Assimilation Studies

Published March 21, 2007

National Review Online

A preference for marriage with cousins characterizes large sections of the Muslim world. In two previous pieces, “Marriage and the Terror War” and “Marriage and the Terror War, Part II,” I’ve argued that the Muslim preference for cousin marriage (along with several associated social practices) helps explain why it has become difficult to reconcile Islamic social life with modernity, why Muslim immigrants in Europe have been slow to assimilate, and ultimately, why we are engaged in a war with Islamic terrorists.

Cousin marriage, I have argued, helps to create and organize a deep-lying bias in the Muslim world toward in-group solidarity — a social strategy that has the effect of walling off Muslim society from outside influences, heightening internal cohesion, and insuring cultural continuity. By no means do all Muslims marry their cousins. Yet, throughout much of the Muslim world, the cultural ideal and practice of cousin marriage helps to set and reinforce in-group solidarity as a leading social theme.

For a dramatic illustration of the social significance of Muslim cousin marriage, there is no better place to turn than the work of British social anthropologist Roger Ballard. Ballard directs the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies at England’s University of Manchester. In addition to authoring numerous papers on South Asian immigration to Britain, Ballard is a frequent consultant on legal cases involving “forced marriage,” “honor killings,” and related cultural issues.

Although Ballard has written a great deal on immigration, his 1990 paper “Migration and kinship: the differential effect of marriage rules on the processes of Punjabi migration to Britain” stands out as a ground-breaking work. This single seminal paper has underwritten a small but burgeoning sub-field in which British anthropologists have begun to outline the impact of culturally distinctive marriage practices on the dynamics of immigration and assimilation.

I take a very different view of immigration-related policy issues from Dr. Ballard and his associates (about which I’ll have more to say in a future piece). Yet no one can gainsay the intellectual accomplishment of Ballard’s extraordinary 1990 essay, or the articles that followed. (Here I’ll be drawing not only on Ballard’s influential 1990 piece, but on “The South Asian Presence in Britain and its Transnational connections” and “Riste and Ristedari: the significance of marriage in the dynamics of transnational kinship.”) It’s a commonplace that Muslim immigrants in Europe have been slow to assimilate. In a general way, the public attributes this relative isolation to Muslim religion and culture. But if you’re looking for a clear, powerful, and detailed account of exactly what it is that’s been blocking Muslim assimilation in Europe, there is no better place to begin than Ballard.

Variation on a Theme
Before turning to Ballard’s work, I need to note that the form of cousin marriage favored by the Pakistani Muslims who immigrate to Britain is a regional variant on the “parallel cousin” marriage favored by Muslims in the heart of the Arab World. (I discussed the nature and significance of “parallel cousin” marriage in “Marriage and the Terror War” Parts I and II.) While many Pakistani Muslims do in fact marry their first or second “patrilateral parallel cousins” (their father’s brother’s child), many others marry first and second cousins of other types. In contrast to Muslims in North Africa and the Arab World, Muslims in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan prefer marriage with any closely related cousin — not merely “patrilateral parallel cousins.”

The details of this widespread Muslim variant on the classic pattern of Arab parallel-cousin marriage need not detain us. The point is that the fundamental principles I laid out in “Marriage and the Terror War” Parts I and II still hold. Although many Muslims who live north of the Arab heartland marry “cross cousins” as well as “parallel cousins,” they do so with the aim of creating a tightly bound group of in-marrying relatives. While some societies use cross-cousin marriage to cement inter-group alliances, the “northern” pattern of Muslim cousin-marriage generally eschews such alliances and strives instead to create an exclusive group of in-marrying kin. (For more on the Pakistani Muslim variant of cousin marriage, see Veena Das, “The Structure of Marriage Preferences: An Account From Pakistani Fiction.”)

