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Cousin Marriage Conundrum

An ancient Iraqi custom will foil nation-building.

Many prominent neoconservatives are calling on America not only to conquer Iraq (and perhaps more Muslim nations after that), but also to rebuild Iraqi society in order to jumpstart the democratization of the Middle East. Yet, Americans know so little about the Middle East that few of us are even aware of one of the building blocks of Arab Muslim cultures: cousin marriage. Not surprisingly, we are almost utterly innocent of how much the high degree of inbreeding in Iraq could interfere with our nation-building ambitions.

In Iraq, as in much of the region, nearly half of all married couples are first or second cousins. A 1986 study of 4,500 married hospital patients and staff in Baghdad found that 46 percent were wed to a first or second cousin, while a smaller 1989 survey found 53 percent were “consanguineously” married. The most prominent example of an Iraqi first cousin marriage is that of Saddam Hussein and his first wife Sajida.

By fostering intense family loyalties and strong nepotistic urges, inbreeding makes the development of civil society more difficult. Many Americans have heard by now that Iraq is composed of three ethnic groups—the Kurds of the north, the Sunnis of the center, and the Shi’ites of the south. Clearly, these ethnic rivalries would complicate the task of reforming Iraq. But that is just a top-down summary of Iraq’s ethnic make-up. Each of those three ethnic groups is divisible into smaller and smaller tribes, clans, and inbred extended families—each with its own alliances, rivals, and feuds. And the engine at the bottom of these bedeviling social divisions is the oft-ignored institution of cousin marriage.

The fractiousness and tribalism of Middle Eastern countries have frequently been remarked. In 1931, King Feisal of Iraq described his subjects as “devoid of any patriotic idea, … connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil; prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.” The clannishness, corruption, and coups frequently observed in countries such as Iraq appear to be in tied to the high rates of inbreeding.

Muslim countries are usually known for warm, devoted extended family relationships but also for weak patriotism. In the U.S., where individualism is so strong, many assume that “family values” and civic virtues such as sacrificing for the good of society always go together. But, in Islamic countries, family loyalty is often at war with national loyalty. Civic virtues, military effectiveness, and economic performance all suffer.

Commentator Randall Parker wrote, “Consanguinity [cousin marriage] is the biggest underappreciated factor in Western analyses of Middle Eastern politics. Most Western political theorists seem blind to the importance of pre-ideological kinship-based political bonds in large part because those bonds are not derived from abstract Western ideological models of how societies and political systems should be organized. … Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society. Yet, this obvious fact is missing from 99 percent of the discussions about what is wrong with the Middle East. How can we transform Iraq into a modern liberal democracy if every government worker sees a government job as a route to helping out his clan at the expense of other clans?”

U.S. Army Col. Norvell De Atkine (Ret.) spent years trying to train America’s Arab allies in modern combat techniques. In an article in American Diplomacy titled, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” a frustrated De Atkine explained, “First, the well-known lack of trust among Arabs for anyone outside their own family adversely affects offensive operations … In a culture in which almost every sphere of human endeavor, including business and social relationships, is based on a family structure, this orientation is also present in the military, particularly in the stress of battle. “Offensive action, basically, consists of fire and maneuver,” De Atkine continued. “The maneuver element must be confident that supporting units or arms are providing covering fire. If there is a lack of trust in that support, getting troops moving forward against dug-in defenders is possible only by officers getting out front and leading, something that has not been a characteristic of Arab leadership.”

Similarly, as Francis Fukuyama described in his 1995 book, Trust: The Social Virtues & the Creation of Prosperity, countries such as Italy with highly loyal extended families can generate dynamic family firms. Yet, their larger corporations tend to be rife with goldbricking, corruption, and nepotism, all because their employees do not trust each other to show their highest loyalty to the firm rather than their own extended families. Arab cultures are more family-focused even than Sicily, and therefore their larger economic enterprises suffer even more.

