nepotism as a moral duty (in iraq)

here’s an oldie but a goodie — from the nyt in 2003:

Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change
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.)


  1. “Americans just don’t understand what a different world Iraq is ..”: on the other hand, plenty of Britons understand perfectly adequately how different different places can be. Fat lot of use that is if your Prime Minister is determined to wash his hands in blood.


  2. Thanks for finding this! I will be linking to your post from Blazing Cat Fur later on today.

    I have been getting out the message there as best as I can.

    It gets bogged down, with people not understanding the history. I need to go through your posts and find a good summary–many people would not spend a lot of time researching something like this. SPREADING THE WORD!


  3. This reminds me of a post over at Education Realist about how hard it is to teach algebra to students of below average intelligence. You go through it together on Monday and they seem to grasp it entire. But by Tuesday morning they have forgotten it all. Nations are like children, not only in terms of their emotional immaturity, but in their collective IQ.


  4. The next time we have to go into the Middle East again we won’t make the same mistakes. America is a nation of nice people. It was good and moral and nice that we tried to make Iraq into a western style democracy. In retrospect Mr. Tierney seems to be saying that such an effort was doomed to failure. But even so, it is admirable that we at least tried.

    The next time we are more likely to just exterminate all the Muslims we can see from our drone’s cameras.


  5. @Patrick This whole new awareness of the causes of the problems in the Middle East raises a problem: Is there anything — at all — we living in the West can do that will help?

    I was one of deluded ones who thought we could help earlier. Part of the my reason was from articles and books written by Westernized Middle Easterners living in the West.

    Kanan Makiya wrote a lot about Iraq–where he was born. He supported the 2003 invasion.

    Much later, I found out that he–born in the late 1940’s, actually had an English mother. She moved to Iraq (her family cut her right off, he said, he never saw them) and lived there for years with her husband and their children.

    But to marry an Englishwoman, his father must have decided to leave the clan life behind. And apparently his son didn’t realize how entrenched it was — even though he grew up there. He wrote about the brutality of Saddam, of gassing Kurds and other ghastly things. But he seemed to think that if Saddam was removed, things would somehow turn out fine.

    So there are these educated, Westernized people who do not understand their own country!

    I read another book, on Iran, about a woman born there in the 1940’s to an Austrian mother and an Iranian father. He too must have left the clan life behind. Yet she said they were happily married for over 50 years. His parents accepted the European wife. The wife had lost a lot of family in the war, but was not cut off from the ones that survived.

    Although the wife was a nominal Christian–and did Christmas every year in Iran–his family was OK with that! The husband was a nominal Muslim. She ended up marrying an Iranian Jew (in the 1960s). Neither family was upset.

    And she was happily married too. They moved to the US after 1979.

    She wrote a book because she went back to Iran to visit her elderly mother in the 2000’s. The mother refused to leave Iran–she was so fond of her late husband her sole remaining wish was to be buried beside him in Iran.

    Then the Iranian government arrested her. She finally got out, and that is why she wrote the book.

    So it is very confusing. You look for advice from people from those countries, yet it clear that some of them are not doing the clan thing anymore.

    Austrian Christian mother, Iranian Muslim father, she marries an Iranian Jew and everyone is just cool with it all.


  6. @frau katze – “A chart of cousin marriages and how it looks after a generation or so would not be a hit.”

    i have taken a shot at drawing these out a couple of times, but it’s not easy. starts to look like spaghetti pretty quickly. =P

    in this post, i mapped out father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage (the arab marriage form) and mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage (you find this elsewhere like china traditionally). you can see that the fbd marriage lineage starts to fold back in on itself pretty quickly, whereas the mbd marriage is more “open” — it really does lead to more alliances with other families, although it’s not as open as the sort of random marriages we have in the west, obviously.

    this post shows how fbd marriages leads to lots of double-first cousin marriages (something which took me a long time to wrap my head around!). here’s mbd marriage for comparison.

    let me know if you (or anybody out there!) have any ideas how to draw these differences out in an even clearer way, and i can give that a shot. (^_^)


  7. @frau katze – “…with people not understanding the history.”

    yes. i’ve said it many times — most people don’t need to bother learning about the biology or the genetics — we just need to look at history to see how humans function! (of course, there are differences between populations….)


  8. About the charts–I will check those out. But the level of misunderstanding in the general population is huge. In one (earlier) post, I spoke about the Catholic Church banning “close kin marriage” — I know it went to cousins and second cousins–from reading here–but the exact details of how far it went I could not recall hence term “close kin marriage.”

    One commenter got all confused and pointed me to Leviticus (where REALLY close links, like brother-sister, are banned).

    He completely missed the point and I was unable to enlighten him in the comments.

    The trouble with political blogs are that they attracts a wide range of people. I suspect a few do not even believe in evolution. But I have decided to post as if everyone know the basics of evolution. And understands what DNA stands for. I am sure I am being optimistic.

    (Side note: I got started blogging as a request from BCF that I read for years, because he had gotten sued for libel over people leaving uncomplimentary comments in a post about a local person–he lives in Toronto–and need to take some extra work–I believe that is the case although he also said he could reveal the details to me–part of the settlement.

    I posted once about Toronto and it touched on this same guy but I was ignorant of this and BCF had to take the post down as soon he came back from his work.

    Anyway, the upshot is that I do a lot of posts for him, leaving me little time to experiment with diagrams.)

    It has gotten crazy since Iraq broke–I used Google email alerts–and I have been utterly swamped.

    But the good news is that I think I have made a dent in a few people’s thinking–I can tell by the comments. I linked to your recent posts, but I am not sure if you got any extra traffic–let alone people prepared to get serious about it.

    I have also tried using the analogy of purebred dogs as a clan–and if you cross purebreds, you still have a dog, but not the right dog!

    Anyway, I have learned a great deal from here and thank you very much.

    I also leave comments at more “high end–i.e. expensive” news sites like the Financial Times, where a writer suggested that Middle East copy the European Union!!! (And he was a second generation Indian Muslim too–but he has clearly left clan life behind).

    Later comments at FT tended to brush me off (although I also made it clear the Europeans continue to fight at national level with each other long after the clans were gone–I tried to be very tactful).

    But the desire of the educated elites from these places to improve their homelands is so strong they are prepared to overlook reason–and of course the writer likely did not understand genetics and DNA either.


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