Think of classic Arab parallel-cousin marriage as the ultimate expression of a more widespread Muslim tendency toward in-marriage, or “endogamy.” Even in the core Arab area, parallel-cousin marriage is just one form of in-marriage — a cultural ideal that sets the tone for a more complex and varied range of “endogamous” practice. In the north-Muslim variant, parallel-cousin marriage tends to lose its special status (although not entirely), while a powerful emphasis nonetheless remains on a preference for marriage within the kin group, to cousins of all types. (For more, see Chapter Two of Carol Delaney’s The Seed and the Soil.) In short, when Muslims marry cousins — of whatever type, they generally do so with the idea of creating and cementing the solidarity of tightly bound in-groups.

Natural Experiment
Part of what makes Ballard’s 1990 “Migration and kinship” piece so powerful is that he has identified Punjabi migration to Britain as something like a natural controlled experiment, with cousin marriage as the key variable. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all South Asians in Britain are Punjabis. The Punjab sits athwart the border of India and Pakistan and is home to substantial communities of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Muslims live almost exclusively in the Pakistani half of Punjab, while Sikhs and Hindus live largely in Indian Punjab. Whatever their religion, Punjabi migrants to Britain have a great deal in common. Most come from small, peasant, farming families, share basic cultural premises, speak a common language, and originally entered Britain intending to pocket savings from manual labor and return home. (In the end, many Punjabi guest workers remained in Britain.)

In family life, Punjabis of whatever religion organize themselves into patrilineal descent groups. Within those patrilineal clans, a “joint family” forms around a man, his married sons, and their children, with women leaving their natal homes to move in with their husbands. The family lives communally, sharing wealth and property, with grown sons under their father’s authority, and in-marrying wives working under the direction of their mother-in-law. And whether Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, the modesty of women in dress and behavior is a key cultural value for all Punjabis.

Despite these many similarities, the position of Punjabi Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu immigrants in Britain dramatically differs. Ballard focuses his comparison on two immigrant groups: Punjabi Muslims from the Mirpur region of Pakistan and Punjabi Sikhs from the Jullundur region of India. (Ballard frequently invokes Punjabi Hindus for comparative purposes as well.) Far from being obscure or isolated examples, it turns out that nearly three-quarters of British Punjabis are either Mirpuri Muslims or (largely Sikh) Jullunduris. With Punjabis making up the great majority of all British South Asians, Ballard’s careful comparison is therefore telling us about two of the largest and most influential South Asian immigrant groups in Britain.

So what’s the difference between Jullunduri Sikhs and Mirpuri Muslims? Quite simply, Jullunduri Sikh’s have moved relatively far down the road of assimilation, while Mirpuri Muslims have not. Now largely middle class, many British Sikhs have abandoned manual labor to start their own businesses, have moved from the inner city to the suburbs, and currently see their children performing academically at the same level as other middle-class Britons. British Mirpuri Muslims, on the other hand, move between unemployment and manual labor, are still largely confined to poor, inner-city ethnic enclaves, and rear children with a limited grasp of English and a notably low level of academic achievement.

Given the broad social, cultural, and linguistic similarities between Mirpuri Muslims and Jullunduri Sikhs (and Hindus), how are we to account for the radically different trajectories of these immigrant communities in Britain? Can religion explain the difference? In a sense, it can. Yet the key barriers to assimilation aren’t always religious in the strict sense. The factors that inhibit assimilation have less to do with Muslim beliefs per se than with the distinctive, non-textual practices that organize Muslim society.

In particular, the practice of cousin marriage has served to create a culturally insulated community of Mirpuri Muslims in Britain. A process of “chain migration,” in which generation after generation of Mirpuri immigrants wed cousins back in Pakistan, has reinforced Muslim cultural continuity by keeping a continuous stream of unassimilated immigrants pouring into Britain. Before describing the impact of Muslim marriage practices, however, Ballard needs to deal with an obvious alternative explanation for differential rates of immigrant achievement and assimilation.

