CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The 2007 International Conference
June 7-9, 2007
Bordeaux, France
Globalization, Immigration, and Change in Religious Movements

Big Love at Home and Abroad: Mormon Polygamy, the Turkish Classroom, and the Eastern Gaze

by Clyde R. FORSBERG (Fatih University, Istanbul)

A paper presented at the 2007 International Conference, Bordeaux, France. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

My oldest son, a second-year Women’s Studies major at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) gave me a copy of “Big Love,” the complete first season, for Christmas. The card simply read: “Dad, you have to see this!” He was not saying this because his father grew up in the Mormon church, or because he has a long Mormon pedigree that goes back to the founders of the religion, or because he, also through me, is related to the most distinguished and colorful defender of polygamy in Mormon history, Parley P. Pratt—who defended polygamy as the engine of godliness, what in Mormon parlance is called “eternal lives.”[i] He knows almost nothing about Mormonism except what he has overheard and a little he has read. He has not darkened the door of a Mormon church. His mother and I, she a second-generation Canadian Mormon from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, elected to leave the Mormon Church shortly after he was born; and we did so because we did not want to expose him to a religion that we found intolerant and quite intolerable. For both of our children, two boys eights years apart, Mormonism is just a word, something their Mormon cousins seem to endure, drifting in and out of the faith, but a religion neither of them harbor any ill feelings despite the somewhat problematic role it has played in their father’s life.

Why my oldest son thought that I would love “Big Love” is more complicated than that, unfortunately. Seven years ago now, I published a family memoir, entitled All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men: Love, Alienation, and ‘Reconciliation’ in a Big, BIG Mormon Family (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2000),[ii] which recounts the very sad, tragic, and all too often horrific events of my life as the oldest of fourteen children; the experience more or less destroyed my mother and father, and most of my siblings. The memoir was an experiment in the new narrative history pioneered by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz,[iii] and which I chose to publish electronically. Klaus J. Hansen, my old Ph.D. supervisor, even tried his hand at the new narrative history in an essay published in a single-issue Canadian Mormon Studies Association journal.[iv] However, I really wrote All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men for my children and so they would know why their mother and I elected to keep them as far from the religion of their kindred dead as possible.

Another historical interest inspired the work, that being, the existence of a kind of polygamy that survived the Manifesto (which officially ended the practice of polygamy in 1890), a metamorphosis from polygamous to monogamous in which the number of children did not change significantly. In All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men, I contend that my parents—great grandchildren of Mormon polygamy—lived a kind of polygamy where the children were concerned, indeed the number of children. My parents were very Mormon—super Mormon—and they came out of that generation of Latter-day Saint men and women, mothers and fathers, who believed in building up the kingdom of God on earth by having children, admonished by their leaders to put marriage and children ahead of education and economic security,[v] indeed to eschew both singleness and childlessness as contrary to the will of God.[vi] They came under the influence while in Provo, (my father working briefly at Brigham Young University in the late 50s) of a kind of Mormon underground of couples intent on propagating without ceasing. (Originally, my mother, who came from a large Mormon farm family, did not want children, which thanks to friends in Provo she revised.) Unlike most of their fellow Saints, and who had more sense essentially, my parents really did practice what their church preached—to multiply and replenish the earth one new-born at a time, fulfilling all of them the basic requirements of any polygamous family but one, for my mother took on the job assigned to three or more of her pioneer sisters single-handedly.   

Consequently, Mother was pregnant, non-stop, for about twenty-four years, give or take a few (years not children), giving my father and the kingdom fourteen new conscripts in all—ten boys and four girls. Dad could not have been happier as the last male in the line of Revere Forsbergs. Moreover, Mother exacted her revenge by promptly leaving him to care for the twelve remaining at the time (myself and sister having made our escape by marrying young) and the moment my youngest brother was born. Rather than live under my father and surrounded by his children, she chose instead to live on the streets of California, working some of the time, in and out of mental hospitals the rest of the time. Eventually, she returned to her native Utah, making a decent enough life for herself and enjoying a modicum of self-respect and independence given what she had been through. After fifteen years of stubborn self-reliance, always the object of great interest whenever she checked herself into the hospital, she returned home. My father, who had remarried, took her back in an instant. In fact, when his second wife left him, he invited her to return. In truth, he had never stopped loving her. In the eyes of their church, moreover, they were still husband and wife. He divorced Mother in civil court, but their temple marriage remained intact. But far more telling, church officials turned a blind eye when they chose to live together before remarrying—a marriage that key children in the family objected to in the strongest terms until most of the children had left, making it their business. In fact, my father was still legally married to his second wife when he and Mother “shacked up,” and with the blessing of church officials who were planning a secret wedding ceremony, a secret that did not include the children. Ostensibly, it was intended to get around the problem of my mother’s residency in Canada as a former landed immigrant, but there was something else at work. Only when it came out that she and my father had been extremely abusive did the Bishop (an old friend of the family) rescind the offer. A United Church minister officiated at their wedding a few years later. My parents’ story is an interesting one, and very telling: a Mormon love story, true love, indeed big love of another kind.

