2006 December 28 Thursday
Failure To Understand Cousin Marriage Blinds Policy Makers On Iraq

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor Anne Bobroff-Hajal joins the too short list of writers who appreciate the problem that consanguineous (cousin) marriage poses for the US intervention in Iraq.

All too often, the US carries out foreign policy with little comprehension of the societies it confronts. This can lead to unintended - often destructive - results.

One central element of the Iraqi social fabric that most Americans know little about is its astonishing rate of cousin marriage. Indeed, half of all marriages in Iraq are between first or second cousins. Among countries with recorded figures, only Pakistan and Nigeria rate as high. For an eye-opening perspective about rates of consanguinity (roughly equivalent to cousin marriage) around the world, click on the "Global Prevalence" map at www.consang.net.

But who cares who marries whom in a country we invade? Why talk to anthropologists who study that arcane subject? Only those who live in modern, individualistic societies could be so oblivious. Cousin marriage, especially the unique form practiced in the Middle East, creates clans of fierce internal cohesiveness and loyalty. So in addition to sectarian violence in Iraq, the US may also be facing a greater intensity of inter-clan violence than it saw in Vietnam or the ferocious Lebanese civil war.

She gets it right about Westerners being oblivious. Middle Eastern societies are fundamentally different. Bonds created by marriage practices make them different. Western small family units and atomized individuals can feel loyalty toward a whole nation. Leftists who imagine themselves as more enlightened even want us to shift our loyalties toward the whole world (which is a few steps beyond the biological limits of how the human mind works). But the Iraqis have very strong loyalties which are far more local, loyalties that make Western style societies and governments unachievable by Iraqis or other Arab societies.

Here's a sentence that covers a lot of ground:

The US can't deal with a problem it doesn't recognize, let alone understand.

That does not just apply to Iraq. How about education and immigration? Left wing intellectuals have decided to deny and ignore human nature when facts about human nature suggest limits on what can be achieved through social engineering. Even though the Soviet Union has collapsed and New Soviet Man was a tragic failure the desire to radically rearrange social orders and habits has lived on. The Iraq debacle is a result of both liberal and neoconservative beliefs that a New Liberal Man could be created in Mesopotamia.

Anthropologist Stanley Kurtz has described Middle East clans as "governments in miniature" that provide the services and social aid that Americans routinely receive from their national, state, and local governments. No one in a region without stable, fair government can survive outside a strong, unified, respected clan.

Kurtz knew well before the war that Middle Eastern family structures posed a huge obstacle to efforts to create proper nation-states in the Middle East. See my post Consanguinity prevents Middle Eastern political development. Journalist Charles Glass who was held hostage (and escaped) in Beirut during the Lebanon civil war wrote a book whose title captures the essence of what Middle Eastern governments are like: Tribes With Flags. We can not change Middle Eastern political behaviors unless we stop the practice of cousin marriage. Well, that's a very tall order for social engineers and would take generations to accomplish. But our policy makers are either ignorant of this or find the facts too inconvenient to acknowledge.

Bobroff-Hajal has even read Steve Sailer's Cousin Marriage Conundrum essay for which I've included a link here:

The flip side of favoring relatives is that, as Steven Sailer observed in The American Conservative in 2003, it leaves fewer resources "with which to be fair toward non-kin. So nepotistic corruption is rampant in countries such as Iraq."

Be sure to click through and read if if you haven't already.

How many of the deaths in Iraq are caused by clans attacking other clans?

I have been struck since early on in the Iraq war by how little Americans know about the groups the US so vaguely labels "insurgents." US ignorance is now further camouflaged by the label "chaos." I wonder whether, if US citizens took the time to "know thy enemy," they would learn that there are many forms of logic in the layers of Iraq's so-called chaos. I wonder if the almost daily discovery of 40, 50, or even 60 Iraqi bodies, kidnapped and tortured before being murdered, are clans battling one another.

Yes, some of the violence is inter-clan violence. Here are some examples:

Remember in October 2006 when Sadr's militia rushed into Amarah? At first glance the press reports gave the impression that the fight was a Mahdi Army challenge to the government. But the Amarah fighting was a tribal clash.

BAGHDAD, Oct. 20 -- Members of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia headed by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, briefly took over the southern Iraqi city of Amarah and battled with the local Shiite police before withdrawing on Friday, in a bloody feud that illustrated deepening rifts within Iraq's largest sect and the growing turmoil in the south.

As many as 25 people, including 10 policemen, were killed in street fighting and mortar attacks that raged in Amarah, a predominantly Shiite city about 190 miles southeast of Baghdad, from midday Thursday until about 2 p.m. Friday. The militia attacked the headquarters and two stations of the city police department, which is reportedly aligned with the Badr Brigades, an arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite religious party.

Each side blamed the other in a cycle of retaliatory clashes with tribal overtones.


In Baghdad, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Abdul Karim Khalaf Kinany, said the clashes were not driven by intra-Shiite conflict, but by tribal differences.

"The clashes in Amarah were not between the police and the Mahdi Army," he said. "Police had in fact interfered to settle a tribal dispute between the tribe of the police officer, the head of the intelligence division . . . and the tribesmen of the suspects who were arrested by the police on suspicion of carrying out the assassination."

What percentage of the deaths in Iraq are due to inter-tribal violence?

No need for a criminal justice system with prisons when killers can be forced by tribes to pay for the lives they take,

A little later, Sheik Fawzi Kaabi entered. Everyone in the room stood. "Take your rest," Aidani said afterward.

Kaabi, a stout man in a head scarf checkered white and black, is 46, but said he should be 460: "Every year has become 10 years because of the problems." Kaabi, called "the judge" by a friend, had come to mediate another dispute.