Don’t Follow the Money
The simplest way to account for the different levels of economic success and assimilation found in Mirpuri Muslim and Jullunduri Sikh British immigrants is to note that Jullundur’s local economy has long been in much better shape than Mirpur’s. When it comes to economic development, Pakistan has been far less successful than India. And Jullundur is one of the most prosperous areas in one of the most prosperous states in India. Mirpur, on the other hand, is situated in an economically stagnant section of Pakistan. Immigrants from Jullundur therefore tend to have better educational and technical skills than immigrants from Mirpur, and this clearly accounts for a significant part of the differential economic and cultural success of the two immigrant communities in Britain.

Of course, although it may no longer be fashionable to raise the issue, these pre-existing economic differences could themselves be rooted in cultural differences. Ballard leaves this point largely unexplored, yet many aspects of his account are suggestive. Ballard notes that Mirpur’s economy is hampered by the need for connections (no doubt chiefly kinship connections) to the administrative and political elite. Ballard also highlights the inhibiting effects that Mirpuri notions of honor have on land sales, as well as the negative economic effects of the flight of Mirpur’s overwhelmingly Sikh and Hindu middle class during the partition of India and Pakistan. So we at least need to consider the possibility that cultural differences might have played a significant role in the divergent economic histories of Muslim Mirpur, on the one hand, and Sikh-Hindu Jullundur, on the other.

In any case, even after granting the significance of pre-existing economic differences, Ballard stresses that in this case, a materialist explanation can only be very partial. That’s because the relative failure of British Mirpuri Muslim immigrants to assimilate is clearly linked to their distinctive pattern of family life. While post-war, immigrant, male, Sikh workers in Britain brought their families over to join them as early as the 1950s, Mirpuri Muslims men didn’t begin to transfer their families in Britain in large numbers until the late-1970s. That means it took decades longer for many Mirpuri Muslims even to begin the process of learning English and accommodating to British culture. And when Mirpuri Muslims finally did bring their wives and children from Pakistan to join them, they forged a set of inward-looking social networks that effectively insulated the Muslim community from the surrounding British culture.

After noting that economic factors can have only limited explanatory value in this case, Ballard goes on to highlight the influence of marriage practices on patterns of immigrant assimilation. Ballard suggests that the Muslim practice of cousin marriage may account for the formation of “far more in-turned and all-embracing” kinship networks than we find among British Sikhs, thus helping to explain the two groups’ divergent patterns of economic achievement and cultural accommodation. However, before Ballard details the inhibiting effect of Muslim social practices on the process of assimilation, he pauses to express some hesitation. This passage is worth quoting in full:

Could cultural — and more specifically, religious — variables be a partial determinant of such differences? [i.e. differential rates of economic success and assimilation in Sikh and Muslim immigrants] It is, after all, quite frequently asserted that Islam is more ‘authoritarian,’ and less ‘open-minded,’ than either Hinduism or Sikhism; and there clearly is a correlation between patterns of family and community organization on the one hand, and religion on the other. Could the relationship be causal? It is an argument that I find myself approaching with great caution, for the dangers are clear. Any explanation which rests on sweeping, and inevitably stereotypical, assertions about the allegedly ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ character of the two religious traditions must be rejected as unhelpful and unilluminating. Nevertheless, I have become increasingly convinced that there are some very significant issues at stake here, which are indeed broadly associated with religion; however, if the analysis is to have any validity, and stereotypes are to be avoided, all arguments must show, in a very specific way, just how difference has been precipitated.

Ballard’s desire to avoid unjustified generalization is admirable, as is his determination to tie any cultural explanation to specific mechanisms. Yet we can’t help but wonder whether the forest might get lost in the trees. Will Ballard’s concerns about ethnic stereotyping prevent him from drawing legitimate connections between the mechanisms that block Muslim assimilation in Britain, on the one hand, and large-scale features of genuine importance in many Islamic societies, on the other? In any case, exactly how does Ballard use cousin marriage to explain the relatively slow pace of Muslim assimilation in Britain? We’ll find answers to these questions, and more, in Part II of “Assimilation Studies.”

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

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