Unlike the Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, most of these Muslim immigrants, the biggest groups of whom arrived in the 1970s, were from the middle and upper classes and came for a university education. Some planned to return to their countries, but as the political situation at home deteriorated, a large population settled here. Today, American Jews and Muslims make up a similarly small portion of the population; they are generally highly educated and well-off, and both groups are concentrated in major metropolitan areas.
Although estimates of interfaith marriage among small population groups such as Muslims are hard to pin down, a 2011 Pew Research Center study found that about 16 percent of Muslims who are married or living with someone have a non-Muslim spouse or partner. That was the first year Pew studied whom Muslims married, and it’s one of the only organizations to do so. Muslims intermarry less often than other faith groups with longer histories in the United States, such as Catholics and Jews, but they do so more often than Hindus (10 percent) and about as often as Mormons (17 percent), according to a 2007 Pew study.
Heather and Abdullah are one of these intermarried couples. (I use only the first names of couples here because some of their families are unfamiliar with their stories or have not accepted their marriages.) They met on Match.com in 2004; his profile had an Americanized version of his name — Al — and said he was neutral toward religion. Heather’s profile said she was looking for a Christian, a detail Abdullah says he hadn’t noticed. His family had left Afghanistan for upstate New York when he was 3. And although he went to religious school every week for almost 10 years, it didn’t take. In high school, he started dating non-Muslims but never told his parents. “As I got older, religion became more of an issue for people [I dated],” he told me. “But it really wasn’t something that defined me.”
When they got married in 2007, Heather and Abdullah had two weddings. One was a traditional Muslim Nikah ceremony with both sets of parents and 10 couples as witnesses. A few days later, they had what they call their “American wedding,” with a pastor presiding. Most of Abdullah’s extended family didn’t show up for the second ceremony, although he is not sure whether that’s because they didn’t want to attend a Christian ceremony or because they were just very late (an Afghan cultural tendency, he said).
At the reception, Afghan and American food was served, an Afghan live band and an American DJ entertained, and the couple’s relatives didn’t quite know how to interact. Now both families are involved in raising Heather and Abdullah’s son. For the most part, everyone seems to get along.