Published February 16, 2007
Part I of this essay is available here.
For the greater part of human history, almost every society has been structured around the bonds of marriage and kinship. A man’s security, health, prosperity, and religious standing all traditionally depended on his relatives. We moderns continue to marry and trace our descent through our parents, especially our fathers. Yet in comparison to societies in other times and places, the bonds of kinship are now thin and watery things.
The Muslim world is different. Guided by powerful cultural rules and preferences, Muslims commonly arrange the marriages of their children. A Muslim family’s economic well-being, social standing, and much else typically depend upon those arrangements, and as we learned in “Marriage and the Terror War,” large sections of the Muslim world prefer to arrange marriages between “parallel cousins,” cousins who are members of the same paternal family line.
In the first part of this piece, I showed that, on a world scale, the radical form of in-marriage represented by the union of parallel cousins is highly unusual. Parallel-cousin marriage is confined almost exclusively to the region once ruled by the original eighth-century Islamic empire, and this involuted form of marriage stands in sharp contrast to the relative value placed on out-marriage, inter-group alliance, and interchange favored by almost every other culture in the world.
Anthropologists once identified exogamy — the tendency to form alliances with strangers by “marrying out” — as a core component of human nature. Of course, every society identifies boundaries outside of which legitimate marriage cannot take place. Nonetheless, within those boundaries, most societies frown on close marriages within existing family lines, and this sets a nearly universal value on the practice of alliance and interchange between insiders and outsiders.
Yet the very strong form of endogamy uniquely practiced throughout much of the Muslim world shows that it is possible to construct a human society on the basis of another fundamental strategy. Instead of cultural communication, adaptive development, and mutual trust, this strategy stresses intense in-group solidarity and unbreakable cultural continuity. Understanding the distinctive kinship principles around which Muslims structure their social life may tell us a good deal about why we’re engaged in a war against terror — and what we must do over the long term to win it. In particular, we want to understand the “functional connection” between the marriage practices prevalent in the Muslim world and Islam itself. How do Muslim religion and social life fit together, and what is it about both that makes the Muslim adjustment to modernity so difficult?
Recognizing the anomalous nature of parallel-cousin marriage on a worldwide scale, as well as its importance for Muslim society, students of Middle Eastern culture puzzled over the phenomenon for a century. By the mid-1970s, however, anthropologists had grown tired of Muslim parallel-cousin marriage. Some complained that the preoccupation with this single exotic practice was diverting attention from other important forms of marriage and kinship in the Middle East. And increasingly, scholars despaired of making sense of parallel-cousin marriage at all.
The most popular explanation of parallel-cousin marriage treated it as a way of keeping wealth within the family line. And while an economic motive is clearly in play in many cases of parallel-cousin marriage, there are plenty of other instances that have nothing to do with wealth. The economic circumstances of Middle Eastern societies differ widely, yet parallel-cousin marriage is practiced across the region. In some places, the poor prefer parallel-cousin marriage every bit as much as the rich. The more anthropologists learned about these exceptions, the more they were inclined to drop the issue of parallel-cousin marriage as a false or insoluble problem.
Then, in 1989, Czech anthropologist Ladislav Holy published Kinship, Honour, and Solidarity: Cousin Marriage in the Middle East. After a century of unresolved puzzlement, Holy offered an credible general explanation of the Muslim preference for parallel-cousin marriage. Holy showed how cousin marriage serves as a fail-safe protective device to secure collective family honor, and linked the honor-based function of cousin marriage to a broader appreciation of super-charged, in-group solidarity as a social strategy. No society can do without some form of in-group solidarity. But once you understand how Muslims construct society as a collection of counterbalanced, sometimes allied, sometimes feuding, closed-off, and self-sufficient family cells, the problem of Muslim cultural persistence begins to make sense. Holy also allows us to appreciate that the Muslim seclusion of women (another critical barrier to modernization and assimilation) is part and parcel of a larger complex of practices, at the center of which is parallel-cousin marriage. (Unfortunately, Holy’s book is difficult for non-specialists to follow, but see especially pp.110-123. See also a classic 1959 essay making some of these points by R. Murphy and L. Kasden, “The structure of parallel cousin marriage,” American Anthropologist 61:17-29.)
