Fighting for What? Couples’ Communication, Parenting and Social Activism: The Case Study of a “Christian-Muslim” Families’ Association in Brussels (Belgium)
2. Mixed Marriages, Integration and Secularization
3. Methodology and Participants
4.1. Support for Couples in the Early Stages of Their Relationship
We’re engaged but not yet married. Actually, this is one of the reasons why we are here. We would like to get married but we do not know many things. How to deal with religious marriage, we are still evaluating. To do civil marriage? Religious marriage? But how? And what about the registration of our marriage in Morocco? It seems there are a lot of complicated issues and we don’t know who to ask for an answer. In addition, we would like to discuss with you some things about the culture and the religion of the other. We are also having difficulties with our families. My family, for instance, it’s really…I would say…skeptical about my relationship with Hamid…and we would like to talk about it?Leen, 34, Belgian—from couples’ meeting.
Leen and Hamid, in presenting themselves to the other couples, highlight most of the initial recurrent problems that we then found more deeply in partners’ life stories. There is the family opposition (or “skepticism”) over the relationship, above all from the Belgian family of the woman. In this sense the association welcomes “young couples”8 to discuss their initial difficulties, listening to or asking questions of older couples who have already experienced similar situations during their life course. As reported by one of the older leaders of the association when I asked him why a couple should be interested in joining them:Above all, for the family issue we are a bit under stress. We would like to talk with you also to understand how other couples dealt with similar problems. Then we are discussing about how to do for religions. We are both not very practicing, but here we hold our faith. I feel Muslim and she is Christian. There are points that unite us but also that divide us, even cultural things here … on which we have difficulties. And then yes, we ask ourselves for the future, if we had children …Hamid, 35, Morocco—from couples’ meeting.
In the first period of their relationship partners can find in this association also a place to gain information on the territory, tips, practical advice on dealing with administrative procedures or names of religious leaders more open to celebrating a mixed marriage. The role of these older couples seems, therefore, to be both that of intermediary between the couple and institutions (both religious and civic) and of a place where they can feel free to express doubts and difficulties with people who are assumed not to be judgmental or biased.Here we welcome also couples who just want to ask for information, tips […] We know the territory, the paper you need if you do not have the resident permit, but also, if you want to marry religiously, we can introduce them to a priest whom you can ask for the dispensation, because the theory is one thing, who gives you permission to marry is another … or the Imam that is prepared to do the marriage, most of them refuse to celebrate these marriages unless a partner has converted to Islam. […] And then…we are all members of a couple. We all know what kind of obstacles you can experience, above all at the beginning of your relationship, with relatives and families, but also later on, over time, with children. Here there were also couples who came just for some months, in their initial period. Then they quit because they knew what they wanted to know… or because they broke up. But not everyone is necessarily permanently engaged in the associations as I am.Abdoullah, Moroccan, 48.
4.2. Parenting Advisory
I strongly believe in God. And I am a Christian. A Catholic. Now more than ever. […] We first had a civil marriage in 1990 and then we married both in the mosque and in the church in 2010. That was also to have all our seven children there with us. That is to say how we deal with religions. Our children are not baptized but they can come to the Mass with me on Sunday, and they can pray with their father. That was an issue at the beginning. I was a bit worried not to baptize my children. But then I focused on the fact that this didn’t mean I could not speak about my religion. And so, I did. And I think you do not perceive any conflict about this. But a same strong belief in God. And we are proud of this. […] It is important to meet. It is important for us and for the new couples who need tips about how to deal with this thing. And not to worry about it. To hold on and go ahead with their relationship.Amélie, 58, Belgian.