I feel the need to tell it, to make sense out of it and the “madness” that drove it, because it is important. I argue in All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men that my parents navigated between two worlds, that of their polygamous great grandparents and a monogamous, evangelical Mormonism of the late twentieth century that was also somewhat Catholic in its reverence for the seed of life. B. Carmon Hardy’s brilliant, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage[vii] helped me toward an important cultural realization vis-à-vis polygamy and my parents’ tragic life together: that polygamy is more about children than wives and that my mother gave my father as many children as many polygamists, not on the scale of a Brigham Young, but equal to and one or two better than Bill Henrickson’s three wives and their measly seven children. Good Lord, but my mother would find it all too funny, dare I say pathetic; I doubt very much whether she would be sympathetic to their plight. Her reaction to “Big Love” is the important one to consider, but my father’s too.

Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton) and his three wives, Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (played by Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (played by Ginnifer Goodwin), all have each other, plenty of room, more independence and dignity in some respects than my mother ever had. I dare say that Mother would have killed to be a Barb, with two younger women under her absolute control to look after things when she was away—roles that were filled by my younger sister and I as the two oldest. Importantly, my father’s second wife was also Mother’s best friend and did her share of babysitting not unlike the Margene character; and not unlike Margene, my father eventually took her as a wife, having never stopped loving or caring for my Mother. Moreover, Bill’s day-to-day battle to keep the peace at home while keeping it together at work describes my father’s experience very well, too.

A landscape architect, designer of Canada’s national parks, advisor to a former Prime Minister, Jean Cretien (who at the time headed Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development before going on to become Pierre Trudeau’s famous Justice Minister and then successor to the throne in the tradition of Lester Pearson), he helped too with the design of the BYU campus before leaving Utah to work in California for the Parks Department there. My father was a resourceful, successful, brilliant “young Turk” as it were. He had to be: he had a large family to feed. That is how one thinks of it, for big families are mostly about providing food and shelter, and the appearance of paradise on earth. Appearances, in the case of Bill and my Dad, are everything; appearances can also be deceiving. Not unlike Bill’s three suburban homes in Utah and our split-level in the affluent, suburban greenbelt community of Grenfell Glen, outside and inside, inner and outer, constitute two very different worlds.

One of the failings of “Big Love,” in my view, is the emphasis on sex, especially where Bill’s youngest wife, Margene, is concerned; or the jealousy that sometimes exists, indeed Nicki’s cunning in claiming to want a baby but only so she can enjoy more time with her husband in bed. We know that Nicki is not sincere because she continues to take her birth control pills, a trope of choice on “Desperate Housewives,” poor Carlos Solis (played by Richardo Antonio Chavira) desperate to have children and deceived by not one, but two women--first his wife Gabrielle (played by Eva Longoria) and then his girlfriend, Edie Britt (played by Nicollette Sheridan). However, the real question, even faux pas in some respects, is the mere mention of birth control within a polygamous context. Pratt’s famous Key to the Science of Theology can be seen as an early indictment against birth control, its defense of polygamy a happier-by-the-dozen argument. To curtail the birth of children is not the idea, not at all. The idea is to bring as many spirits from the pre-existence into Mormon homes lest they end up in the homes of the “wicked” by default. As my mother liked to say, the real question is how many children one chooses not to have. The Viagra shtick is not quite right for the same reason, the object being to “satisfy” rather than to procreate. Of course, the problem with something more true to life vis-à-vis polygamy and sex is that it not likely to be funny or sexy. From a theatrical point of view, the creators of “Big Love” do the right thing in not holding too closely to the historical truth and sexual realities of Mormon polygamy.

“Big Love” didn’t ring true for me on yet another level. Parley P. Pratt is the big stuff of my mother’s side of the family, Pratt’s descendants numbering in the tens of thousands. On my father’s side, polygamy had the opposite effect. He was the last of his line as I said. However, the case of his great grandfather and his two wives (spending some time for refusing to give up one of them, or so the story goes),[viii] they lived separately. In fact, my grandmother loved to tell the story of a cane that hung rather mysteriously over the bed in the event that should “a certain woman” dare to come within reach (the second younger wife) she would get what for. It is a wonderful story. More importantly, it suggests that the scenario so important to “Big Love” of three wives living next to each other, sharing the same backyard, living more like Mennonites than Mormons, is slightly problematic from a historical point of view. The object of “Big Love” is not history but social commentary and that bears repeating.

