When Muslims intermarry, do they keep the faith?

Emiliano Ponzi for The Washington Post

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Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “ ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.”

When it comes to intermarriage, Muslims are becoming the new Jews.

About a century ago, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were immigrating to the United States, only about 1 percent, by some estimates, married non-Jews. Now, about 30 percent of Jews are married to someone outside the faith. American Muslims are going through a similar transition, one that could profoundly change the Muslim experience in the United States.

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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.

Heather and Abdullah are the new face of intermarriage in the United States. They didn’t marry until they had been living on their own for some time. And they met online, where it’s more common to find people outside your immediate social and religious circles.

In the 1950s, 40 years into the Jewish mass migration to the United States, fewer than 1 in 10 Jews married someone outside the faith. Now, four decades into the Muslim mass migration, about 1 in 6 Muslims are intermarrying. Muslim intermarriages are likely to increase more quickly than they did for Jews, because unlike the early 20th century, there are no religious or racial limits in universities and workplaces, and people’s social circles are far more diverse.

Also, under Islamic law men are allowed to marry out of the faith — as long as they marry a Jew or Christian, referred to as “People of the Book.” Behind this rule is the notion that Islam is passed down patrilineally (unlike Judaism, which is matrilineal). So, no matter whom a Muslim man marries, his children will be considered Muslim.

Lost in this loophole is the fact that, in American homes, women tend to run the religious show. They are typically the ones attending religious services and shuttling children to and from religious school. Muslim community leaders tell me that raising Muslim children without the mother’s help is very difficult.

Steve Mustapha Elturk, an imam in Troy, Mich., says that his first marriage was to a Catholic Filipina woman. The couple sent one of their children to Catholic school, while Elturk taught him the Koran at home. Elturk said that he did not place enough emphasis on the Muslim faith when his children were young and that it affected their decisions as adults. He believes that things went much more smoothly with his second wife, a Muslim, and that his children from their marriage received a stronger Muslim upbringing.

According to a nationally representative survey I commissioned in 2010 of almost 2,500 people, children in interfaith families are more than twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother as the faith of their father. If Muslim men continue to marry outside the faith at such high rates, the women left behind will be more inclined to do so as well because there will be fewer available Muslim partners. Meanwhile, families where the mother is Muslim and the father is not are less likely to be accepted in the Muslim community because technically their marriages are forbidden.

Other forces push Muslims toward intermarrying as well. Religious rules often prevent Muslims of the opposite sex from socializing with one another, and because most Muslims work and go to school with non-Muslims, it’s often easier for them to meet and get to know potential partners outside the faith.

For example, Qanta A. Ahmed, a Muslim physician in New York, wrote in a USA Today op-ed last year that Muslim women “frequently lack intellectually and professionally equal Muslim partners” and that Muslim men often choose younger, less career-focused Muslim women of the same nationality. “These forces drive Muslim women to either select suitable marriage partners from outside the faith or face unremitting spinsterhood.”

And even when a non-Muslim man converts for a Muslim fiancee, he often does so merely to placate the bride’s family, and not out of deep conviction. Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine, author of “Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married,” says she has seen many cases in which a significant other becomes a “token Muslim.” He or she will say the shahada, the declaration of faith, Ezzeldine says, but if the Muslim half of the couple is not very observant, the non-Muslim is often merely doing the conversion “for the sake of having a Muslim marriage.”

Part of the problem, Ezzeldine says, is that conversion to Islam is not a long or arduous process. There is no curriculum to master, no test of religious knowledge. Rather, Islam is similar to some strains of evangelical Protestantism in which people can say they were moved by the spirit and they are instantly “born again.”

Mohamed Magid, the imam and executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, tells me that he often tries to press men on their motivations before they convert and that he has even told couples he won’t marry them if he is not convinced the conversion is serious.

The pressures families place on young Muslims to marry someone of similar background can be counterproductive, says Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Immigrant parents often want their children to find a spouse of the same nationality, an attitude that second-generation American Muslims find impractical, if not downright backward.

“We have at our center,” Turk says, “something like 60 different nationalities, and so we try our best to bring them together and say, ‘Yes, you like Pakistan. You like being Egyptian, or whatever, but your children are not that. They’re American, and so let’s come together. We’re a faith community. We’re not an Egyptian community or a Pakistani community.’” And focusing on common cultural customs, Turk argues, is less important than finding someone with common beliefs.

Just as assimilation has meant that there are few corners of the United States where Jews are unwelcome, intermarriage — and the assimilation that comes with it — is likely to make Americans more accepting of Muslims.

When Dia, who grew up in a black Baptist church, began dating a Muslim man in college, her mother was concerned. “For her this was a crack in God’s faith for me to want to marry someone who doesn’t believe Jesus Christ was our lord and savior,” Dia said. She did not convert but before she married, and since, her husband and her mother have had long conversations about faith.

Now, Dia says, “My family has accepted him with open arms. All of our views of Islam have changed because we’ve taken the time to educate ourselves. My mom finds herself defending his religion to others.”

This is borne out in survey data as well. In a 2011 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 79 percent of Muslims rated their communities very positively as places to live. And most think that “ordinary Americans are friendly (48 percent) or neutral (32 percent) toward Muslim Americans.”

But some Muslim leaders are beginning to wonder whether this assimilation will weaken their religious communities. Will people continue to adhere to the faith? Will the mosques continue to be a center of community life? Will the holiday traditions simply pass away with an older generation?

The high rates of interfaith marriage are a cause and an effect of lower attendance rates at mosques, Turk says. He says that of the roughly 750,000 Muslims living in Southern California, just 30,000, or about 4 percent, regularly attend Friday prayer.

But few Muslim leaders I spoke with had thought about this trend’s long-term effects. Because the Jewish community has been wrestling with this issue for so long, some of its leaders were willing to speculate about the road that Muslims are headed down. Jonathan Sarna, a history professor at Brandeis University, has studied intermarriage of Jews and other religious groups. Although Muslims worldwide are in no way facing the kind of demographic decline that Jews are, he says that if American Muslims want to encourage Muslims to marry Muslims, they could create more opportunities for men and women to meet long before they’re considering marriage — be it at summer camps, youth groups and certain kinds of schools or colleges.

“Throwing people together in intensive kinds of activities is so wonderful because on the one hand, people are making free choice, the ultimate American value,” Sarna says, “and on the other hand, people they can choose from conveniently all have the same faith background.”

But there are less concrete ideas that Muslim leaders might consider, Sarna says. He thinks they need to explain to young people and their parents why they should marry among themselves: “Even as we celebrate America for making the melting pot possible — and I at least celebrate the America that has allowed people of different races to marry — nevertheless they need to articulate a rhetoric that they want to preserve Islam in America.”

And that can happen, he says, only “if Muslims marry other Muslims.”

outlook@washpost.com

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “ ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.”

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