Both Sarah and Cédric argue that their religious identities are an important part of themselves that they do not want to minimize or lose. The differences between their two religions are seen as something that concerns institutions rather than ‘the same one God’ in whom they both believe. Both partners narrate their mutual attempts at convergence, focusing on the need for a common desire to understand the other. That “strong” and “conflictual” difference often associated with the opposition between Islam and Christianity is here shifted to that between “believers” and “non-believers”. The association’s aim seems to be, as a consequence, to discuss a common effort to “keep God in the family”.I never thought it would be a problem. It was really important for me to give a notion of my religion, Islam. […] Christ is a central figure in Islam too. Most people don’t know how much we have in common and how much our religions are in continuity. We live in a society almost atheist. It is way more important to focus on believing in God. That is something we both focused on. […] We avoided choices that could have divided us. For instance, we chose for them not Muslim names but African names. To remind them of our common origins. […] Our children and sometimes also my wife experienced fasting with me during Ramadan. We celebrate Christmas together. Got it. We share everything without problems. The spirituality is the important thing. To believe in God. That is one, the same. […] With our association of mixed families, we try to testify this. And we share with other couples that it is possible to keep God in the family without any problem.Cédric, 59, Congolese.
You have to find your way as a couple. We first married with civil marriage…then with an informal ceremony where there were, as normal guests, a priest, who read some Bible excerpts, and a Muslim scholar who read some excerpts from the Koran. […]Catherine, 48, Belgian.
When this approach is adopted, both partners usually choose not to formally transmit one religion (in the case of Christianity, through baptism) and to manage at home the religious education of their children without delegating it to other educational institutions. Children thus represent a challenge that obliges partners to look for new mediations. Relatives and institutional actors (schools, the local church) influence and create obstacles to the already existing agreement between the partners and prompt them to seek a new balance. Amir explains how he and her partner try to balance the different interests and pressures on them from the outside world, keeping religious education as something privatized, personally managed by them without involving school or religious institutions.We had three children. We decided not to baptize them or religiously mark them. We decided to pass on our common values and notions from both of us. At home. They did not follow religion at school, and they did not go to catechism. The association activities and the sharing of this path with other couples helped us to understand that it was possible to feed them in a spiritual way, without obliging them to choose between one or the other religion. We talk about how to live the faith in the couple, we go deeper into the Koran and the Bible, we dig out our religions instead of putting them aside. We pray together, and we talk about the education of children that is one of the main issues […] Because it is easier to abandon religion or ask your wife to convert. But for us the path is to find another way to go to the core of our religions respecting each other …Amir, 49, Moroccan.
The chance to share some time with other “mixed” families is described as an important vehicle for the “normalization” of their family, above all in relation to children. The association offers, thus, an environment to share experiences and share parenting advice but also the ideal location to bring children together and counter the sense of isolation and “strangeness”.The fact that we meet with other families like us, and that they know other children where their parents are Muslim and Christian, is important for them. It helps to create a sense of normality for them too. They feel they are not “strange”. They understand that there are other peers with one parent Christian and the other Muslim. It is fundamental for them… I think this is one of the most important aspects of meeting with the association. For the children.Sarah, 41, Belgium.
4.3. Social Activism
Some of the couples involved are, indeed, active in promoting their life experience as an example for the wider society. The words of Cédric exemplify how partners’ activism focuses on their vision of interreligious dialogue as the search for the common ground between Islam and Christianity. Cédric’s involvement in local schools as a Muslim and as a partner in a mixed family became a whole, “a life mission” that aims to counter the dominant representation of Islam and Muslims.With the Center for Christian-Muslim relations **11 we organize a lot of social events about religious dialogue and for a deeper knowledge of Islam and Christianity. […] The things they have in common… that are a lot… we focus on their spiritual aspects, their common aim to save man. To deepen the word of God…studying both the Koran and the Bible […] Within this organization was born an association of Christian-Muslim couples. It is, thus, part of a wider reality. […]Amir, 49, Moroccan.
My aim is to use our life experience to teach people that we have to focus on what we have in common. I am also involved with schools. They call me to speak about my life experience to the students of high schools. I sometimes read passages of the Koran or of the Bible without saying what book I’m reading. […] Then they become surprised when they understand the importance and great consideration that Jesus Christ and his mother have in the Koran. They just hear about terrorism and war, fanaticism […] Our role in the society must be to show that we, Muslims and Christians, have a common spiritual background, common moral values…respect each other, peace, the importance of family… common principles that make us brothers and not enemies. This is our life mission.Cédric, 59, Congolese.
