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 one of the building blocks of Arab Muslim
cultures -- cousin marriage. Not surprisingly, we are almost utterly
innocent of any understanding 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 to each other. A 1986 study of 4,500 married
hospital patients and staff in Baghdad found that 46% were wed to a
first or second cousin, while a smaller 1989 survey found 53% were
"consanguineously" married. The most prominent example of an
Iraqi first cousin marriage is that of Saddam Hussein and his first wife
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
ruling reforming Iraq. But that's 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 their 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 appears 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, loyalty to extended (as opposed to
nuclear) families is often at war with loyalty to nation. 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% 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?"
Retired U.S. Army colonel Norvell De Atkine spent years trying to train
America's Arab allies in modern combat techniques. In an article in
American Diplomacy entitled, "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
don't trust each other to show their highest loyalty to the firm rather
than their own extended families. Arab cultures are more family-focused
than even Sicily, and thus their larger economic enterprises suffer even
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.
In contrast, Americans probably disapprove of what scientists call
"consanguineous" mating more than any other nationality. Three
huge studies in the U.S. between 1941 and 1981 found that no more than
0.2% of all American marriages were between first cousins or second
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% were
consanguineous, although the Kentuckians were more inclined toward
second cousin marriages, while first cousin couples are more common than
second cousins pairings in the Islamic lands.
Cousin marriage averages not much more than one percent in most European
countries, and under 10% 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 U. 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." (Bittles' Web-site
www.Consang.net presents the results of several hundred studies of the
prevalence of inbreeding around the world.)
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 Ish?und that 98% -- 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 doesn't 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
Rafat Hussain, a Pakistani-born Senior Lecturer at the U. 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.
Abraham said his wife Sarah was also his half-sister. His son 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's 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? 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 ancients 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% 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
One of the basic laws of modern evolutionary science, quantified by the
great Oxford biologist William D. Hamilton in 1964 under the name
"kin selection," is that the more close 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
Nepotism is thus biologically inspired. Hamilton explained that the
level of nepotistic feeling generally depends upon 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'll be
genealogically and related to your kin via multiple pathways. You will
all be genetically more similar, so your normal family feelings will be
multiplied. For example, your son-in-law might be also be the nephew
you've cherished since his childhood, so you can lavish all the
nepotistic altruism on him that in an outbred family would be split
between your son-in-law and your nephew.
Unfortunately, nepotism is usually a zero sum game, so the flip side of
being materially nicer toward your relatives would be that you'd have
less 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 quickly 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 brothers)
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, the John the Baptist-worshipping Sabeans, and the
Lucifer-worshipping Yezidis still survive.
In summary, although neoconservatives constantly point to America's
success at reforming Germany and Japan after World War II has 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, cooperative, and (not
surprisingly) outbred peoples. The Iraqis, in contrast, more closely
resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys.