Myra Morton approached her sleeping husband on the morning of August 5, 2007, with pain in her heart and a gun in her hand. Once the smoke had cleared at the couple’s upscale home just outside Philadelphia, a man would lie dead, a family secret would be exposed, and a spotlight would shine on the emergent phenomenon of Islamic polygamy in the Western world.
The slaying took place just hours before Jereleigh Morton was scheduled to leave for Morocco on a mission to impregnate his other wife, Zahra Toural. Niqab-clad Myra, a convert to Islam two decades earlier, acceded to his bond with the younger woman, whom he had met online in late 2006. Privately, however, the 47-year-old mother was shattered, recording her dismay in a journal and lamenting to friends that she no longer received attention. Myra even mailed a letter to immigration officials falsely claiming that Toural had terrorist ties and should thus be prohibited from entering the country. Her husband’s plan to conceive is apparently what sent her over the edge.
Islam did not kill Jereleigh Morton; Myra Morton did. She bears full responsibility for her brutal deed and should be punished accordingly. Regardless of the circumstances, murder is anathema to Western legal and moral standards. Yet so too is polygamy. Recent evidence, however, indicates that governments tend to look the other way as the conjugal mores of seventh-century Arabia – and the problems that travel with them – take root in our backyards. Just as Myra Morton faces justice in a court of law, these drowsy cultural watchdogs must be made to answer in the court of public opinion.
The prevalence of polygamy among Muslims living in the West remains a matter of debate. Here is a sampling of what has been reported: As many as thirty thousand Muslim families in France include more than one wife. There are fifteen thousand in Italy and several thousand in Great Britain. Estimates for the United States typically run into the tens of thousands. Even Australia has been forced to crack down on Muslim men looking to meet potential second wives via the internet.
Individual cases often come to light unexpectedly through high-impact media events such as the Morton saga. Another example is the tragic Bronx house fire that killed ten people on March 7, 2007. Moussa Magassa, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mali who lost five of his children in the blaze, was discovered to have two wives living a floor apart. A subsequent investigation by the New York Times found polygamy to be an open secret in his immigrant community, with agencies that serve it adhering to a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Lack of official curiosity is just one reason for the poor statistics. Practitioners also labor to avoid scrutiny. Two strategies are common. Some Muslim men with additional wives living abroad arrange for relatives to sponsor visas that can bring them to the West without raising red flags. Others find second, third, or even fourth wives locally, sealing the deal in a nikah ceremony conducted by an imam. Because such marriages are performed under the state’s radar and have no legal standing, the wives enjoy none of the rights guaranteed to spousal partners.
Concern about Islamic polygamy – whether in the West or East – has naturally been dismissed in some quarters as cultural imperialism. For example, Duke University professor Miriam Cooke argues that “polygamy can be liberating and empowering.” As Kay Hymowitz explains in City Journal, “Some women, [Cooke] continued, are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won’t have to service him so often. Or they might find they now have the freedom to take a lover. But, I ask, wouldn’t that be dangerous in places where adulteresses can be stoned to death? At any rate, how common is that? ‘I don’t know,’ Cooke answers, ‘I’m interested in discourse.'”
Two nations have apparently skipped the “discourse” and moved straight to capitulation. Following a yearlong review, the British government has ruled that husbands can claim benefits for multiple wives, as long as the marriages are legal in the countries where they were conducted. Specifically, guidelines issued by the Department for Work and Pensions regarding the jobseeker’s allowance state: “Where there is a valid polygamous marriage the claimant and one spouse will be paid the couple rate (£92.80). The amount payable for each additional spouse is presently £33.65.”
A similar arrangement exists in parts of Canada. According to the Toronto Sun, “Hundreds of [Greater Toronto Area] Muslim men in polygamous marriages … are receiving welfare and social benefits for each of their spouses, thanks to the city and province, Muslim leaders say. Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims, said wives in polygamous marriages are recognized as spouses under the Ontario Family Act Law, providing they were legally married under Muslim laws abroad.”
Why should the introduction of – and increasing tolerance toward – Islamic polygamy be a cause for worry in the West?
First, like so many facets of sharia, Islamic family law codifies inequality and thus contravenes both the letter and the spirit of Western jurisprudence. While guidelines that reference polygamy, such as those now regulating welfare benefits in the UK, typically employ general-neutral language, there can be little doubt regarding the very gender-specific nature of the institution as it exists among Muslims. By tacitly recognizing this practice, governments offer their imprimatur to sex discrimination.
Second, Nonie Darwish and Phyllis Chesler have noted that polygamy, when combined with other misogynistic provisions of sharia, breeds societal dysfunction. Plural unions not only inspire distrust between spouses and heightened competition among offspring. Children also learn from an early age that females are unworthy of exclusive affection and therefore hold less value than males. Moreover, if common, polygamy creates legions of unhappily unmarried young men who are ripe for radicalization.
Third, polygamy is illegal in virtually every Western state. Men who partake in such marriages while residing in the West or circumvent immigration rules to gain entry for additional spouses are law-breakers, plain and simple. Which other statutes might they feel comfortable violating in the name of their imported traditions? The mixed message sent by government bureaucrats is particularly damaging in this context. Their multicultural nonchalance undermines both the legal system itself and the foundational values that laws are intended to reflect and secure.
Fourth, the push to normalize polygamy is yet another front in the Islamists’ campaign of inches. Its acceptance would serve as a powerful salient, paving the way for the further implementation of sharia principles. This slippery slope is not lost on Tory shadow secretary Chris Grayling. Discussing the welfare imbroglio, he observed that extending payouts to multiple wives “sets a precedent that will lead to more demands for the culture of other countries to be reflected in UK law.”
While Grayling sounds the alarm in Britain, a few European nations have already enacted policies designed to combat polygamous unions. The Telegraph reported in 2004 that Ireland “has ordered all men from Islamic countries seeking residency to sign a sworn affidavit rejecting polygamy. … A man must swear he has ‘one spouse only’ and ‘has no intention of entering into a simultaneous marriage.'” Likewise, the Italian interior ministry has asked Muslim groups to agree to a “values charter” that promotes monogamous families and the equality of women.
Contrary to defeatist pronouncements by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, these examples demonstrate that the arrival of sharia law in the West is not “unavoidable.” It can and will be avoided if the public musters the resolve to beat it back. As Daniel Pipes noted regarding the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ sudden abandonment of Muslim cabbies who object to serving passengers with seeing-eye dogs, widespread outrage is the best disinfectant. “When Westerners broadly agree on rejecting a specific Islamic law or tradition and unite against it, Western Islamists must adjust to the majority’s will.”
Simply put, the choice is ours: defend a hard-won heritage of freedom and equality, or continue slouching toward sharia. Pray that we choose wisely.
David J. Rusin is a Philadelphia-based editor for Pajamas Media. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania.