Assimilation Studies, Part II

Published March 22, 2007

National Review Online

**This is the second part of a two-part essay. Click here to read the first part.**

The practice of cousin marriage among Pakistani immigrants has significantly slowed Muslim assimilation in Britain. Muslim cousin marriage has also facilitated a process of “reverse colonization,” in which large, culturally intact sections of Pakistani Muslim society have been effectively transferred to British soil. These conclusions emerge from the work of British South Asianist Roger Ballard — particularly from his path-breaking paper “Migration and kinship: the differential effects of marriage rules on the processes of Punjabi migration to Britain.” In the first part of “Assimilation Studies,” I laid out the background necessary to follow Ballard’s case. Here in Part II, I’ll run through the core of his argument. I’ll also explain why highlighting the significance of Muslim cousin marriage is such a difficult and controversial enterprise.

As we’ve seen, Ballard worries that his research might validate the view that there is something illiberal or closed-minded about Islamic religious and social life. Yet statistics that Ballard himself reports show why it has been difficult for him to ignore the impact of cousin marriage on Muslim life in Britain — whatever hesitation he may have had about making such a potentially controversial case.

Ballard (who’s done extensive fieldwork in Pakistan’s Mirpur district) estimates that “over 60% of all Mirpuri marriages are contracted between first cousins.” In 2002, Ballard noted that: “At least half (and possibly as many as two-thirds) of the marriages currently being contracted by young British-based Mirpuris are still arranged with their cousins from back home.”

Rates of cousin marriage vary throughout the Muslim world, and we’ll learn more here (and in a future piece) about why the rates of cousin marriage among British Pakistani migrants are particularly high. Yet statistics alone tell only part of the story. The impact of a cultural ideal like cousin marriage goes well beyond any given statistical report. For example, Ballard notes that, “even when matches are arranged with non-relatives, they are rarely left in isolation. When followed up by further matches, two previously unconnected families can soon find themselves bound together in a single network.” So even marriages between non-kin tend over time to be roped into the larger Muslim system of endogamy.

This only begins to get at the many ways in which the significance of Muslim cousin-marriage goes beyond mere numbers. In “Marriage and the Terror War,” I discussed the difficulty modern Americans have in appreciating the pervasive significance of kinship in the non-Western world. For the greater part of human history, the political, cultural, and economic aspects of a person’s life have been inseparably bound up with customs of marriage and descent. Contemporary Muslim society is very much a part of that history. So when we learn that a high proportion of British Muslims are marrying kin, it’s not only interesting as a statistic about marriage itself, but is also a sign that many aspects of Muslim social life in Britain are being shaped and organized by the obligations of kinship.

Given the frequency, impact, and prestige of cousin marriage among Muslims, it would seem a difficult phenomenon for scholars to ignore. In recent years, however, as Ballard’s own hesitation reveals, Western anthropologists have been decidedly reluctant to approach the topic. As anthropologist Carol Delaney explains in her 1991 book, The Seed and the Soil: “The introverted character of Middle Eastern–Mediterranean marriage, exuding as it does a scent of incest, may partly explain the relative reluctance of anthropologists to stick their noses into it.”

I think Delaney is correct — both in her explanation and in her sense that this explanation is merely partial. To truly understand the significance of Delaney’s pungent observation, we’ve got to learn a little something about the broader crisis into which Middle East studies have been plunged by the blistering criticisms of Edward Said, the founder of “post-colonial theory.” If the topic of Muslim cousin-marriage is now in bad odor amongst anthropologists, Edward Said has much to do with that fact.

Said famously took Bernard Lewis and other “Orientalist” scholars to task for treating Middle Eastern culture and society as somehow different from the West. This focus on cultural difference, according to Said, effectively turns Middle Easterners into exotic and implicitly irrational “Others,” over whom we supposedly-more-rational Westerners have an unspoken right to rule. Ultimately, for Said, even the most scrupulous and respectful study of cultural difference amounts to nothing more than a covert form of racist imperialism.

Said’s deeply influential political critique has had a paralyzing effect on scholars of the Middle East. Without venturing an account of social particularity, how can cross-cultural comparison take place? Western anthropologists stand condemned as neo-imperialists, whether they laud a particular social practice, criticize it, or remain scrupulously neutral. In the wake of Said’s critique, some anthropologists have abandoned cultural description and comparison altogether, producing sensitive accounts of their personal experiences in the field, or novelistic narratives of Middle Eastern lives instead. The point is less to make sense of the distinctive features of Middle Eastern society than to bring across to Westerners the common humanity of the people our foreign policy is supposedly tyrannizing. And of course, Said helped to usher in the scholarly notion that, in so far as the Middle East has distinguishing features or problems worth noting, these are largely a product of colonial oppression and American neo-imperialism, rather than of any distinctive social patterning within Middle Eastern society itself. (For more on Said and his impact, see my “Edward Said, Imperialist” and Charles Lindholm’s “The New Middle Eastern Ethnography.”)

