A problem with Muslim enclaves

A controversial study in Norway says forced marriage among immigrants prevents desired integration.

Western Europe is increasingly a house divided. While non-Muslim Europeans live in democracies, most Muslims in the same countries inhabit theocratic enclaves where they are expected to tread a narrow path - or suffer the consequences.

Muslim women have it the worst. They are subject without exception to the authority of their husbands, fathers, and community leaders. And if they seek to escape that tyranny, they can expect little help from government authorities, who are loath to "intrude" and show "disrespect" for someone else's culture.

Many European officials have long assumed that such problems would be resolved gradually through intermarriage, integration, and the consequent fading away of ghettos. But intermarriage and integration are not happening as expected - and the consequences of this failure are grievous.

Such is the conclusion drawn by "Female Integration," an explosive new book making headlines and the talk-show circuit here. It's based on a recent report to the Norwegian parliament by the Oslo-based Human Rights Service (HRS) and is being viewed as a window on larger Muslim immigration patterns in the rest of Europe.

The book's comprehensive statistical analysis of immigrant marriage patterns in Norway shows that members of most non-Western immigrant groups are, in overwhelming numbers, not only marrying within their own ethnic groups, but marrying partners - often their own cousins - from their countries of origin.

These marriages - which are invariably arranged, and often forced - have two chief motivations. One is to provide the foreign spouse with Norwegian residency rights under the "family reunification" provision of immigration law. The other is to resist integration by injecting into the European branch of the family "traditional values" - among them a hostility to pluralism,tolerance, democracy, and sexual equality.

As "Female Integration" shows, the systematic abuse of "family reunification" has dramatically transformed the way in which spouses are chosen within the Muslim community. This has made real integration all but impossible, and resulted in a pattern of exploitation of young women that Hege Storhaug, author of the book, describes as "the greatest political disgrace in contemporary Norwegian history."

While Norwegian Muslims of both sexes are forced into marriages, the situation is particularly brutal for girls. As female Muslims, they already get short shrift in the social power balance. Add to this the facts that they are often married off at extremely young ages (many in their early teens, for example) and that their imported husbands tend to be untouched by any notion of sexual equality, and one can begin to grasp why Ms. Storhaug calls them "living visas in a new form of human commerce." They have grown up in Norway and had a taste of freedom, but they are forced into marriages with men who take for granted a wife's total subservience.

There are, naturally, no statistics on forced marriages in Norway. But HRS's figures for henteekteskap, or "fetching marriages" - in which one spouse is "fetched" from the other's ancestral country - are startling. Between 1996 and 2001, 82 percent of Norwegian daughters of Moroccan immigrants who got married, married Moroccan citizens. For Norwegian daughters of Pakistani immigrants, the corresponding rate was 76 percent.

Indeed, among immigrant groups from Muslim countries, the prevalence in Norway of "fetching marriages" actually increased between 1996 and 2001.

The trend, in short, is toward increased segregation, not increased integration.

These findings are important not just for Norway but for the West, generally. Anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the trends shown in HRS's report are representative of the situation in Muslim communities throughout Western Europe.

What to do? Among HRS's proposals for reform of this situation: prohibition of marriages between cousins (with provision for waivers when a genuine romantic relationship can be documented) and waiting periods between applications for "family reunification" within a single family.

Storhaug notes that most forced marriages end up being abusive ones. What if a wife in such a marriage wants out? Officially, of course, European men and women have equal divorce rights. But among Muslims, only Islamic divorce counts; and while Muslim men enjoy divorce on demand, Muslim women - even in cases of chronic domestic violence - have restricted options. It's possible, however, in a Muslim marriage contract, for a groom to grant his wife the right to divorce. And the Norwegian parliament has just adopted a law stipulating that no family reunification through marriage will be permitted unless the wife has been granted this right. Norway is the first nation in Europe to introduce such a law. Let's hope it is not the last.

These proposals won't solve everything, or please everybody. But they're a start - and the Norwegian government's apparent openness to them is encouraging. To be sure, some public officials still fret about "interfering" in Muslim family matters.

Yet increasing numbers of political leaders are finally recognizing that the alternative to "interference" is a Norway with two distinct systems of governance - a democracy for Westerners and an autocracy for Muslims. A country - and a continent - that accepts such a state of affairs is headed for disaster. Norway's neighbors ought to take note.

Bruce Bawer, an American writer living in Norway, is the author of "Stealing Jesus," a book about Christian fundamentalism. He has done research and translation for the Human Rights Service in Oslo.

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