The other important realization I came to, again largely because of my reading of Hardy, was the connection between race and polygamy.[ix] The first season of “Big Love” fails to incorporate this into the narrative mix. In my own attempt to plumb the depths of a persistent albeit mutated strain of polygamy in my own family, an analysis of the possible role of race in my parents’ decision to have so many children took the form of a musical, entitled “Not Black and White: The Lost Recordings,” and then a recording, entitled “In Gratitude to Louis Armstrong.” Performed at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, and featured on several CBC Radio programs, including the Arts Report, the play was listed as a top Canadian theatre story for six weeks. Playing at the Baby Grand Theatre in Kingston, Ontario, before going on to the NAC, the play was previewed in the Kingston Whig Standard (Canada’s oldest newspaper) and the Ottawa Citizen (a national newspaper of note). [x] I told the story of my musical life and friends (most of whom were not Mormons) and how playing the trumpet and the discovery of Armstrong and jazz from a religion which, when I was growing up, discriminated against people of color on several fronts. Armstrong’s famous “Black and Blue,” originally a song of domestic abuse became among his most famous and bravest attempts to address the problem of being Black in America. In the guise of a Canadian Spalding Grey, and with the help of four actors and eleven musicians (which including myself was the exact size of my family), I grappled from behind a big desk and in front of a sold-out audience with my possible reasons for being attracted to this African-American jazz classic, “Black and Blue,” having grown up white and in suburban North America. Severe emotional and physical abuse had been a prominent feature in our home, Mother caring out orders she received, or at least thought she did, from on High. Child abuse and racism were “twin barbarisms” in our home and the all-too logical consequence of a patriarchal religion determined to build up the kingdom of God on earth and at home with or without polygamy and regardless of the personal costs to women and children. As a social arrangement, the new monogamy was slightly worse than the old polygamy. What drove both was an irrational hatred of people of color, which my choice of musical instruments, love of jazz, and musical friends who were black and white surely militated against. Ironically, I toured Canada and the United States with a jazz-rock, funk band, playing nightclubs and even strips clubs before leaving for the mission field in 1977.  

Local Mormons boycotted the play, remaining silent. There were no bouquets from the Mormon quarter on opening night. Through a brother (still very much in the church) I learned of a high-ranking church official who heard my interview on C.B.C. radio and confessed, in secret, that he believed me but that was all he would say or do. Many who knew my parents--or at least thought they did--simply refused to believe them capable of such crimes against children. One Alberta-Mormon woman, no longer affiliated with the church but very close to the family and a former employer of my sister, invited church friends for lunch (she saw the play) only to rail against them for knowing but doing nothing. Ironically, my non-Mormon friends who saw the play felt guilty for knowing and doing nothing as well. Only one brother attended the play, which he found true to life and absolutely hilarious. Unlike the book, the musical uses humor for effect and, like “Big Love,” inventive for the sake of the audience. My brother’s laughter can be heard on the recording. Of course, none of it was funny. Polygamous families are not known for their jocularity, as places of much laughter or even love, but reportedly rather cold environs. That said, Mormon children were sometimes thought to have too much freedom compared to those in evangelical homes in America. I had even given my poor mother a hard time about the hard time she gave us, quoting Brigham Young in my defense of a more gentle approach to childrearing. We had the worst of two worlds in some respects—none of the freedom and all of the coldness.

 Ironically, it was my wife’s Muslim family history that proved a better comparison, and that in the case of her great grandmother, she and her five sisters all lived under the same roof and at the beck and call of the great man. That “Big Love” resonated more with a Muslim (mind you, an atheist of impeccable Russian linguistic and cultural leanings) than with a Mormon, was a most interesting and somewhat damning development for the HBO series.

I watched “Big Love” with considerable interest for all the reasons I have listed. However, the other object of this essay is to comment on where I watched it—Muslim Turkey—and with whom. Presently, I am an assistant professor in the American Culture and Literature Department at Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey—a conservative, foundation university which has been criticized for being secular in appearance only. More than that, I watched it with my second wife, a Muslim from Kyrgyzstan whose great grandmother was the fifth wife of a prominent Mullah in Uzbekistan. Islam allows only four wives, but in this case infertility led to a fifth marriage. They also lived together as a single family and not unlike the Henricksons.