With the field of Middle Eastern studies increasingly falling under the influence of Said and his followers, the long-standing anthropological interest in cousin marriage quickly began to fade. After all, what could be more offensive to a post-colonial theorist than the study of a feature that distinguishes the Muslim Middle East from nearly every other culture in the world — a practice that, in Delaney’s words, “exudes the scent of incest,” to boot? To look to cousin marriage for an explanation of the slow rate of Muslim assimilation in Europe — or for guidance in prosecuting the war on terror — is to bring vivid life to Edward Said’s worst nightmare. So, unfortunately (and not coincidentally), the post-colonial critique has virtually killed off the academic study of Middle Eastern kinship — at precisely the moment when such study is most needed.

It is therefore to Roger Ballard’s credit that, despite his concerns about invoking Muslim cousin-marriage as an explanation, he has moved forward nonetheless. Ballard and his British anthropological colleagues, in comparison to many American scholars, remain relatively resistant (but sadly, only relatively) to the worst excesses of post-colonial theory. All things considered, Britain remains something of a redoubt of the classic anthropological study of kinship. And with large numbers of South Asian immigrants bringing non-Western kinship practices into the heart of Britain itself, anthropologists could hardly help but take notice.

Reverse Colonization
So what exactly is Ballard explaining? What differences did Ballard find between the two big groups of British immigrants from the Punjab: Muslims from the Mirpur district of Pakistan, and Sikhs from the Jullundur district of India? Although both of these groups share a broadly similar social and cultural background, their patterns of assimilation have been strikingly different.

Think of the South Asian guest workers who began to pour into Britain during the boom years of the 1950s as being connected to their Punjabi villages of origin by invisible bands, stretched taught across the globe. At first, Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims alike lived physically in England, yet remained spiritually tethered to their South Asian homeland. Working double shifts through the night for extra pay left little time for interaction with Britons. The plan was to save as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, and return home. Wives and children were left behind in Punjab. If marriage for a worker or his child was to be arranged, it would be with someone at home.

In time, however, the paths of Sikh and Muslim workers began to diverge. By the late 1950s, the bands that tied Sikh immigrants to their Punjabi home began to stretch, weaken, even break. Sikh women and children joined their husbands and fathers in Britain, while many Sikhs shifted out of manual labor to start businesses of their own. With economic success came a move to the suburbs, where a generation of Sikh children grew up learning English from their British neighbors. This new cohort of relatively assimilated young Sikhs had a record of high academic-achievement, and they increasingly saw their marriages arranged with Sikhs living in Britain or North America, rather than with villagers back in Punjab.

Mirpuri Muslim workers, on the other hand, took decades longer to bring their wives and children to Britain. The common pattern was for a laborer to spend years working double shifts, accumulating savings, and then to return to Mirpur for an extended rest, perhaps using his new-found wealth to finance lavish weddings for his children. The rest period was followed by a return to Britain, with the cycle repeated several times. So the bonds that held Muslim Mirpuri migrants in Britain to their home villages in South Asia remained unbroken.

Even in the 1970s, when Mirpuri Muslim laborers finally did begin to bring their wives and children to live with them in Britain, ties to Pakistan were sustained through “chain migration.” With immigration regulations in Britain reflecting a lesser need and desire for foreign workers, villagers back in Mirpur could obtain visas only by marrying Mirpuri migrants already in Britain. Children of these couples, in turn, married and brought to England yet another generation of Mirpuri villagers, with each link in the chain of marriage migration insuring that the process of adjustment to English language and culture would begin again from scratch. These relatively unassimilated Mirpuri marriage-migrants were largely confined to the inner-city — to neighborhoods that recreated, insofar as possible, the linguistic and cultural conditions of Pakistan itself. Given their limited contact with English-speaking neighbors, Mirpuri children in these ethnic ghettos continued to have problems in school.

So, even when Mirpuri migrant men finally did reunite their families in Britain, it was less a breaking of the bonds that linked them to Pakistan than an effective transfer of a South Asian village society to Britain itself — a sort of “reverse colonization” — with marriage-driven chain migration keeping the ties between the “reverse colony” and the Punjabi homeland as strong as ever. In combination with the original post-war labor inflow, marriage-driven chain migration has now succeeded in transferring well over 50 percent of Mirpur’s original population to Britain. “We don’t cultivate wheat here any more,” one of Ballard’s Mirpuri informants commented, “we cultivate visas instead.”

