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2002 September 22 Sunday
Consanguinity prevents Middle Eastern political development

Stanley Kurtz (one very sharp guy) wrote a couple of great essays in January 2002 about the importance of kinship ties in understanding the interactions between religious beliefs, culture, and the nature of political regimes in the Middle East. A lot of people have managed to write countless articles and even countless books on the Middle East while missing the important way in which family structure shapes Middle Eastern governments, religious views, and attitudes toward the West. Yet Kurtz has finally come along and put his finger on a key root cause of the differences between the West and Arab Muslim countries.

In Kurtz's first essay "Veil of Fears: Why they veil; why we should leave it alone" he describes the way the kinship system reinforces and perpetuates itself:

In the modern Middle East, networks of kin are still the foundation of wealth, security, and personal happiness. That, in a sense, is the problem. As we've seen in Afghanistan, loyalty to kin and tribe cuts against the authority of the state. And the corrupt dictatorships that rule much of the Muslim Middle East often function themselves more like self-interested kin groups than as rulers who take the interests of the nation as a whole as their own. That, in turn, gives the populace little reason to turn from the proven support of kin and tribe, and trust instead in the state.

People, including rulers, have more loyalty to family than to state. When rulers want more people to serve them they just reach further out into their kinship system (eg the Tirkritis are that extended effectively tribal group that Saddam Hussein uses in the next outer layer beyond immediate family).

But the centrality of men to the Muslim kinship system sets up a problem. The women who marry into a lineage pose a serious threat to the unity of the band of brothers. If a husband's tie to his wife should become more important than his solidarity with his brothers, the couple might take their share of the property and leave the larger group, thus weakening the strength of the lineage.

There is a solution to this problem, however a solution that marks out the kinship system of the Muslim Middle East as unique in the world. In the Middle East, the preferred form of marriage is between a man and his cousin (his father's brother's daughter). Cousin marriage solves the problem of lineage solidarity. If, instead of marrying a woman from a strange lineage, a man marries his cousin, then his wife will not be an alien, but a trusted member of his own kin group. Not only will this reduce a man's likelihood of being pulled away from his brothers by his wife, a woman of the lineage is less likely to be divorced by her husband, and more likely to be protected by her own extended kin in case of a rupture in the marriage. Somewhere around a third of all marriages in the Muslim Middle East are between members of the same lineage, and in some places the figure can reach as high as 80 percent. It is this system of "patrilateral parallel cousin marriage" that explains the persistence of veiling, even in the face of modernity.

In Kurtz's second essay on the subject Kurtz responds to his critics and specifically about Turkey:

But what about Turkey, to which many point as the model of a successfully modernizing Muslim country? If Turkey can take a hard line on the veil even banning it in places and escape a fundamentalist reaction, why can't other Muslim countries do the same? In part, the answer has to do with something I discussed in "Veil of Fears." A particular form of "cousin marriage" marks out the Middle Eastern kinship system as unique in the world. While veiling and seclusion can help to protect almost any sort of arranged marriage system, and are not restricted to Muslim societies, cousin marriage adds tremendously to the motivation for veiling, since it means that in protecting their close female relatives from the gaze of outsiders, Muslim men are in effect protecting their own future wives. But Turkish culture is an exception to the Middle Eastern kinship rule. While Turkey's traditional kinship system is some respects similar to the general Middle Eastern pattern, cousin marriage was never practiced there. That helps explain why Turkey has had at least partial success in discouraging the headscarf.

But the belief that Turkey's anti-veiling policies have not provoked a fundamentalist reaction is mistaken. On the contrary, the banning of headscarfs in Turkey's universities has stirred up a furious reaction, having collided with the large-scale influx of women from traditional parts of the country to the university system. With the demand to restore the veil to universities and other public areas as perhaps its most powerful issue, an Islamist party now threatens to take power in the next Turkish election an outcome which could easily provoke a coup or civil war in this critical American ally.

When I first read this it seemed like a revelation. Knowing that Steve Sailer loves to think about the intersections between biology and society I sent him a link to Kurtz's writings. Steve immediately wanted to find more social science data about rates of consanguinity throughout the world. I went Google searching without any luck. Now several months later Steve just found a site with worldwide measurements of the incidence of consanguinity.

Have a look at this map of the global incidence of consanguinity. Then check out how this translates into portions of the world's population:

As shown in the Figure 1, national populations can be approximately subdivided into four main categories: those in which consanguineous unions account for less than 1% of marriages, 1% to 10%, and 20% to over 50%, and populations where the level of consanguinity is unknown, either because it has not been reported or the data are of insufficient reliability and depth to make a prediction with any degree of confidence. Applying these definitions, the present numbers in each category are: less than 1% consanguinity, 1,061 million; 1% to 10% consanguinity, 2,811 million; 20% to 50+% consanguinity, 991 million; and unknown, 1,064 million (Bittles et al. 2001). As the data collection methods employed were conservative, these figures should be regarded as lower bound estimates.