That “Big Love” proved more faithful in a historical sense to Islam than Mormonism is an interesting vantage point from which to assess its agenda and success; whether or not it is based on real people who live the “principle” secretly in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, or whether the evil character of Roman Grant, the prophet (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is really Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints on charges of child molestation, may explain its appeal to American audiences. Interpreters and critics of the HBO series dare not ignore the important connection between Mitt Romney and polygamy, too, for “Big Love” can also be seen as a satirical attempt to derail his Presidential candidacy. The Romney side of his family fled to Mexico about the same time my thrice great grandfather went to prison, evading federal authorities and practicing polygamy with impunity. That the creators of “Big Love” Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer are gay and thus have a gay and lesbian agenda according to some, whether true or not, may not be the point at all--though as Andy Warhol observed long again, misperception is the real genius of art and the art of genius. And so the genius of “Big Love” may be in its misperception. What then of “eastern audiences” and their reaction?

I should be surprised if Mormonism’s cultured defenders will not find in the Orientialism of Edward Said a sword to beat “Big Love” about the head for exoticizing the faith and thus out of step with a sudden appreciation for the Other, at least in academic circles. Let me be the first, in a sense, to recommend such a strategy, for I certainly found “Big Love” to be problematic for this reason in particular. Whether intentional or not, my own negative reaction has nothing to do with a love for Mormonism but rather a sense of something just beneath the surface vis-à-vis the present War on Terror, America’s attempt to grapple with Islam within and without, and most of all how its anti-Mormonism might function as a surrogate for Islamophobia. The idea here is at least as old as the targeting of Mormons, Masons, and Roman Catholics alike as a case of “counter-subversive paranoia”[xi] in the nineteenth century. Fears then, as now, revolve around immigration and the cultural threat posed by a new kind of immigrant and new paranoia.       

Following the cartoon scandal, it is difficult to imagine HBO daring to produce a series about a Muslim polygamous family living in suburbia. FOX perhaps,[xii] but not HBO. And herein lies the rub, for the old connection between Mormonism and Islam, Joseph Smith as an American Muhammad,[xiii] is making a comeback of sorts, aided in no small way by Romney’s very successful campaign—for the moment--but even more than this the War on Terror and America’s continual need for a surrogate for its persistent fear of the Other, and these days the Muslim-Mormon Other. Arnold H. Green underscores the correlation in the western mind between Mormonism and Islam and vice versa: 

The initial comparison was perhaps made in 1834, when the anti-Mormon Pastor E. D. Howe suggested that Joseph Smith matched Muhammad's "ignorance and stupidity," thereby coining an analogy that experienced polemical and "scientific" phases. The polemical phase entailed American Protestants vilifying the Church and its prophet by likening them to Islam and Muhammad, long presumed fraudulent by Christians. This disputative tactic had been used against Protestants during the Counter-Reformation, and emphasized such allegations as sensuality, violence, and deception. These polemics yielded a literary corpus—for example, "The Yankee Mahomet" and books by Joseph Willing and Bruce Kinney. The scientific phase began when the explorer and Arabist Richard Francis Burton visited Utah in 1860 and rephrased in academic discourse the analogy, subsequently elaborated by David Margoliouth, Eduard Meyer, Hans Thimme, and Georges Bousquet. These Orientalists and sociologists of religion apparently felt they could study fully documented Mormonism as a proxy for underdocumented Islam.[xiv]

In our case, despite some early negative echoes of western anti-Islamic sentiment in Church periodicals, Parley P. Pratt spoke in defense of Islam and the promises made to the children of Ishmael, Islam in his view destined to carry out divine retribution against an apostate Christianity. L.D.S. Presidents and Elders from George Albert Smith and Parley P. Pratt to Spencer W. Kimball and Howard W. Hunter have written favorably of the prophet Muhammad as “receiving a portion of God’s light … given to them by God to enlighten whole nations.”[xv] Moreover, my university and Brigham Young University have collaborated on at least one academic work on Turkish culture and the Humanities of which I am aware in the spirit of interfaith dialogue.[xvi]

However, pinning a charge of Orientalism on the lapel of the creators of “Big Love” and their North American audience is not the point I want to make, or argue. Mormonism in all its phases—polygamous, monogamous, and in between—is depicted as problematic, a weird combination of the highly sexual regardless of which side of the polygamous-monogamous Mormon fence one stands. For example, in the case of episodes dealing with the issues of masturbation and premarital sex, polygamists and monogamists come off as most assuredly outside the mainstream, depicted as permissive and unapologetic. My interest is the reaction of my conservative Turkish students at Fatih to an American popular HBO series that can be seen as not only Orientalist, but potentially anti-Islamic. Teaching at a conservative Turkish university in which a strong religious element exists, I was curious whether my students might not see in “Big Love” something true to life—past and present--and if completely foreign to them, indicative of a western frame of mind and gaze despite their expressions of fidelity to the historical faith. If they should love “Big Love,” and because of its sexual content and lurid depiction of Mormonism, I wondered if that did not make them unwitting “Orientialists by proxy.”[xvii]

What follows are some general impressions only and the briefest of introductions to my students who constitute a minority religious community and point of view in Turkey. Ninety percent are women: religiously and socially conservative as a rule. The brightest tend to be anti-feminist, and yet they are independent and very modern; they are smarter than most “boys” and yet they believe that “men” ought to govern,  both society and the home; fathers should go out and work to provide for the family, mothers should stay at home and raise their children. Not unlike conservative Mormon women, they believe in education, but they also believe strongly that the most and greatest good will be done within the walls of their home. They will whip their husbands into shape when the time comes, work until they marry and have their children.