Women and Funeral Rites
Ballard quickly realized that it would take more than materialist explanations to make sense of all this. In the end, he identified three cultural-religious variables that account for a large part of the difference between immigrant Sikh and Muslim paths of assimilation: marriage rules, mortuary rites, and gender rules.

When it comes to the treatment of women, Punjabi Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims share a good deal. While Muslims famously seclude women, Punjabi Hindu and Sikh women also behave with modesty before men — for example, keeping their faces covered by head-scarves in the presence of senior male relatives. So it’s all the more striking that the stricter, specifically Muslim rules of female seclusion have had such a substantial impact on divergent Sikh and Muslim paths of assimilation.

While Punjabi Sikh and Hindu women are permitted to move with circumspection around the village and into the fields when there’s work to be done, Mirpuri Muslims expect their women to avoid public places and to cover themselves almost completely when traveling.

Given these strict conventions of female seclusion, Mirpuri guest-workers, dismayed by what they viewed as the corrupting influence of British mores, were far slower to risk bringing their wives and children to live with them abroad. And when Mirpuri women finally did arrive, they were kept confined at home. In contrast, many Sikh and Hindu female immigrants to Britain took jobs that put them in touch with the language and culture of the society around them.

While admittedly not a major factor, Ballard notes that the contrast between Muslim burial practices and Sikh and Hindu cremation rites has also helped tie Mirpuri immigrants to their Pakistani base. The ashes of cremated ancestors can be immersed in any river — the Thames is much favored by British Hindus and Sikhs. Mirpuri Muslims, on the other hand, travel back to Pakistan to bury their parents in the graveyard of the patrilineage — a symbol of the unity of the in-marrying clan.

Yet according to Ballard, of the several cultural factors shaping divergent paths of immigrant assimilation, marriage practices are the most important. Although Punjabi Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all organize themselves into patrilineal descent groups (clans), and commonly form joint families, with sons and their in-marrying wives living together under parental authority, there is one key difference. Whereas Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus must marry outside of the patri-clan, Punjabi Muslims prefer to marry fellow clan members — especially first cousins. One effect of this difference is that the wives of Jullunduri Sikh immigrants have long been more eager than the wives of Mirpuri Muslim immigrants to join their husbands in Britain. Here’s why.

Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs marry outside the clan, but they must also marry inside the caste. In Punjab, members of a patrilineal clan tend to live together in the same village. This means that eligible marriage partners of the same caste, but a different clan, can only be found in another village. So the rule of clan exogamy forces Punjabi Hindu and Sikh brides to leave their home villages to move in with husbands who live elsewhere. Hindu and Sikh brides therefore enter their husband’s joint family as strangers. The early years of married life for a Hindu or Sikh bride are thus famously stressful, since she is not only living with and learning the ways of strangers, but also works under the difficult and unfamiliar authority of her new mother-in-law. Over time, Hindu and Sikh brides often press their husbands to leave the joint family and strike out on their own.

In contrast, when Muslim brides are cousins to their husbands, they remain in their home village, living with relatives, and often working under the supervision of a mother-in-law who is also a beloved aunt. One of the reasons Muslim cousin-marriage helps cement such intense in-group solidarity is that it builds upon and magnifies the already immensely powerful emotional bonds of early family life.

So it’s not surprising that the wives and children of Sikh laborers came to join them decades before Muslim families reunited in Britain. Even under ordinary circumstances, Sikh brides have only a limited interest in maintaining family jointness. Given the fact that these brides were working under mothers-in-law, without the protection from poor treatment commonly provided by resident husbands, they were more than willing to detach themselves from the joint family and move in with their husbands overseas. Many Muslim brides, in contrast, would have welcomed the prospect of remaining in Pakistan with a family of beloved aunts and cousins, rather than moving into conditions of lonely seclusion in Britain.

Forging the Chain
So Muslim cousin-marriage, in combination with the seclusion of women, helps explain why Sikh families were united in England, decades before similar reunions were seen among Muslim Mirpuris. Yet why, even after these family reunions, have Mirupuri Muslim immigrants continued the practice of marriage-driven chain migration, whereas Jullunduri Sikhs have not? Once again, Muslim cousin-marriage goes a long way toward explaining the difference.

