Skip to comments.Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change
Posted on 09/27/2003 3:13:05 PM PDT by sarcasm
LEMIYA, Iraq, Sept. 27 Iqbal Muhammad does not recall her first glimpse of her future husband, because they were both newborns at the time, but she remembers precisely when she knew he was the one. It was the afternoon her uncle walked over from his house next door and proposed that she marry his son Muhammad.
"I was a little surprised, but I knew right away it was a wise choice," she said, recalling that afternoon nine years ago, when she and Muhammad were 22. "It is safer to marry a cousin than a stranger."
Her reaction was typical in a country where nearly half of marriages are between first or second cousins, a statistic that is one of the more important and least understood differences between Iraq and America. The extraordinarily strong family bonds complicate virtually everything Americans are trying to do here, from finding Saddam Hussein to changing women's status to creating a liberal democracy.
"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. Sheik Yousif said he never forced any of his children to marry anyone, but more than half of the ones to marry have wed cousins. The patriarch was often the one who first suggested the match, as he did with his son Muhammad nine years ago.
"My father said that I was old enough to get married, and I agreed," Muhammad recalled. "He and my mother recommended Iqbal. I respected their wishes. It was my desire, too. We knew each other. It was much simpler to marry within the family."
A month later, after the wedding, Iqbal moved next door to the home of Sheik Yousif. Moving in with the in-laws might be an American bride's nightmare, but Iqbal said her toughest adjustment occurred five years later, when Sheik Yousif decided that she and Muhammad were ready to live by themselves in a new home he provided just behind his own.
"I felt a little lonely at first when we moved into the house by ourselves," Iqbal said. Muhammad said he, too, felt lonely in the new house, and he expressed pity for American parents and children living thousands of miles from each other.
"Families are supposed to be together," he said. "It is cruel to keep children and parents apart."
Sheik Yousif, who is 82, said he could not imagine how the elderly in America coped in their homes alone. "I could not bear to go a week without seeing my children," he said. Some of his daughters have married outsiders and moved into other patriarchal clans, but the rest of the children are never far away.
Muhammad and three other sons live on the farm with him, helping to supervise the harvesting of barley, wheat and oranges, and the dates from the palm trees on their land. The other six sons have moved 15 miles away to Baghdad, but they come back often for meals and in hard times. During the war in the spring, almost the whole clan took refuge at the farm, returning to the only institution they had been able to trust through the worst of Mr. Hussein's rule.
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 of them belong to the kind of civic groups or professional associations 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 demonstrate his point, he ordered his sons to unroll the family tree. It was on a scroll 70 feet long, with lots of cousins intertwined in the branches.
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 notoriously frustrating process in the Middle East, as King Faisal and T. E. Lawrence both complained after their effort to unite Arab tribes last century.
"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."
The skeptics have local history on their side, because Middle Eastern countries have tended toward either internecine conflict or authoritarian government dominated by kin, cronies and religious leaders. Elsewhere, though, democracy has coexisted with strong kinship systems.
"Japan and India have managed to blend traditional social structures with modern democracy, and Iraq could do the same," said Stanley Kurtz, an anthropologist at the Hoover Institution. But it will take time and finesse, he said, along with respect for traditions like women wearing the veil.
"A key purpose of veiling is to prevent outsiders from competing with a woman's cousins for marriage," Dr. Kurtz said. "Attack veiling, and you are attacking the core of the Middle Eastern social system."
Sheik Yousif and his sons said they put no faith in American promises of democracy or any other promises, for that matter.
"Do you know why Saddam Hussein has not been captured?" asked Saleh, the oldest son of Sheik Yousif. "Because his own family will never turn him in, and no one else trusts the Americans to pay the reward." Saleh dismissed the reports that Americans had given $30 million and safe passage out of Iraq to the informant who turned in Mr. Hussein's sons.
"I assure you that never happened," Saleh said. "The American soldiers brought out a camera and gave him the money in front of a witness, and then they took him toward the Turkish border. Near the border they killed him and buried him in a valley. They wanted the money for their own families."
In my neck of the woods this is ain't a big deal....
"My brother and I against our cousin; my cousin and I against the stranger." -- old Arab proverb
"Deliverence" time. Do they have many banjos there??
And this is the mentality that we must deal with every day??
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