Many, though not a majority, choose to express their sense of independence and women’s rights by wearing the headscarf, too; the more secular do not wear theirs for the same reason. Because it is against the law in Turkey for such religious clothing to be worn at universities and other government places of work, they unveil at the gates to the university or they cannot enter the campus. Some wear wigs or toques to cover either their scarves or simply their heads in conformity to the Islamic requirement--always a delicate balance and gamble since the university is constantly on guard, more so than its secular counterparts in some respects—a policewoman patrols the campus and is certain to report any cases of female students violating the ban of the headscarf.[xviii] A secular republic in which 99% of the population is Muslim, the cosmopolitanism of the Ottomans is a thing of the distant past. The country is also ruled at the moment by a minority, conservative government and thought to have a hidden religious agenda. Moreover, that the wife of the Prime Minister wears a headscarf in spite of the law, and is seen as a proponent of women’s rights, conforms more closely with the attitudes of my students than the more liberal or secular students at some of Turkey’s other universities.

One reason my best students are among the most religious is because the Turkish university entrance exam discriminates against students from religious public schools, their scores lowered (or not counted as high). This secular accounting tends to keep students with religious sensibilities from entering public universities where the standard of education is higher, but, more importantly, where tuition is lower. I have one student who got the top mark in the country on his exam, and from a very secular family, but who chose not to study at one of the public universities—Bilkent or Bogazici, for example, the latter originally an American university and, in fact, the first  of the American universities to be build abroad.   

Despite their religious beliefs and feelings of unequal treatment, my students are devotees of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s great father-figure and war hero, despite the fact that his secular reforms and French-style laws banning the headscarf are but the tip of the Turkish secular-humanist iceberg.[xix] My students are typical of their fellow Turks when it comes to expressions of blind loyalty to the state. They tend to be anti-American, decidedly anti-Israeli and prone to conspiracy theories in which the United States is thought to be a Jewish conspiracy. (I have had to correct on more than one occasion the misperception, for example, that Benjamin Franklin was Jewish.) To be fair, anti-Semitism cuts across religious and secular lines, endemic to the Middle East. Indeed, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  sells well in Turkey,[xx] but then it sells well in Great Britain, too.

As an aside, their reaction to another movie I showed when they were sophomores provides another backdrop from with to assess their reaction to “Big Love.” The movie was “The Believer” (a controversial movie about Jewish anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, starring Ryan Gosling).[xxi] Because of a minor sex scene, and not germane to the movie at all, the girls stood up and walked out. One reported me to my Chair for showing pornography, the rest returned after the film ended to inform me that it was against their religion. The boys stayed, sobbing uncontrollably at the end and for the main character, a Jewish neo-Nazi named Danny, who kills himself in order to keep his promise to “kill a Jew.” The following class, I brought a Turkish miniature of the Ottoman period of Eve in the Garden of Eden which is rather pornographic, her genitalia in plain view,[xxii] but more importantly something both Islamic and Turkish.[xxiii] In our discussion of the movie and what about it proved so upsetting, it was not the violence, and least of all the anti-Semitism. It was the nudity and the hint of something sexual, which students explained was neither Islamic nor Turkish. Moreover, when I asked them to explain the Turkish Nude of Eve, from the Ottoman period, a female student grabbed the art from my hands, glanced briefly at the documentation, and then announced to the delight of fellow students that it must be a western forgery designed to embarrass Islam and insult Turkey. Still, we had our first real discussion in the three months I had been at Fatih. It would not be the last, and I remember thinking that it was a breakthrough.

Three years later, this same group of students sat through an entire season of “Big Love” in which the sex scenes are somewhat graphic and likely to offend. To show such a movie took a degree of foolhardy courage and devotion to the academic ideal. However, they loved it, especially female students who laughed at a lot of it—and laughing in the right places was a sign of academic growth and maturity, I thought. The boys had trouble, unable to do more than joke about how much better it was for men when the Ottomans ran the show. In my other classes, these same students infuriate the women by defending Islamic polygamy as entirely chaste and merely intended to help widows and orphans. Meanwhile, most of my female students sit stone-faced in noisy silence. During “Big Love” it was a noisy male silence that spoke the loudest. The HBO series was a success in my conservative, Turkish classroom, this much is clear. What might be said to account for another pedagogical breakthrough is less clear.  