With the exception of Japan, which has undergone rapid industrialization and urbanization since World War II, past predictions of a rapid decline in the overall prevalence of consanguineous unions have proved to be largely incorrect. In fact, the recorded numbers of consanguineous unions appear to have grown at least in step with increasing national and regional populations, and in some economically less developed countries the proportion of marriages contracted between close biological kin has expanded. The simplest explanation for this observation is that as greater numbers of children survive to marriageable age, the traditional social preference for consanguineous unions can be more readily accommodated.

Keep in mind the excerpt from the second Stanley Kurtz article above and his comments about Turkey. The Asian regional PDF from the site shows on page 20 consanguinity rates for different regions of Turkey at different time periods ranging from 12.8% to 31.5%. One can therefore see why Islamic religious parties continue to pose a threat to the development of secular democracy in Turkey.

One final note, just recently I came across a report that medical surveys on birth defects in Saudi Arabia are finding evidence that the pattern of consanguineous marriage in Saudi Arabia is causing a higher rate of birth defects than happens in the West:

RIYADH, 20 September A nationwide screening of newborn babies has brought to light high incidence of genetic disorders in the Kingdom compared to Western countries.

This was disclosed to Arab News by Dr. Stephen R.Schroeder, executive director of Prince Salman Center for Disability Research (PSCDR). He said preliminary screening of 10,000-15,000 babies in Riyadh, Jeddah, Qassim and Abha has shown that these genetic disorders could have been the result of consanguineous marriages.

According to the principal investigators, Dr. Colin Hodgkinson and Dr.Vandana Bharucha, the incidence of genetic disorders among children occurs at a rate that is between five and 40 times higher than in many other countries.

Update: To read all my posts on the intersection between consanguinity and politics check out this Google Parapundit site search on consanguinity.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 September 22 04:50 PM  Civilizations Clash Of

Dienekes Pontikos said at March 20, 2003 5:59 PM:

Turkey was host to multiple ethnicities that have only been Turkified, mainly through the draft and mandatory education in the Turkish language in the last eighty years. Hence, it is expected that it is not uniform in terms of the practice of consanguinity - as in fact is the case. I am pretty sure that the Bosnian and Albanian Muslims in the Balkans are less consanguinous than their Arab fellow Muslims.

I personally doubt that consanguinity is a major factor in the failure to create democratic nations in the Middle East, although it might have some bearing on the matter.

M. Alsaqour said at December 15, 2003 1:08 PM:

Consanguinity might have some negative effdect on democratic creation in the Middle east . But governance has the largest , and the people of Middle East had a good Democracy in the past when they have Good goernments .

M.D. said at April 9, 2004 8:08 AM:

Possibly, too, consanguinity is a consequence of geographical proximity. When there is a choice of marrying someone - and it is usually an arranged marriage(?) - then the 20% or 30% choice is more likely to be a family member that a stranger. Ditto when the concern is keeping the local family lands in local hands. Within a few generations everyone must be moderately closely related in multiple ways (much like the royal families of Europe?).

I would be curious to see the distribution. Do they truly AIM for first cousins, or is 2nd cousin, etc. just as prevelant - the partner of opportunity. One imagines sometimes there was a limited choice. After all, how often, how long are elgible partners "on the market"?

The implication then is that it is a tradition that like many others can be utterly disrupted by urbanization and modernization. Mmore choices and no ancestral land to protect and financial independence will lead the younger generation to start making their own choices.

Mark said at September 25, 2004 10:12 AM:

Excellent article. I doubt many in the west can remove their cultural blinders enough to grasp the issue. With email, consanginous families may turn out to be the most powerful competitor to the emerging globalism.

Will Myers said at August 24, 2005 2:00 PM:

Hi there.

I just noticed that the global prevalance map was moved to here:

Glenn Donovan said at January 1, 2010 8:18 PM:

There are so many reasons why we'll fail in Afghanistan, it's hard to know where to start. A particularly good one is the ludicrous notion that the Afghan National Army will somehow be 'stood up' and take responsibility for the security of the country. Set aside the fact that the Taliban have a shadow government operating in every province of the country, or that we need 3x to 5x the number of troops on the ground to ever hold that much territory, just look at this video of AFGHAN SOLDIERS GETTTING HIGH WHILE FIGHTING WITH COALITION FORCES

hbd chick said at February 17, 2011 12:28 AM:

hat-tip to you, pp!:

"cousin marriage conundrum addendum"

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