Holy argues that the high value placed on endogamy sharply sets Muslim society apart from the rest of the world. The loyalties of women who marry within their own family lines remain undivided. Negatively, therefore, parallel-cousin marriage sacrifices the “integrative” advantages of exogamy. Yet in a positive sense, parallel-cousin marriage serves as a powerful tool for preserving the internal solidarity and cultural continuity of the group. True, no real society is, or can be, entirely composed of sealed-off, perpetually in-marrying family lines. Many Muslims do “marry out,” and economic exchanges and strategically forged marriage alliances counter-balance the tendency of parallel-cousin marriage to divide Muslim society into a series of closed, self-sustaining family cells. Yet Muslim society’s leading theme is set and reinforced by the preference for parallel-cousin marriage — that theme being the creation of closed-off, secluded, and intensely loyal “solidarities,” and harsh dealing with any insider who would endanger or desert the charmed circle.
Parallel-cousin marriage is often practiced as a way of keeping wealth within a particular family line. Yet it isn’t wealth that turns Muslim families into the ultimate in sealed-off, self-perpetuating in-groups, Holy argues; it’s the other way around. The pre-existing value placed on in-group solidarity dictates that, when serious wealth is in play, it needs to be kept in the family line.
Rather than wealth, Holy argues, the real key to the puzzle of Muslim parallel-cousin marriage is family honor. With all the economic and social diversity in the Middle East, one factor remains constant. Wherever parallel-cousin marriage is practiced, the notion that the honor of the male family-line depends upon the sexual conduct of women is strong. For this reason, a woman’s father’s brother’s son (her parallel cousin) has the right-of-first-refusal in the matter of her marriage. To protect against the possibility of a woman’s shameful marriage (or other dangerous sexual conduct) damaging the honor of the men of her lineage, male relatives have the right to keep her safely within the family line by marrying her off to her parallel cousin.
As I’ll show in a follow-up piece, all of these kinship mechanisms are much at work in Europe today. Muslim immigrants in Europe use cousin marriage to keep wealth within already tight family lines, and to prevent girls from entering “shameful” marriages with cultural outsiders. All this serves to reinforce family “solidarity,” thereby blocking the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into society at large. We’ve all heard about full-body veiling, the seclusion of women, forced marriage, honor killing, and the like. Europe is struggling with the question of how to handle these practices. What we’ve missed up to now is the sense in which cousin marriage tends to organize and orchestrate all of these controversial practices, thereby serving as the lynch-pin of a broader pattern of resistance to assimilation and modernization. In effect, parallel-cousin marriage in Europe acts as a social “sealing mechanism” to block cultural interchange — just as, over a century ago, Sir Edward Tylor theorized it would.
Let’s return to Dinesh D’Souza’s novel plan for winning the war on terror. D’Souza wants to isolate the secular Left at home, and Muslim radicals abroad, by forging an alliance between America’s Christian conservatives and cultural traditionalists (including peaceful Muslim traditionalists) across the globe. All the world’s traditional cultures, says D’Souza, while differing on details, share a belief in external moral standards — a belief that sharply contrasts with the expressive individualism and relativism of America’s secular Left. As I pointed out in “War of Cultures,” however, D’Souza’s focus on what the world’s traditionalists have in common glosses over immense differences between moral and social systems, thereby telling us little or nothing about why some traditionalists are attacking us, while others are not.
While it’s possible to lump the world’s “traditionalists” together by contrasting them all with the secular Left, there’s another and more productive way to cut the cake. Once your subject is the social meaning and function of kinship, the Muslim world stands in stark contrast to every other society in the world — traditional or modern. This contrast, I argue, has everything to do with why Muslim societies have difficulty accommodating modernity, why Muslim immigrants resist assimilation, and why some Muslims are attacking us.