“Big Love” did not win the day because Turks and Mormons have polygamy in common. The two religions understand and practice polygamy for very different reasons, despite the similarities. Monogamy is the norm in Islam. Divorce is also frowned upon, and so polygamy is preferable to what is termed “concealed polygamy without responsibility.” Islamic polygamy had a practical side vis-à-vis war and barrenness. The first wife had to consent, husbands had to be able to provide for their wives, no more than four wives were allowed at any one time, and polyandry (or women having more than one husband) ran counter to Islamic polygamy because descent is through the male not female. In the Qur’an, moreover, there is only one passage devoted to the subject and only in order to care for widows and orphans (4:3). Moreover, polygamy in Islam is predicated on equality: “but if you fear that you will not be equitable, then only one … so it is likelier you will not be partial.” From the Hadith, or stories of the Prophet, Muhammad’s practice of polygamy we can see something very mild, indeed—three of the four his own age or older, and divorced or widowed, his youngest wife, Aisha, the lone virgin. Evangelical critics of Islam are overly critical of the prophet, too.[xxiv]

What becomes all too clear when comparing Mormon and Islamic family life are the differences. The Mormon understanding falls closer to the Jewish understanding, and the Muslim resistance to polygamy, in part, is a factor of Islamic anti-Semitism. Indeed, Islamic critics of polygamy even argue that Muhammad’s experience with polygamy militates against the practice since he showed some favoritism, loving Aisha more than the others. As Andrew Rippin and Jan Knappert point out, modern Islam has three positions on the issue of polygamy. Normativists defend polygamy in principle as a rejection of western standards of morality and because it is sanctioned in the Qur’an. Neo-normativists emphasize the importance of the Qur’an, but if understood correctly, a defense of monogamy as the ideal. Finally, acculturalists or Islamic modernists conclude that monogamy is consistent with gender equality and thus Islam.[xxv] In this respect, it is important to remember that the Qur’anic version of the Fall does not blame Eve (as the Bible does) but Adam and Eve equally.[xxvi]

The polygamous practices of the Turkish Sultans poses a slight problem for my female students, who acknowledge that the Qur’an and Hadith sanction polygamy, and even more reluctantly that the Sultans had hundreds and sometimes thousands of women, Topkapi Palace[xxvii] in Istanbul is a case in point, and the Harem at Dolmahce Palace, too (just ten minutes from my apartment in Taksim). However, there is no pining for the old, but a spirit of on with the new. On a university tour of the Dolmahce Palace Harem, one of my Turkish colleagues explained that the women were mostly secretaries to the Sultan and there to carry out important clerical work. As far fetched as that may sound, it is important to remember that the picture of the Harem as wanton and sexual comes to us mostly from European Orientalists who turned the wives and concubines of the Sultans into mere courtesans and temple prostitutes. Moreover, the Imperial Harem exercised real political power in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as the Sultanate of Women or Kadinlari Sultanati, the power of the Sultan’s mother was significant, his four wives constantly jockeying for position. Who would give the Sultan a male heir was indicative of female power in Turkish imperial family life.[xxviii] Of course, in the Mormon institution of the Relief Society, albeit of Freemasonic orientation and design, women exercise a degree of power and influence, too.[xxix] 

In assessing the reaction of my Turkish Muslim students to “Big Love,” the prophet, Roman, his first wife and the considerable power she wields have an Ottoman quality. Whereas the “affair” that Bill has with Barb, his first wife—the two sneaking out to make love in secret and Nicki’s absolute delight at the prospect of a fourth wife—might be described as Islamic in general. My students laughed loudest on these two occasions. However, the most interesting by far was how, despite many points of similarity to their native Turkish Islam, “Big Love” offered a glimpse—or so they thought—into an aspect of American family life that beggars Islamic imagination, too, and for the same reasons. Without realizing it, students at one of Turkey’s more conservative, foundation universities—if just for a moment—were entranced, succumbing to a western gaze. The term “Occidental” does not apply, for the subject matter made sure of that, their all-too western educations doing the rest. Whether Anti-Mormonism in Turkey, at least the “Big Love” variety, is the canary in the Turkish coalmine of religious resistance to western, secular values and assimilation, only time and a swift end to the War on Terror will tell.    