As Muslim and Sikh immigrants gradually adjusted to life in Britain, it became increasingly evident that marriages arranged with villagers from back home tended to be riven with conflict. Cultural differences, the language gap, and the wide divergence in general social competence between British-raised youth and their spouses from South Asia frequently made for trouble and strife. So when the parents of British-born Sikhs were faced with the offer of an arranged marriage with a villager from Punjab, their children invariably opposed the match. In doing so, these young Sikhs had the advantage of knowing that their parents were under no obligation to accept any particular proposal of marriage. Given the Sikh practice of clan exogamy, every marriage is arranged from scratch with an outsider. In short order, therefore, the new generation of British-born Sikhs successfully pressed their parents to arrange marriages with British-born (or perhaps even North American-born) Sikh partners.

The situation was very different for children of Mirpuri Muslims. Among Mirpuris, it’s taken for granted that cousins have a virtual right-of-first-refusal in the matter of marriage. Even in the absence of immigration, it would have been entirely expected that the children of Mirpuri migrants would marry their cousins. How much more so was this the case when a marriage meant a British visa, and a vast increase in wealth — all redounding to the honor of the patriclan? Many Mirpuri migrants had only made it to Britain in the first place with economic help from a brother back in Pakistan. This practice of sharing of resources within the joint family created a powerful moral obligation to repay that financial help by arranging a marriage (and a visa) for the child of the brother who remained in Pakistan.

The British-born children of these Mirpuri Muslim migrants were perhaps a bit less apprehensive than their British Sikh counterparts about the idea of marrying villagers from back home. After all, these young Mirpuris had gotten to know their cousins on those long visits to Pakistan, and some affectionate attachments had developed. Yet the chronic problems of transnational marriages did indeed call forth opposition to such matches from many young Mirpuris. In contrast to the situation among immigrant Sikhs, however, the hands of Mirpuri parents were largely tied. To refuse a marriage with a relative back in Pakistan, when customary rights, financial obligation, and family honor were all at stake, would have been tantamount to a repudiation of siblingship itself. Such a severing of ties could bring retaliation in the form of efforts to blacken the honor of an immigrant and his family — a particularly severe sanction among Muslims.

So while Sikh immigrants increasingly broke the links of marriage-driven chain migration, the practice of Muslim cousin-marriage insured that assimilation itself would virtually begin again from scratch with each new generational infusion of Mirpuri spouses. The result has been economic stagnation and the literal transfer of more than half of Mirpur’s population to an archipelago of “reverse colonies” in the heart of Britain.

The Big Picture
Ballard is clearly concerned to avoid confirming the notion that Muslim religious or social practice is in any way closed-minded or illiberal. The solution, says Ballard, is to link Muslim cousin-marriage to the issue of assimilation only through a series of very specific mechanisms. So Ballard finally attributes the contrasting paths of Sikh and Muslim migrants to what he calls “a whole series of minor differences” — namely, funeral rites, the seclusion of women, and the many implications of divergent marriage rules.

Isn’t it interesting, however, that this whole series of “minor differences” somehow adds up to a very major difference indeed — a difference upon which the fate of Europe and the West may now hinge? Is it really the case that we can find nothing of systematic significance in a practice that transforms what might otherwise have been successful assimilation into “reverse colonization”? For Ballard: “Just why conversion [to Islam] should have precipitated such a radical change in marriage strategies [i.e. the shift to cousin marriage] is unclear.” It seems to me that Ballard’s own work suggests an answer to this mystery.

As I argued in “Marriage and the Terror War,” cousin marriage tends to wall off Muslim society from outside influences — heightening internal cohesion and insuring cultural continuity. The Muslim practice of cousin marriage stands in a reciprocal functional-relationship with Islam itself — with both sides of that relationship reinforcing a social strategy based on in-group solidarity. If several very particular aspects of cousin marriage have tended to reinforce social solidarity among Muslim immigrants in Britain, that is no coincidence; it is merely a powerful illustration of the broader tension between the organization of Muslim society and the structures of modernity.

No doubt, there are many complexities and exceptions here. Muslim society is diverse, and marriage practices are by no means uniform over the entire range of worldwide Islam. There are also similarities — even overlap — between seemingly distinctive Muslim social practices and aspects of non-Muslim cultures. Having said all that, it would be a mistake to downplay or deny the significance of the broader social pattern here. Cousin marriage tends both to reinforce in-group solidarity and to set up barriers to cultural exchange. Clearly this has huge advantages in certain social contexts. No doubt because of practices like cousin marriage, Islam has maintained enormous internal coherence and strength over huge stretches of history. Yet it must also be noted that the very pattern that yields such impressive social advantages can sometimes appear closed-off, even illiberal, by the standards of modern, Western society.

The implications in all this for Europe and America are huge, and I shall continue to explore them in this ongoing series of pieces on Muslim marriage practices.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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