American society is so biased against inbreeding that many Americans have a hard time even conceiving of marrying a cousin. Yet, arranged matches between first cousins (especially between the children of brothers) are considered the ideal throughout much of a broad expanse from North Africa through West Asia and into Pakistan and India.

Americans have long dismissed cousin marriage as something practiced only among hillbillies. That old stereotype of inbred mountaineers waging decades- long blood feuds had some truth to it. One study of 107 marriages in Beech Creek, Kentucky in 1942 found 19 percent were consanguineous, although the Kentuckians were more inclined toward second- cousin marriages, while first-cousin couples are more common than second-cousin pairings in the Islamic lands.

Cousin marriage averages not much more than one percent in most European countries and under 10 percent in the rest of the world outside that Morocco to Southern India corridor. Muslim immigration, however, has been boosting Europe’s low level of consanguinity. According to the leading authority on inbreeding, geneticist Alan H. Bittles of Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, “In the resident Pakistani community of some 0.5 million [in Britain] an estimated 50% to 60+% of marriages are consanguineous, with evidence that their prevalence is increasing.”

European nations have recently become increasingly hostile toward the common practice among their Muslim immigrants of arranging marriages between their children and citizens of their home country, frequently their relatives. One study of Turkish guest-workers in the Danish city of Ishøj found that 98 percent—1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation—married a spouse from Turkey who then came and lived in Denmark. (Turks, however, are quite a bit less enthusiastic about cousin marriage than are Arabs or Pakistanis, which correlates with the much stronger degree of patriotism found in Turkey.)

European “family reunification” laws present an immigrant with the opportunity to bring in his nephew by marrying his daughter to him. Not surprisingly, “family reunification” almost always works just in one direction—with the new husband moving from the poor Muslim country to the rich European country. If a European-born daughter refused to marry her cousin from the old country just because she does not love him, that would deprive her extended family of the boon of an immigration visa. So, intense family pressure can fall on the daughter to do as she is told. The new Danish right-wing government has introduced legislation to crack down on these kind of marriages arranged to generate visas. British Home Secretary David Blunkett has called for immigrants to arrange more marriages within Britain.

Unlike the Middle East, Europe underwent what Samuel P. Huntington calls the “Romeo and Juliet revolution.” Europeans became increasingly sympathetic toward the right of a young woman to marry the man she loves. Setting the stage for this was the Catholic Church’s long war against cousin marriage, even out to fourth cousins or higher. This weakened the extended family in Europe, thus lessening the advantages of arranged marriages. It also strengthened broader institutions like the Church and the nation-state.

Islam itself may not be responsible for the high rates of inbreeding in Muslim countries. (Similarly high levels of consanguinity are found among Hindus in Southern India, although there uncle-niece marriages are socially preferred, even though their degree of genetic similarity is twice that of cousin marriages, with worse health consequences for offspring.) Rafat Hussain, a Pakistani-born Senior Lecturer at the University of New England in Australia, told me, “Islam does not specifically encourage cousin marriages and, in fact, in the early days of the spread of Islam, marriages outside the clan were highly desirable to increase cultural and religious influence.” She adds, “The practice has little do with Islam (or in fact any religion) and has been a prevalent cultural norm before Islam.” Inbreeding (or “endogamy”) is also common among Christians in the Middle East, although less so than among Muslims.

The Muslim practice is similar to older Middle Eastern norms, such as those outlined in Leviticus in the Old Testament. The lineage of the Hebrew Patriarchs who founded the Jewish people was highly inbred. Isaac married Rebekah, a cousin once removed. And Isaac’s son Jacob wed his two first cousins, Leah and Rachel. Jacob’s dozen sons were the famous progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Due to inbreeding, Jacob’s eight legitimate sons had only six unique great-grandparents instead of the usual eight. That is because the inbred are related to their relatives through multiple paths.

Why do so many people around the world prefer to keep marriage in the family? Rafat Hussain noted, “In patriarchal societies where parents exert considerable influence and gender segregation is followed more strictly, marriage choice is limited to whom you know. While there is some pride in staying within the inner bounds of family for social or economic reasons, the more important issue is: Where will parents find a good match? Often, it boils down to whom you know and can trust.”