Conflicts of Interest
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I refer, in particular, to two special journal issues on mixed marriages: Vol. 662 (1) of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2015) and Vol. 14 (4) of Ethnicities (2016). The single contributions are mentioned in the article and listed in the bibliography.
We cannot debate extensively here the controversies and ambiguities related to the language used to categorize and analyze the phenomenon, but we will briefly explain the decision to employ the term “mixed”. On the one hand, as Song and Gutierrez (2015a, p. 2) pointed out, “the terms ‘mixed’ and ‘multiracial’ […] seem to imply the existence of pure ‘races’ that can combine into a race mixture”. On the other hand, the risk of using a more precise term is to attribute an a priori difference to the couple. In accordance with other scholars (Varro 2003; Edwards et al. 2009; Collet 2012), we thus use the term "mixed" to encompass the multiple differences (regarding ethnicity and religion) which characterize the participants of our study. What “mixed” is about becomes exactly the core question on which each study of intermarriage should finally reflect (Cerchiaro 2016a).
The ongoing project acronym is “ReMix”, “Christian-Muslim families dealing with religious pluralism in everyday family life. Religious reconstruction in religiously mixed marriages”. Marie Skłodowska-Curie program, Horizon 2020.
The average duration of each interview was between 2 and 4 hours. All interviews were originally fully transcribed in French.
An exception is represented by Tunisia where the government in August 2017 abolished the ban for marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men.
In order to become a member of the association it is usually required to be part of a “Christian-Muslim” couple. I was able to take part in some of their meetings after a long negotiation during which I managed to create a relationship of mutual trust.
So defined by the same association’s leaders.
Although this article is not the place to summarise the long and controversial debate on the categories of ‘spiritual and ‘religious’, it is important to briefly clarify the use of the terms and my position in the debate. However far the shift towards inner-life spirituality diagnosed by Heelas et al. (2005) and Campbell (2015) has advanced meanwhile, it is still a controversial issue that stimulates a rich debate around it. Some authors (Ammerman 2013; Zinnbauer et al. 1997) have contested the separation of the categories ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’, arguing that the last should be understood as a moral rather than as an essential category. Houtman and Aupers (2007), analysing the data from the World Values Survey, interpreted the “neither-Christian-nor-secular outlooks” (Houtman et al. 2012, p. 29), suggested a New Age spirituality rather than "fuzzy fidelity" (Voas 2009, p. 167). Unlike Voas, they conceptualised these spirituralities as a third option beyond the common polarisation of traditional religions on the one hand and science, reason and secularism on the other. According to Houtman et al. (2012, p. 29), the term ‘spiritual’ is used as a “third corner of a triangle rather than a mixture of traditional theistic Christian religiosity and non-religiosity”.
In order to preserve the anonymity of our interviewees we omit the name of the organization.
Just to mention those to which we are referring: the declaration of Christian faith expected in the Christian marriage service; the difficulty in obtaining a dispensation for disparity of cult (in my wider research reported above all by couples who live in Italy); the presence only of two male Muslim witnesses being required in Islamic marriage; the expectations, for both Islam and Christianity, that the parents will raise their children within their respective religions and, as mentioned above, the prohibition for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Cerchiaro, F. Fighting for What? Couples’ Communication, Parenting and Social Activism: The Case Study of a “Christian-Muslim” Families’ Association in Brussels (Belgium). Religions 2019, 10, 270. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10040270
Cerchiaro F. Fighting for What? Couples’ Communication, Parenting and Social Activism: The Case Study of a “Christian-Muslim” Families’ Association in Brussels (Belgium). Religions. 2019; 10(4):270. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10040270Chicago/Turabian Style
Cerchiaro, Francesco. 2019. "Fighting for What? Couples’ Communication, Parenting and Social Activism: The Case Study of a “Christian-Muslim” Families’ Association in Brussels (Belgium)" Religions 10, no. 4: 270. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10040270