[i] See his Key to the Science of Theology (1855). Cf. The Essential Parley P. Pratt, foreword by Peter L. Crawley (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990). Mitt Romney’s connected to Pratt is proving to be a political hot potato, especially in light of his condemnation of polygamy. The airing of “Big Love,” some journalists believe, will prove problematic for Romney as the great, great grandson of Mormonism’s premier defender of polygamy, too. See Jennifer Dobner and Glen Johnson, “Romney Family Tree Has Polygamy Branch,” Associated Press, 24 February 2007. That we are related, I wonder if this means I ask phone and ask him for a lone? My own connection to Pratt is through his sixth wife, Belinda Marden, on my mother’s side; Romney’s is through Mary Wood, Pratt’s third wife. According to the Jared Pratt Family Association webpage, as of 2006, the descendants of Parley P. Pratt number 19,350 and counting: http://jared.pratt-family.org/main_pages/research.html. See in my case, Birdie Robison Swasey (ed.), “Histories of Their Progenitors and Children: Lillie Lang  & Alma Pratt Robison, 11 August 1887 – 11 August 1987, Honoring the 100th Anniversary of Alma’s Birth,” family history ms, 1987. On my father’s side, see “German-Speaking Immigrants Oral History Project: Opal Forsberg Interviewed by Jessie L. Embry,” Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Bigham Young University, February 10, 1987, CRC-P83.

[ii] The memoir has been attacked and ridiculed by LDS apologists. Louis Midgley of FARMS refers to it as a “novel” in an attempt to dismiss it, whereas John-Charles Duffy uses it to accuse the author of mental illness. See in this connection, Midgley, The First Steps (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005), xi–lvi, and  Duffy, “Clyde Forsberg’s Equal Rites and the Exoticizing of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39, 1 (Spring 2006), 4-39. 

[iii] See Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Robert V. Remini describes the book as "Written with the sweep and narrative drive of a best seller.... A dazzling work of original history that is a joy to read."

[iv] Klaus J. Hansen, “Under Kaiser and Fuhrer: The Story of a Mormon Family,” The Third Eye: The Journal of Canadian Mormon Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1996), 14-30.

[v] It was the presidency of David O. McKay that had the greatest effect on my parents’ decision to have a large family. The official position these days, and pronounced from the pulpit, is that the decision ought to be between husbands and wives and their Creator. This is all well and good. The church still frowns on sterilization, for example, if it is not intended to protect the health of the mother or avoid the passing of genetic diseases. McKay did not mince his words, before and after becoming President: ". . .in most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion and selfishness. . . All such efforts, too, often tend to put the marriage relationship on a level with the panderer and the courtesan. They befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality," in “Birth Control,” Relief Society Magazine, July 1916, p. 366; "When the husband and wife are healthy, and free from inherited weaknesses and disease that might be transplanted with injury to their offspring, the use of contraceptives is to be condemned," in Conference Report, October 1943, p. 30; "We seriously regret that there should exist a sentiment or feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. We have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth so we may have joy and rejoicing in our posterity. Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity, it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by,” First Presidency (David O. McKay, Hugh B. Brown, N. Eldon Tanner), “Letter to presidents of stakes, bishops of wards, and presidents of missions,” 14 April 1969. The message did not change very much in the years to follow,  as Spencer W. Kimball’s statements make clear: "I have told many groups of young people that they should not postpone their marriage until they have acquired all of their education ambitions. I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. Marriage is basically for the family, and there should be no long delay. They should live together normally and let the children come. . ." See Kimball, "Marriage is Honorable," Speeches of the Year, 1973, p. 263. My parents let the children come.

[vi] The mood of the LDS Church at present is contradictory. On the one hand, the official Church Handbook of Instructions states that “It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter” (1998). On the other, it also councils against "Surgical Sterilization (Including Vasectomy).”
The First Presidency are quoted as saying: "We seriously deplore the fact that members of the Church would voluntarily take measures to render themselves incapable of further procreation.
Surgical sterilization should only be considered (1) where medical conditions seriously jeopardize life or health, or (2) where birth defects or serious trauma have rendered a person mentally incompetent and not responsible for his or her actions. Such conditions must be determined by competent medical judgment and in accordance with law. Even then, the person or persons responsible for this decision should consult with each other and with their bishop (or branch president) and receive divine confirmation through prayer"
(1989, Chapter 11).

[vii] University of Illinois Press, 1992). Cf. Clyde R. Forsberg Jr., Book Review, B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage, in Church History (University of Chicago), Vol. 64, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), 715 – 717.

[viii] See, Forsberg, All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men, p. 35.

[ix] Also see in this connection, B. Carmon Hardy, "Regeneration--Now and Evermore!: Mormon Polygamy and the Physical Rehabilitation of Humankind,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 10, No., 1 (January 2001), 40-61.

