here’s an oldie but a goodie — from the nyt in 2003:
THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: TRADITIONS
Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change
By JOHN TIERNEY
Published: September 28, 2003
“Americans just don’t understand what a different world Iraq is because of these highly unusual cousin marriages,” said Robin Fox of Rutgers University, the author of “Kinship and Marriage,” a widely used anthropology textbook. “Liberal democracy is based on the Western idea of autonomous individuals committed to a public good, but that’s not how members of these tight and bounded kin groups see the world. Their world is divided into two groups: kin and strangers.”
Iraqis frequently describe nepotism not as a civic problem but as a moral duty. The notion that Iraq’s next leader would put public service ahead of family obligations drew a smile from Iqbal’s uncle and father-in-law, Sheik Yousif Sayel, the patriarch in charge of the clan’s farm on the Tigris River south of Baghdad.
“In this country, whoever is in power will bring his relatives in from the village and give them important positions,” Sheik Yousif said, sitting in the garden surrounded by some of his 21 children and 83 grandchildren. “That is what Saddam did, and now those relatives are fulfilling their obligation to protect him from the Americans.”
Saddam Hussein married a first cousin who grew up in the same house as he did, and he ordered most of his children to marry their cousins….
Next to the family, the sons’ social priority is the tribe, Sadah, which has several thousand members in the area and is led by Sheik Yousif. He and his children see their neighbors when praying at Sunni mosques, but none belong to the kind of civic professional groups that are so common in America, the pillars of civil society that observers since de Tocqueville have been crediting for the promotion of democracy.
“I told my children not to participate in any outside groups or clubs,” Sheik Yousif said. “We don’t want distractions. We have a dynasty to preserve.” To make his point, he told his sons to unroll the family tree, a scroll 70 feet long with lots of cousins intertwined in the branches.
the arab and arabized world ranks very low in surveys of civic behaviors. the middle east/maghreb typically vies with eastern europe for bottom place in the rankings when it comes to people joining voluntary associations. see this previous post: civic societies ii.
more from the nyt:
Cousin marriage was once the norm throughout the world, but it became taboo in Europe after a long campaign by the Roman Catholic Church. Theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas argued that the practice promoted family loyalties at the expense of universal love and social harmony. Eliminating it was seen as a way to reduce clan warfare and promote loyalty to larger social institutions — like the church.
The practice became rare in the West, especially after evidence emerged of genetic risks to offspring, but it has persisted in some places, notably the Middle East, which is exceptional because of both the high prevalence and the restrictive form it takes. In other societies, a woman typically weds a cousin outside her social group, like a maternal cousin living in a clan led by a different patriarch. But in Iraq the ideal is for the woman to remain within the clan by marrying the son of her father’s brother, as Iqbal did.
The families resulting from these marriages have made nation-building a frustrating process in the Middle East, as King Faisal and T. E. Lawrence both complained after efforts to unite Arab tribes.
“The tribes were convinced that they had made a free and Arab Government, and that each of them was It,” Lawrence wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in 1926. “They were independent and would enjoy themselves a conviction and resolution which might have led to anarchy, if they had not made more stringent the family tie, and the bonds of kin-responsibility. But this entailed a negation of central power.”
That dichotomy remains today, said Ihsan M. al-Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad. At the local level, the clan traditions provide more support and stability than Western institutions, he said, noting that the divorce rate among married cousins is only 2 percent in Iraq, versus 30 percent for other Iraqi couples. But the local ties create national complications.
“The traditional Iraqis who marry their cousins are very suspicious of outsiders,” Dr. Hassan said. “In a modern state a citizen’s allegiance is to the state, but theirs is to their clan and their tribe. If one person in your clan does something wrong, you favor him anyway, and you expect others to treat their relatives the same way.”
The more educated and urbanized Iraqis have become, Dr. Hassan said, the more they are likely to marry outsiders and adopt Western values. But the clan traditions have hardly disappeared in the cities, as is evident by the just-married cousins who parade Thursday evenings into the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad. Surveys in Baghdad and other Arab cities in the past two decades have found that close to half of marriages are between first or second cousins.
The prevalence of cousin marriage did not get much attention before the war from Republicans in the United States who expected a quick, orderly transition to democracy in Iraq. But one writer who investigated the practice warned fellow conservatives to stop expecting postwar Iraq to resemble postwar Germany or Japan.
“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,” Steve Sailer wrote in The American Conservative magazine in January. “The Iraqis, in contrast, more closely resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys….”
and while we’re quoting robin fox, here from The Tribal Imagination [pg. 62]:
“For a start, there is no ‘Iraqi People.’ The phrase should be banned as misleading and purely rhetorical. Iraq as a ‘nation’ (like the ‘nation’ of Kuwait) was devised by the compasses and protractors of Gertrude Bell when the British and French divided up the Middle East in 1921. We know well enough the ethnic-religious division into Kurd, Sunni, and Shia. People who know very little else can rehearse that one (even if they do not really know the difference; the Kurds are Sunnis, after all). But what is not understood is that Iraq, like the other countries of the regions, still stands at a level of social evolution where the family, clan, tribe, and sect command major allegiance. The idea of the individual autonomous voter, necessary and commonplace in our own systems, is relatively foreign.”
(note: comments do not require an email. tribal map of iraq.)