The key “functional connection” between Middle Eastern marriage practices (which are not religiously dictated, although they are sometimes justified in religious terms) and Islam itself would appear to be the creation and reinforcement of a pervasive cultural tendency to form in-groups with tightly monitored boundaries. A male parallel cousin’s right-of-first-refusal in marriage serves to prevent a woman from threatening lineage honor and solidarity by entering into a low or dishonorable out-marriage. By the same token, as we saw in the case of Afghan convert to Christianity, Abdul Rahman, Islam itself functions as a kind of closed in-group on a grand scale, welcoming converts, yet punishing apostasy with death. Explaining this Muslim practice, D’Souza says that, “Apostasy in Islam is less a matter of ‘wrong beliefs’ or heresy and more a matter of treason, of betraying the Muslim community.” Precisely. Yet D’Souza fails to see that this is the heart of the problem. Instead of serving as a religious creed that individuals are free to accept or reject, Islam itself functions more like a gigantic in-marrying lineage, whose solidarity is threatened by any individual member’s dishonorable exit. This, in turn, puts us in mind of the case of Salman Rushdie.
However well-known the Rushdie affair may be, we have arguably missed its larger significance. As D’Souza notes, given that sharia law punishes apostasy with death, “Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie was entirely in line with Islamic teaching, and even traditional Muslims could not disagree with the ayatollah’s verdict.” Westerners see the Rushdie case as an attack on free speech, and that it is. More deeply, however, the Rushdie affair was a triumph for the built-in enforcement mechanism that seals off Islam from adaptation to the modern world.
D’Souza gives the example of the Taliban’s notorious execution by stoning of two adulterers. Recently, notes D’Souza, Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban’s Department for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, defended that stoning: “Just two people, that’s all, and we ended adultery in Kandahar.” By the same token, Ayatollah Khomeini might with justice have said of Salman Rushdie: “Just one writer, that’s all, and we killed off the possibility of a reformist Islam growing up in Europe.” Rushdie may not have been a religious reformer himself, yet the death sentence pronounced upon him sent out a powerful message to any European Muslim who might be planning to lead a movement for reform.
Compare the Rushdie affair to the development the Conservative and Reform movements within American Judaism, and the parallel rise of American Jewish intermarriage with non-Jews. Judaism, like Islam, was once less a religious creed than a tight community constituted by a set of laws and practices extending into areas well beyond matters of pure “belief.” Yet without the intense form of lineage endogamy favored by Muslim society, and in the absence of the in-group policing mechanisms found in Islam, Judaism adapted to modernity, and Jews assimilated into American life (arguably to a fault, since Jewish identity is now seriously threatened by intermarriage). To put it simply, early followers of Conservative and Reform Judaism didn’t have to worry about being executed for intermarriage or apostasy by angry Orthodox Jews.
So D’Souza’s notion of a grand coalition of the world’s religious traditionalists completely glosses over specific cultural characteristics that have blocked any reconciliation between Islam and modernity. D’Souza doesn’t directly endorse Islam’s harsh enforcement mechanisms. Instead he argues that the intolerant secularism of the cultural Left is forcing Muslims into an all-or-nothing choice between their harshest traditions, on the one hand, and total repudiation of Islam, on the other.
What D’Souza can’t see is that, far more than America’s secular Left, it is the distinctive nature of Islam itself, and of Middle Eastern social life generally, that forces this all-or-nothing choice. A non-creedal religion whose jurisdiction extends to vast areas of social life; a communal religious identity that punishes disloyalty with death; and a marriage system that generates (and harshly polices) a pervasive ethos of in-group solidarity: these are the real sources of the all-or-nothing choice between Muslim tradition and modernity. This is why the current alternatives in the Muslim world sometimes seem to be boiling down to an untenable choice between Iranian theocracy, on the one hand, and Turkish secularism, on the other.
If we want to change any of this, it will be impossible to restrict ourselves to the study of religious Islam. The “self-sealing” character of Islam is part and parcel of a broader and more deeply rooted social pattern. And parallel-cousin marriage is more than just an interesting but minor illustration of that broader theme. If there’s a “self-sealing” tendency in Muslim social life, cousin marriage is the velcro. In contemporary Europe, perhaps even more than in the Middle East, cousin marriage is at the core of a complex of factors blocking assimilation and driving the war on terror. So I shall take up the question of cousin marriage in Europe in the next in this series of essays.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.