difference between, say, an English man and a Portuguese woman, is greater than between a black and a white American. The latter pair at least speak the same language; the former have totally different languages, cuisines, cultures and almost certainly religions. (The problems of Protestant-Catholic marriage isn’t as severe as it was a few decades ago, mind you.) Colour is a physical characteristic like any other, and some find different colours attractive (my cousin, who is white like me, seems to prefer black men), and others have preferences which cut across colour (as I do). She replied, simply saying I was naive.

I was left wondering what sort of ulterior motives Cynthia was talking about. Maybe a white woman imagines that there is some sort of social cachet in marrying a black man just to show she’s not prejudiced; maybe a black man (or woman) takes a white partner (or even vice-versa) for his or her status or money. Cynthia told Ginny that a common scam was for African men to marry American women in order to gain a US passport. Ginny mentioned that his nationality was a “dead giveaway”, and “green card marriages” are a known problem, but then, she had been to the Gambia before (1, 2), and had no doubt seen a different side to the country and its society than young men seeking American or British passports through devious means.

This underlines, for me, the importance of a woman having a wali; while, according to some scholars (notably Hanafis), not necessary for a convert at the time of the actual marriage, it is of enormous benefit of separating the sincere, religious man from the advantage-taker. (By the way, it’s known that some brothers from certain backgrounds have low opinions of western convert women, and ask them thoroughly inappropriate questions.) I have mixed feelings about the relative merits of marrying a convert, versus marrying an immigrant’s daughter and marrying a sister in a Muslim country and bringing her to the UK. I particularly don’t like the latter option, unless the country is at war; it’s better for a Muslim to move to the land of Islam rather than take more women out of it. One would hope that the bond of sharing Islam would be stronger than the potential of different cultures to divide.

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