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Westerners Welcome Harems By: Daniel Pipes
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The Ottoman harem in Western imagination.

A Scottish judge recently bent the law to benefit a polygamous household. The case involved a Muslim male who drove 64 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone – usually grounds for an automatic loss of one's driving license. The defendant's lawyer explained his client's need to speed: "He has one wife in Motherwell and another in Glasgow and sleeps with one one night and stays with the other the next on an alternate basis. Without his driving licence he would be unable to do this on a regular basis." Sympathetic to the polygamist's plight, the judge permitted him to retain his license.

Monogamy, this ruling suggests, long a foundation of Western civilization, is silently eroding under the challenge of Islamic law. Should current trends continue, polygamy could soon be commonplace.

Since the 1950s, Muslim populations have grown in Western Europe and North America via immigration and conversion; with their presence has grown the Islamic form of polygyny (one man married to more than one woman). Estimates find 2,000 or more British polygamous men, 14,000 or 15,000-20,000 harems in Italy, 30,000 harems in France, and 50,000-100,000 polygamists in the United States.

Some imams openly acknowledge conducting polygamous marriage ceremonies: Khalil Chami reports that he is asked almost weekly to conduct such ceremonies in Sydney. Aly Hindy reports having "blessed" more than 30 such nuptials in Toronto.

Social acceptance is also growing. Academics justify it, while politicians blithely meet with polygamists or declare that Westerners should "find a way to live with it" and journalists describe polygamy with empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Islamists argue polygamy's virtues and call for its official recognition.

The Iranian harem as depicted by an Iranian.

Polygamy has made key legal advances in 2008. (For fuller details, see my blog, "Harems Accepted in the West.") At least six Western jurisdictions now permit harems on the condition that these were contracted in jurisdictions where polygamy is legal, including India and Muslim-majority countries from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to Morocco.

  • United Kingdom: Bigamy is punishable by up to seven years in jail but the law recognizes harems already formed in polygamy-tolerant countries. The Department of Work and Pensions pays couples up to £92.80 (US$140) a week in social benefits, and each multiculturally-named "additional spouse" receives £33.65. The Treasury states that "Where a man and a woman are married under a law which permits polygamy, and either of them has an additional spouse, the Tax Credits (Polygamous Marriages) Regulations 2003 allow them to claim tax credits as a polygamous unit." Additionally, harems may be eligible for additional housing benefits to reflect their need for larger properties.

  • The Netherlands: The Dutch justice minister, Ernst Hirsch Ballin, has announced that polygamous Muslim marriages should not be dealt with through the legal system but via dialogue.

  • Belgium: The Constitutional Court took steps to ease the reunification of harems formed outside the country.

  • Italy: A court in Bologna allowed a Muslim male immigrant to bring the mothers of his two children into the country on the grounds that the polygamous marriages had been legally contracted.

  • Australia: The Australian newspaper reports "it is illegal to enter into a polygamous marriage. But the federal government, like Britain, recognises relationships that have been legally recognised overseas, including polygamous marriages. This allows second wives and children to claim welfare and benefits."

  • Ontario, Canada: Canadian law calls for polygamy to be punished by a prison term but the Ontario Family Law Act accepts "a marriage that is actually or potentially polygamous, if it was celebrated in a jurisdiction whose system of law recognizes it as valid."

Thus, for the cost of two airplane tickets, Muslims potentially can evade Western laws. (One wonders when Mormons will also wake to this gambit.) Rare countries (such as Ireland) still reject harems; generally, as David Rusin of Islamist Watch notes, "governments tend to look the other way as the conjugal mores of seventh-century Arabia … take root in our backyards."

At a time when Western marriage norms are already under challenge, Muslims are testing legal loopholes and even seeking taxpayer support for multiple brides. This development has vast significance: just as the concept of one man, one woman marriage has shaped the West's economic, cultural, and political development, the advance of Islamic law (Shari‘a) will profoundly change life as we know it.


Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


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