Cultures at the Crossroads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an issue as ancient as the first civilizations, and the last king of the Incas.

He was Atahualpa, executed by Spaniard Francisco Pizzaro in 1532. In the chaste European judgment of Pizzaro, the Inca ruler was an incestuous, treasonable idol worshiper. In the culture of Atahualpa, his wife was his sister, there was no king above himself and no god higher than the sun.

So one people's piety became another culture's crime. And that's a concern as current as a double wedding last month in Lincoln, Neb.

Before a Muslim cleric, Latif Al-Hussani, 34, and Majed Al-Taminy, 28, both former Iraqi refugees, took the daughters of Salem and Salima Al-Saidy in holy and arranged matrimony.

That the brides were only 13 and 14 violated no tenets of Islam. But they broke the laws of Nebraska. Both grooms have been charged with statutory rape, both parents with child abuse.

And this head-on collision between Old World ways and New World laws shows that the 220-year-old American melting pot is still bubbling as imperfectly as it always has.

Worse, suggest experts, one corollary of increasing cultural conflict may be the emergence of backlash--against immigrants, affirmative action, languages other than English and welfare payments even to documented, resident, taxpaying noncitizens.

"If you start with the premise that 'melting pot' means assimilation into the dominant culture, then we've done a lot of that over the years," says Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a professor at Duke University School of Law who has written on multiculturalism and the courts for the Columbia Law Review. "But if 'melting pot' means . . . people from different cultures come to the United States and we each contribute wonderful attributes to a new, larger culture, I think that has not happened."

What has occurred, claim others, is a long succession of appalling crimes--including murder, mayhem and brutality to animals--where clashing global cultures was the common denominator.

And where, in many instances, Habits of Homeland versus Laws of Adopted Country were considered mitigating circumstances during sentencing--resulting in probation for one mother convicted of killing her two children.

* That was in 1985 after Japanese immigrant Fomiko Kimura walked into the waves off Santa Monica, held her two struggling children underwater, and tried killing herself. Charged with voluntary manslaughter, Kimura pleaded no contest but also oyako-shinju, or parent-child suicide traditionally practiced by Japanese wives dishonored by a husband's adultery.

* Nine years ago in New York, a Chinese immigrant cited old-country precedents andwas given probation for clubbing his unfaithful wife to death.

* This year, two Korean women, one a Methodist missionary visiting Los Angeles, the other the wife of a Chicago doctor, died from beatings as part of anchal prayer, or church rites to exorcise personal demons. The Chicago defendants were charged with misdemeanor battery and received probation; trial is pending in the Los Angeles case.

* A Laotian woman was abducted from work at Fresno City College and raped. At his trial, her Hmong boyfriend explained zij poj niam, or marriage by capture, his tribe's customary process of choosing a bride. He was fined and given 120 days in jail.

* In New York, despite incessant raids, cockfights flourish among immigrants from Latin America and Asia, where the blood sport is as legal as hunting and fishing in this country.

* Folk remedy or child abuse? In Orange County, it's cao gio, a folklore cold cure where Vietnamese and Cambodian children are lightly burned with hot coins. Cruelty to animals or Asian cuisine? In Long Beach, charges were dismissed against two refugees who clubbed a puppy to death and ate it because dog is often food in Cambodia.

In Nigeria, striking a child and putting pepper on the abrasions is acceptable discipline. And in Iraq, girls may be married off while young enough to still be sleeping with Barbie dolls.

But not in Nebraska.

In Lincoln last month, marriages to the two early teens brought rape charges against the grooms, who face up to 50 years in prison.

"What we have here is an example of a cultural gulf, no doubt about it," says Terrell Cannon, lawyer for Al-Hussani, a cook, and Al-Taminy, a factory worker. "These guys still can't understand why they were arrested. They really don't think they did anything wrong, and there certainly was no intent to break the law."

Those charged in the case--all resident aliens, but not American citizens--came to Lincoln in 1993 after five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. They merged with Lincoln's Iraqi population of 700; received help to find jobs and apartments; and took a one-week Catholic Social Services course on life in America--lectures that in future, say an official, will include tips on our marrying ways.

Although eager to succeed in the United States, Cannon notes, the family saw no need to deny Islamic traditions. Hence the wedding, with male guests in one house, veiled and robed women in another, even a Muslim cleric flown in from Ohio.

But police and prosecutors weren't so multicultural.

Nebraska law says couples must be 17 to marry. And a native culture, insists Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Jodi Nelson, is no waiver.

"You live in our state, you live by our laws," she told reporters. "I have yet to find a law [that states]: 'Oh, and by the way, if you immigrate here from another country, none of this applies.' "

Cannon doesn't see things quite so rigidly.

"In the Islam world, there is no separation of church and state," he says. "Scratch culture and you'll find religion. And marriage is an integral part of this family's religion."