[x] Bob Steele, “Play uses Louis Armstrong and secret family recordings to examine racism,” CBC Radio “Arts Report,” 09/01/2001; Ross Porter, CBC Radio “After Hours,” 09/01/2001;Greg Burliuk, “Musician’s Painful Past Pierces Play: Clyde Forsberg explores racism, child abuse in Not Black and White,” The Kingston Whig-Standard, 10/01/2001; “Musical explores redemptive power of jazz: Production links Louis Armstrong's music with creator's childhood memories,” Queen’s Gazette, Vol. XXXI, Number 21, 18/12/2000; James Hale, “Tortured Soul Saved By Jazz: James Hale reveals how a song freed a man to celebrate a life of diversity,” The Ottawa Citizen, 22/03/2001; Stephen Flood, “And the healing has begun,” Ottawa XPress, 03/2001; Bob McKenzie, “Not Black and White: a jazz musical in gratitude to Louis Armstrong,” Sound Bytes, http://communication.ca/soundbytes/shortcuts/shortcut18.html; Jen Tyndall, “Deeply personal play succeeds, but just part way: Young Forsberg uses Louis Armstrong and jazz as his bridge to sanity, the trumpet as his olive branch from his unfortunate home life,”  PIC Press: Independent Voice, 02/2001.

[xi] See, of course, David Brion Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 47 (September 1960), 205-224.

[xii] I’m thinking here of the FOX series, 24 and its anti-Islamic content and how this changed to something post-Soviet and neo-Cold War—which is telling, too.

[xiii]  This is a theme, for example, in the recent biography by Richard L. Bushmen, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005). Also see, For general reviews of the literature, see A. H. Green, "Joseph Smith as an American Muhammad," Dialogue 6 (Spring 1971), 46-58, and "The Muhammad-Joseph Smith Comparison: Subjective Metaphor or a Sociology of Prophethood," in Mormons and Muslims, ed. Spencer J. Palmer, Provo, Utah, 1983.

[xv] LDS First Presidency,  "Easter Message" of February 15, 1978, cited in Green, Ibid.

[xvi] See in this connection, Judi Upton-Ward, New Millennium Prespectives in the Humanities (Istanbul, Turkey, and Provo, Utah: Fatih University  and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, Brigham Young University, 2002).

[xvii] Perhaps the best and most illuminating example of this can be seen in a Chronicle of Higher Education web forum, entitled “Avoid Fatih University at all costs” and the responses, mine included, to criticisms of both students and faculty. http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php?topic=29236.45

[xviii] See Christina Lamb, “Headscarf war threatens to Split Turkey,” TIMESONLINE, May 6, 2007 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article1752230.ece. “Rights Court Upholds Ban on Head Scarf Set by Turkey” in Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Religion News, November 10, 2005, http://pewforum.org/news/display.php?NewsID=5667.

[xix] Turkey’s important relationship, constitutionally, with France and the so-called “French law” are important here. See “French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools” in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_law_on...

[xx]  In 2005, Mein Kampf was a best seller in Turkey. The reasons for this are thought to be growing anti-Americanism and the invasion of Iraq. See “Mein Kampf”in Wikipedia for a list of everywhere it is either available or selling well, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mein_Kampf.  It sold 50,000 copies in three months that year. Importantly, Mein Kampf  is widely popularity in the Middle East where the “Protocol of the Elders” sells well, too.

[xxi] The movie claims to be based on a true story, and if so, then the character of Danny Balint seems based almost too closely on the former national secretary of the American Nazi Party and king kleagle of the United Klans of America in New York, Dan Burros. An evangelical reporter for the New York Times discovered that Burros was Jewish and star student at the yeshiva in Queen’s. Burros killed himself when the story broke. See in this connection, William H. Schmaltz, Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (Washington: Brassey’s, 1999), pp. 261-262.

[xxii] C/021 – Murakka: Album (17. yy.) – Topkapi Sarayi Muzesi. Importantly, it is identified as a “Nude.”

[xxiii] To view some of these, see “Turkish Miniatures in the 16th Century,” http://www.ee.bilkent.edu.tr/~history/Ext/miniatur.html.

[xxiv] As one example, see James A. Beverley, Religions A to Z: A Guide to 100 Influential Religious Movements (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), pp. 100-107.

[xxv] See in this connection, Rippin, Andrew and Jan Knappert,  Textual Sources for the Study of Islam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), pp. 29-32.

[xxvi] The Qur’an does not blame Eve specifically; both Adam and Eve are deceived. See Surah 2: 34.

[xxvii] The first was the  Imperial residence for the Ottoman Dynasty  from 1462 up to 1853,  the latter  was buılt ın the mıddle of the nıneteenth century and ın the style of European palaces.

[xxviii] See in this connection, Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[xxix]  See in this connection, too, Janath Russell Cannon, Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992).