DEARBORN — Cousin-marriage is a social norm pretty much acceptable — culturally and religiously— in the Middle East, but not for today’s generation of Arab Americans trying to bridge the Arab and American ways of life.
Their life among two cultures allows them to see both sides of the picture and adapt to a middle ground. Therefore, the fact that cousin-marriage is not a social norm in the U.S. plays a role in the decisions of many young Arab Americans.
According to the scholarly article “‘It’s Ok, We’re Not Cousins by Blood’: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective” by Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer, first cousins married until the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe and America, as it was a practice highly preferred by “elites.” However, after the Civil War, it was no longer customary in the U.S..
The researchers wrote, “unlike the situation in Britain and much of Europe, cousin marriage in the U.S. was associated not with the aristocracy and upper middle class but with much easier targets: immigrants and the rural poor.”
“State prohibition and scientific evidence”
U.S. states began to ban marriages between first cousins after the Civil War in an effort to improve education, health and security. Kansas was the first and only state to ban cousin marriages in the U.S. before the Civil War, in 1858.
Now cousins are not allowed to marry in Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and West Virginia. However, they are still allowed to in 19 states, but with some limits in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
None of the states have restrictions on second cousin and third cousin marriages.
While governments in the Middle East have no restrictions on cousin marriages, some religious sects do.
According to scientific evidence, these intermarriages may cause birth defects.
Dr. Hanan Hamamy, a professor of Human Genetics associated with the Department of Genetic Medicine and Development at Geneva University, discussed the defects in her article, “Consanguineous Marriages: Preconception Consultation in Primary Health Care Settings.”
She wrote that “consanguineous marriages are associated with an increased risk for congenital malformations and autosomal recessive diseases, with some resultant increased postnatal mortality in the offspring of first cousin couples, but demographic and socioeconomic confounders need to be well controlled.”
The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not prohibit the practice of intermarriages within families. However, such marriages are still mostly practiced by Muslims, so many mistakenly believe it as only Islamically acceptable.
The Arab American News spoke to both Islamic and Christian scholars— since the majority of Arab Americans in the community follow those religions— about the standpoint of religion when it comes to cousin-marriage.
One of the Imams at the Islamic Center of America, Sayed Ibrahim Saleh, said it is not favored according to hadiths, but also not prohibited.
He explained that the Prophet Muhammad said in a hadith that Muslims should try to avoid blood-related marriages because it weakens the fetus. He also said recent studies have confirmed this.
Sheikh Ibrahim Yassine, also an Imam at the ICA, said it’s not prohibited, but he doesn’t recall an Arab American cousin couple coming to the center for a marriage contract.
He said the scientific discoveries and culture have played a role.
“Arab Americans practice it less than before because they are raised in a different culture,” he said. “Also, some birth defects have scared people away from such unions.”
According to Pastor Bob Moore of Bethesda Baptist Church in Allen Park, the Bible also does not prohibit cousin marriages.
“While the Bible does not prohibit the practice, I understand that Roman Catholics are forbidden from marrying first cousins according to papal pronouncement,” Moore said.
Rev. George Shalhoub of the Basilica of Saint Mary Church in Livonia said that around 1920, the Orthodox Church and Catholic Church made rulings against first cousin marriages because of the scientific evidence of birth defects in offspring.
Shalhoub said second or third cousin-marriages are allowed, but echoed Saleh in saying they’re inadvisable.
He also said immigrants coming to a new country usually don’t know anyone other than family and therefore want to marry their cousins. However, Arabs brought up in America look at it differently.
“Because the kids were brought up in a different culture, they look at their cousins as their brothers and sisters,” he said. “I have not had a second or third degree intermarriage in, God knows, maybe 30 years.”
“Arab American perception and culture”
Countless Arab Americans are pursued by cousins in the Middle East who are either interested in getting to know them and eventually marrying them or for other reasons, like getting U.S. citizenship.
It’s a clash in cultures as many young Arab Americans frequently turn down such pursuits.
A 22-year-old who would rather not share her name spoke about her experience visiting the Middle East for the first time.
“My cousin approached my father regarding a potential union,” she said. “I felt uncomfortable to have a relative even think that could be possible. I knew my dad wouldn’t have agreed anyway, because he’s a cousin.”
The young woman said his probable incentive was to receive U.S. citizenship.
“My father tried to ignore the conversations, but it became unavoidable because my cousin would ask any time he would see him,” she said. “It’s ridiculous to even think that he had any other motivation besides gaining citizenship to the United States, which is what the majority of Middle Eastern people find attractive when marrying a U. S. citizen.”
However, she explained that families intermarried back in the day because of the “shared values and shared assets” they wanted to pass on to future generations.
“In my opinion, it was more of a business with families to keep the line going, so to speak, and not have outsiders really tear up that dynamic,” she said. “I think our concept of marriage differs from our parents’ or grandparents’. We view marriage as a bond between two individuals. The majority of modern day couples work to provide for one another and their families. Previously, marriages consisted of one breadwinner and one homemaker.”
Samira, a 25-year-old Arab American who prefers to go by her first name, also said she would never get married to a cousin.
“Mostly, cousins who marry each other, they’re mostly from back home and are arranged,” she said. “I’m totally against it.”
Samira said that a lot of her aunts and uncles married cousins and that some have kids who were born with deformities because of it. She also said most were actually arranged and they did not marry out of love.
“You’re not allowing bloodlines to expand to other families, but rather keeping it within your family, which is not right,” she added.
She said that nowadays society is becoming more liberal and that Arab Americans have more opportunities to marry outside their families.
“Our cousins become like our brothers and sisters,” she said. “We don’t look at them in that way anymore.”
Hamamy, Hanan. “Consanguineous Marriages: Preconception Consultation in Primary Health Care Settings.” Journal of Community Genetics 3.3 (2012): 185–192.PMC. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.
Paul, Diane B, and Hamish G Spencer. “‘It’s Ok, We’re Not Cousins by Blood’: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective.” Ed. Evelyn Fox Keller. PLoS Biology 6.12 (2008): e320. PMC. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.