So he will plead his clients' constitutional freedoms of religion, no matter its apparent opposition to the law. And as case history, he says, consider that polygamy has been ruled historical to the Mormon religion and peyote a sacrament of Native American church ceremonies.

In a statement on behalf of his friends and the families, Abbas Al-Harmooshi--an Iraqi refugee who 24 years and eight children ago married his 9-year-old bride--explained that parents and grooms were "only doing what we have done for centuries. This is not a case of disrespect of the civil law. We did not know the law."

Ignorance of the law, of course, is no defense.

*

Professor Coleman suggests another legal tack.

If the grooms fully believe they are married, if the brides agreed to consummation, then the law "would permit 'mistake of fact,' the argument that their culture caused them to believe that they were married legally.

"Therefore they were mistaken as a matter of fact about their marriage . . . not a defense, but a valid argument against statutory rape or intercourse with a minor."

Coleman is among a majority of jurists and academics who believe legal paradigms should not be changed to accommodate immigrant cultures. But once a case is judged, there should be some flex in sentencing.

Meanwhile, for every foreign tradition that crashes on American soil, so will Americans be clobbered overseas.

Gene LePere of Chicago well remembers the vendor in a Turkish souk who sold her three small carvings for $20. One turned out to be an antiquity, and LePere was jailed for weeks for smuggling. Carrying marijuana in Malaysia has earned a death sentence for several foreign nationals. Florida teen Michael Fay was imprisoned for months and lashed with a bamboo cane for spray-painting cars in Singapore.

Do not carry a hip flask of Scotch in Abu Dhabi, do remember that Romania practices zero tolerance when it comes to drinking and driving. And do not forget Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," still in hiding from a Muslim death sentence for writings considered blasphemous.

Whether them or us, says Billy Hayes, cultural collisions will continue as long as we and they remain ignorant of each other, even indifferent to overseas ways and societies.

Hayes should know. Two decades ago he served five years in a Turkish prison for smuggling 4 pounds of hash, a grim adventure memorialized in a 1978 movie, "Midnight Express."

Now living in Los Angeles where he acts, writes and directs, Hayes, 48, says he was no innocent. He was smuggling, he knew the penalties and accepted his sentence.

"But I'd served four years and two months, and with time off for good behavior I was 54 days from being released," he recalls. Then Turkish laws changed and, on a legal caprice, his sentence was extended to 30 years. "Better than life, I guess, but I wasn't overly thrilled."

So he broke jail, returned to the United States to write about it, and became something of a folk hero. Hayes now functions as ambassador-at-large for the Philadelphia-based International Legal Defense Counsel, which assists Americans in overseas distress.

He sees a need for increased tolerance in America, and less isolation from its immigrants if we are to achieve a more comfortable unity with the fabric and characteristics of other nations.

"We're still a people afraid of other people," he says. "We're still basing too many of our judgments on race, creed, color and political convictions. I sound like a reformed '60s hippie, but if we don't start loving each other a little more, we're missing the very heart of any religion.

"That's our religions, and theirs."

Professor Coleman sees a goodly portion of the problem rooted in unflinching American immigration policies that were racist and ethnocentric, certainly geared to the admission of Western Europeans.

That changed in 1965, she explains, and "for the first time in U.S. history--other than times when pockets of Chinese were imported to work on the railroads, and Africans were coming in on slave ships--we had a significant influx of non-European immigration that has continued relatively unabated to this day."

Ergo, the European American culture, the founding and dominant culture, the melting pot that has softened St. Patrick's Day into an American celebration, is now being challenged by new, unfamiliar, non-European groups.

"You see the results in Lincoln, Neb.," Coleman adds, "and people in Lincoln feel a crisis. They don't want to reject the Iraqi refugees that are in their community. They want to welcome them, they want to make life smooth for them so they can assimilate.

"Yet there is misunderstanding about culture and about what is expected. And it's a much broader question than just how is the law going to treat this."

*

Coleman believes that the heavier question, carried nationally, taken to its extreme, has created the current backlash of civil rights initiatives, rejection of affirmative action programs, immigrant welfare reforms, and proposals reaffirming English as America's official language.

"This is the broader issue that is really mobilizing different forces against one another in this battle to define our culture for the future," Coleman says. "I think the backlash is an example of the dominant culture, the entrenched European-Americans that are here, fighting to regain its dominance. Or to stabilize or redefine it."

European Americans are here to stay. New immigrant groups aren't going to stop coming. So the question, suggests Coleman, is simply: How do we all live and work together and make a success of this eclectic group we have in America?

"I think that things like equal protection, rule of law, first amendment freedoms . . . those are values that transcend political beliefs, in terms of mainstream America, and identify our core values," she says.

"And I think those should be guiding principles in determining how we treat individual issues, the cultural clashes that come up, as we are trying to work together, trying to find a balance together."

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