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An Islamist immigrant explains polygamy to Americans, 1971
Ebrahim Yazdi wrote a very earnest letter to immigration officials laying out his beliefs on Islamic marriage.
Iranian-Americans were important players in Iran’s 1979 revolution. Before becoming Islamist revolutionaries, figures like future foreign ministers Sadeq Qotbzadeh and Ebrahim Yazdi spent a long time studying and working in the United States, as I wrote last month.
A few days ago, I obtained some more files on Yazdi from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service archive. Yazdi had become a U.S. citizen in 1971, participated in Iran’s 1979 revolution, and eventually resigned from Iranian government over the taking of American hostages. He continued to be a liberal-Islamist dissident until his death from cancer in 2017.
America didn’t consider Islamists a threat in the early 1970s, when Yazdi became a citizen. Nor did Yazdi see America as his enemy. He worked as a medical researcher for the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and even checked off on his citizenship paperwork that he was willing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States.”
But one element of Yazdi’s beliefs was a problem for his U.S. citizenship: he believed that Islam allowed for a man to marry multiple women. His solution to that problem displayed Yazdi’s earnest approach to America, one that shined through in his later calls for reform.
Ever since the Mormon Wars of the 19th century, the United States has taken a very hard line against polygamy. Along with swearing that they have not been involved in war crimes or the Communist Party, new immigrants to America are required to certify that they are not “polygamists.”
Instead of simply answering “no” to that question, Yazdi stapled a four-page, handwritten essay about polygamy to his citizenship application:
In Islam under a very defined and limited conditions, polygamy is permitted and prescribed. As a Muslim, believing all teaching of Islam, I have to believe in such conditional polygamy as prescribed and defined in Holly [sic] Quran. - Ebrahim Yazdi
I am not, I have never been a polygamist.
I am not, I have never practiced polygamy.
I am not, I have never advocate polygamy.
Under no conditions I, myself will take additional spouse(s).
Under no condition I will approve my wife taking additional spouses.
I will take an oath to support and defend the laws of the United States.
I have not advocate polygamy in U.S. and I do not intent to do so.
Polygamy is prescribed in Islam under two conditions and circumstances:
Under specified social circumstances i.e national wars, when thousands of heads of family are destroyed and the security, education, and well being of thousands of children and widows are the issue. Not only as a mean to provide shelter and security for those families which have lost their heads, but also to prevent those children of becoming criminals, and also to prevent the illegal extra and pre-martial sexual relationship, adultry [sic] and illegitimate children.
At the individual levels when a couple, for a biological or emotional reasons, feel such necessity.
Under such conditions:
At the national level, the legitimation body will evaluate circumstances and may adopt such policy, and
At the individual level:
The permission of the first wife and by the court permision [sic] may be required.
My distingtion [sic] between “believe” and “advocate” is:
Believe: Theoretically, n hypothetically, I believe that there are circumstances, under which, polygamy is the best answer to many social disorders.
Advocate: To try to convince some one to practice polygamy, invite people to practice polygamy.
Feb 5 1971 Ebrahim Yazdi
The essay, spelling mistakes and all, comes off as very earnest. Rather than giving the answer he thought the immigration services were looking for, Yazdi seemed to really want to be honest and helpful to the authorities.
The immigration officer thought so, too. Naturalization Examiner Billy Chapman wrote: “I am satisfied that Subject is not a 'phony,' and that he is not espousing a cause. He appears to be perfectly sincere in what he has said to me orally and in what he has written in the two supplements to his application.” He recommended against any further investigation.
Chapman was wrong about one thing. Yazdi was “espousing a cause,” as a supporter of deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and founding member of the Freedom Movement of Iran. The revolution Yazdi participated in, however briefly, has frustrated the U.S. government to no end for the past forty years.
Yazdi lost his U.S. citizenship during the 1979 revolution. He stayed in touch with his American family ever since then, and received a visa to visit them again in 1994.
“Both countries are captive of their past. The Americans have not yet changed the big-brother attitude, and the Iranians are very sensitive,” an older, more cynical Yazdi told the Financial Times in 2004. “You don't have to have a close, cordial relation with America — just to normalize it.”
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