Another important motivation—one that is particularly important in many herding cultures, such as the ancient ones from which the Jews and Muslims emerged—is to prevent inheritable wealth from being split among too many descendents. This can be especially important when there are economies of scale in the family business.

Just as the inbred have fewer unique ancestors than the outbred, they also have fewer unique heirs, helping keep both the inheritance and the brothers together. When a herd-owning patriarch marries his son off to his younger brother’s daughter, he insures that his grandson and his grandnephew will be the same person. Likewise, the younger brother benefits from knowing that his grandson will also be the patriarch’s grandson and heir. Thus, by making sibling rivalry over inheritance less relevant, cousin marriage emotionally unites families. The anthropologist Carleton Coon also pointed out that by minimizing the number of relatives a Bedouin Arab nomad has, this system of inbreeding “does not overextend the number of persons whose deaths an honorable man must avenge.”

Of course, there are also disadvantages to inbreeding. The best known is medical. Being inbred increases the chance of inheriting genetic syndromes caused by malign recessive genes. Bittles found that, after controlling for socio-economic factors, the babies of first cousins had about a 30 percent higher chance of dying before their first birthdays. The biggest disadvantage, however, may be political.

Are Muslims, especially Arabs, so much more loyal to their families than to their nations because, due to countless generations of cousin marriages, they are so much more genealogically related to their families than Westerners are related to theirs? Frank Salter, a political scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, whose new book Risky Transactions: Trust, Kinship, and Ethnicity takes a sociobiological look at the reason why Mafia families are indeed families, told me, “That’s my hunch; at least it’s bound to be a factor.”

One of the basic laws of modern biology, quantified by William D. Hamilton in 1964 under the name “kin selection,” is that the closer the genetic relationship between two people, the more likely they are to feel loyalty and altruism toward each other. Natural selection has molded us not just to try to propagate our own genes, but to help our relatives, who possess copies of some of our specific genes, to propagate their own.

Nepotism is thus biologically inspired. Hamilton explained that the level of nepotistic feeling generally depends upon the degree of genetic similarity. You share half your personally variable genes with your children and siblings, but one quarter with your nephews/nieces and grandchildren, so your nepotistic urges will tend to be somewhat less toward them. You share one eighth of your genes with your first cousins, and one thirty-second with your second cousin, so your feelings of family loyalty tend to fall off quickly. But not as quickly if you and your relatives are inbred. Then, you will be related to your kin via multiple pathways. You will all be genetically more similar, so your normal family feelings will be multiplied. For example, because your son-in-law might be also be the nephew you have cherished since his childhood, you can lavish all the nepotistic altruism on him that in outbred Western societies would be split between your son-in-law and your nephew.

Unfortunately, as nepotism is usually a zero-sum game, the flip side of being materially nicer toward your relatives would be that you would have fewer resources left with which to be civil, or even just fair, toward non-kin. So nepotistic corruption is rampant in countries such as Iraq, where Saddam has appointed members of his extended family from his hometown of Tikrit to many key positions in the national government.

Similarly, a tendency toward inbreeding can turn an extended family into a miniature racial group with its own partially isolated gene pool. (Dog breeders use extreme forms of inbreeding to create new breeds in a handful of generations.) The ancient Hebrews provide a vivid example of a partly inbred extended family (that of Abraham and his posterity) that evolved into its own ethnic group. This process has been going on for thousands of years in the Middle East, which is why not just the Jews, but also why tiny, ancient inbreeding groups such as the Samaritans and the John-the-Baptist-worshipping Sabeans still survive.

In summary, although neoconservatives constantly point to America’s success at reforming Germany and Japan after World War II as evidence that it would be easy to do the same in the Middle East, the deep social structure of Iraq is the complete opposite of those two true nation-states, with their highly patriotic, co-operative, and (not surprisingly) outbred peoples. The Iraqis, in contrast, more closely resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys. 

Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.

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