Men from Aidani's tribe had killed three people from the Abadi, a neighboring tribe, although the circumstances were in dispute. A death these days costs between 20 million and 25 million Iraqi dinars, or $13,300 to $16,600. Each person in the tribe is expected to contribute, effectively an insurance policy. But Aidani was resisting, pleading his case that the neighboring tribe had refused to pay blood money earlier.

"We're on standby," the sheik warned, with the mildest bluster.

He said no more. Everyone understood it meant sending his armed men to settle it another way.

"It's like a serial," the sheik said after Kaabi left. "It never has an ending."

This is not remotely like America. But the neocons fantasized Iraq would rapidly Westernize as soon as Saddam fell. What fools.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 December 28 01:06 AM  Mideast Iraq Ethnic Conflict

Stephen said at December 28, 2006 1:48 AM:

Randall, I really think you undermine and marginalise your argument by your knee-jerk attribution of such blindness to "Leftists" or "left wing intellectuals".

You can try revisionism as much as you like, but these are not left wing policies:

There are WMDs in Iraq;
Iraq is a threat;
Iraq supports AQ;
Iraq was involved in 9/11;
Torture works;
The Geneva Convention is quaint;
Freedom lives in the heart of every man;
God is on our side.

John S Bolton said at December 28, 2006 2:42 AM:

They are Jacobin policies, except for the religion aspect.
The sectarian warfare may give rise to larger loyalties.
The author reminds us that inbred extended families of that sort, have an interest in doing more to help a woman raise her children, since they're more closely related to a larger circle.
Iraqi soldiers get to specify a locality for which they will serve.
There are tens of thousands of border guards.
How American support for such expenses fits with internationalism
remains to be explained.

Curious Citizen from Sweden said at December 28, 2006 8:57 AM:

"Left wing intellectuals have decided to deny and ignore human nature". Seems a lot of conservatives dont want to learn that people have limits in their rate of learning, either. Example, No child left behind legislation.

Ideological tribalism in general is such a bad way if you want to understand the world. Some realy do WANT to understand and they could start their own tribe. The scientific path is not as cold minded rational as people sometimes believe. There is lot of righeous anger to unleash on deserving enemies.

I wonder how big group you realy can be loyal to. I feel some sympathy for a swede in general... but I wonder if its not a big group allready. And what does loyalty mean? How much does it shape your actual actions?

Randall Parker said at December 28, 2006 9:16 AM:


Neoconservatives are closer to the liberals than they are to the paleoconservatives in their assumptions about human nature. The neocons are basically liberal hawks - especially when it comes to defending Israel.

You keep missing the basic point I'm making: What is possible in policy flows from the intellectual conventional wisdom about human nature. Who created our current (and very wrong) conventional wisdom? The Left.

I'm still waiting to see you engage on the question of the accuracy of that conventional wisdom. Do you think the Iraqi average intelligence level is the same as that of white Europeans? Or do you accept the IQ research that puts them down in the low 80s? Do you think that Islam is compatible with liberalism? Do you think consanguineous marriage is compatible with a non-corrupt bureaucracy and the modern nation-state?

You can paint the Left and Right by elected faction and come up with the analysis you did above. But it is on the field of intellectual beliefs that we should try to make sense of just what are the factions and who is winning in policy. Republican Nixon created many federal regulatory agencies and embraced price controls. Was the Right winning when he was in office? The free marketeers didn't think so.


Which ideological faction made No Child Left Behind seem sensible? The Left. How'd they do it? By ruling out of bounds the idea that some people and some races are intellectually below average. NCLB is nuts, crazy, loco, absurd to anyone who doesn't believe the Left's fantasy that environment overrules genes and that all have equal abilities and that natural selection didn't select for different intellectual abilities and personality types in different races and ethnic groups. In a society where the truth about human nature was not treated as religious heresy by the mainstream media NCLB wouldn't stand a chance of enactment.

Bush and Ted Kennedy came up with NCLB. Bush basically decided to make a deal with Leftists in Congress over education policy. He accepted policies that only make sense if you accept Leftist assumptions. Bush wanted to win women voters by moving to the Left. Plus, he probably believes the Left's conventional wisdom.

John S Bolton said at December 29, 2006 3:14 AM:

I read what strikes me as an awesome, mighty argument contradicting the premise of the equality of man, nations, etc.
Lynn and Vanhanen's IQ and Global Inequality, p.252, says:
"...economic theory of convergence tells us that high per capita income is a disadvantge
for economic growth because countries with low per capita income have a competitive
advantage from their low wage costs... The main reason for the

failure of convergence theory is that it does not recognize
that nations with high IQ's can increase their already high
per capita income because their IQ advantage outweighs their
disadvantage of high labor costs."
We could just administer economic freedom to Iraq, with millions of troops,
to a people who would also grow more hostile at the intrusion;
but their low IQ means that their savage faith will not be shaken, their primitive loyalties
should be assumed persistent, and suspicion and conspiracy theorizing will intensify.

momochan said at December 29, 2006 12:53 PM:

I think it was just less than a year ago, I read in a general interest news magazine (US News & World Report perhaps?) that under Saddam Hussein's rule about 1/5 of marriages in Iraq were Sunni-Shia mixed. Those marriages, at least, would presumably not be cousin marriages. I'm not saying that cousin marriages didn't occur, of course, but I wonder to what extent they were affecting the gene pool.

Anyway, nowadays it's hard to imagine that many mixed marriages happening in current Iraqi society. It's ironic that brutally imposed stability can, in a sense, bring a society together by creating freedom from inter-sectarian rifts.

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