Published February 15, 2007
Why is the United States engaged in a war against Islamic terrorists? The Left blames the war on American foreign policy, while the Right holds that America is being scapegoated for the Muslim Middle East’s own failure to modernize. In his controversial new book, The Enemy at Home, conservative social critic Dinesh D’Souza rejects both of these explanations. Islam is perfectly compatible with modernity, argues D’Souza. The real root of the terror war, says D’Souza, is that, like many other traditional peoples throughout the world, Muslims are being shocked into anti-Western radicalism by the decadent post-Sixties culture nowadays aggressively spread across the globe by the secular Left.
In “War of Cultures,” I take issue with D’Souza, arguing that the contemporary cultural Left merely aggravates a profound and already-existing conflict between Islamic society and modernity — a clash between tradition and modernity more thorough-going and prone to violence than in any other part of the globe. D’Souza’s theme of cultural incitement, rightly understood, I argue, points toward a deeper incompatibility between Islamic society and the demands of modern life — an incompatibility that has a great deal to do with the widespread Middle Eastern practice of cousin marriage. If this is so, then we are led to take up the fundamental question of the causes of the terror war in a new light.
The distinguished historian Bernard Lewis and political scientist Samuel Huntington have together popularized the notion that Muslims are scapegoating the West because of an underlying incompatibility between Islamic society and modernity. Lewis roots this incompatibility in the Muslim seclusion of women and also in the failure of Islam to separate church and state. Yet, in “Root Causes,” I show that the Muslim seclusion of women, and even characteristically Muslim church-state relations, are part and parcel of a distinctive kinship structure built around a preference for the marriage of cousins. Huntington highlights the significance of these “traditional clan ties,” while saying relatively little about their actual content.
In this first in a series of essays on Muslim cousin-marriage, I want to begin to make the case that Muslim kinship structure is an unexamined key to the war on terror. While the character of Islam itself is unquestionably one of the critical forces driving our global conflict, the nature of Islamic kinship and social structure is at least as important a factor — although this latter cluster of issues has received relatively little attention in public debate. Understanding the role of Middle Eastern kinship and social structure in driving the war not only throws light on the weaknesses of arguments like D’Souza’s, it may also help us devise a new long-term strategy for victory in the war on terror.
Think of the culture of the Muslim Middle East as “self-sealing.” Muslim society has a deep-lying bias toward in-group solidarity, the negative face of which manifests itself in a series of powerful mechanisms for preventing, coercing, or punishing those who would break with or undermine the in-group and its customs. This bias toward in-group solidarity serves to shelter Muslim society from interaction with the forces of modernity, and also explains why Muslim immigrants so often fail to assimilate. Of course, no society can function without some sort of “in-group solidarity.” Yet the Muslim world is truly distinctive on this score. When it comes to the core principles of kinship, Muslim practices strengthen and protect the integrity and continuity of the in-group in a way that sets the Middle East apart from every other society in the world. To appreciate this fact, we’ve first got to understand some fundamental things about the nature of kinship.
For the greater part of human history, nearly every society has been organized into units based on kin ties. Modern life greatly reduces the significance of these ties, since capitalism tends to allocate jobs based on ability (instead of who your father is), while democracies apply laws, and assign benefits, on the principle of equal citizenship (not birth). By contrast, in most traditional societies, a man’s security, health, prosperity, and religious standing all depend, first and foremost, on his relatives. So to understand the kinship structure of a traditional society is to make sense of a good deal of life there. Unfortunately, our contemporary thinned-out notion of kinship has made it tough to recognize just how profoundly societies are shaped by variations in marriage practices. That’s why we’re far more comfortable making sense of the war on terror through the lens of a familiar phenomenon like religion, than in the light of something alien, like cousin marriage.
The anthropological study of kinship is famously abstruse, even for many anthropologists. The terminology can be eye-glazing, and as I’ve been arguing, it’s tough for modern Americans to believe that the problem of who-marries-whom can actually make much social difference. Suffice it to say that generations of anthropologists who actually travel to non-Western societies keep coming back impressed by how important the question of kinship is. As I’ll detail in a future piece, British scholars have lately discovered just how critical cousin marriage is for understanding the problem of Muslim assimilation in Europe. If the study of kinship can be exotic, difficult, and puzzling, so is the problem of modern Muslim rage. These problems, I argue, are related. So fasten your seatbelts. For the sake of making sense of America’s number one challenge, we’re about to take a plunge into the famously abstruse topic of kinship.
Short Course in Kinship
In the late nineteenth century, British anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor developed the founding insight of the modern study of kinship. Tylor cited exogamy, or “marrying out,” as the key to human social progress. In Tylor’s scenario, early human groups, in danger of killing each other off through inveterate competition, discovered intermarriage as the path to social peace. Women who were related to one clan as sisters and to another clan as wives tended to discourage feuds between otherwise competing groups. As Tylor famously put it: “Again and again in the world’s history, savage tribes must have had plainly before their minds the simple practical alternative between marrying-out and being killed out.” And for Tylor, “cross cousin marriage,” a particular form of cousin marriage favored by many “primitive” societies, was the earliest and most fundamental form of clan exogamy — or “marrying out.”
So what exactly is “cross cousin marriage”? Well, in anthropological parlance, descendants of same-sex siblings are “parallel cousins,” while descendants of opposite-sex siblings are “cross cousins.” That is, if a man marries his mother’s brother’s daughter, he is marrying a cross cousin. If, on the other hand, a man marries his father’s brother’s daughter, he is marrying his parallel cousin.
Yes, this sort of terminological arcana has been the bane of generations of anthropology students. But let me put my larger point in the form of a threat: Sit still for this brief basic account of anthropological kinship theory…or lose the war on terror.
All right, let’s say we have a society made up of clans organized by descent through the father. (Imagine a grander version of your own father’s family line, or something like the Hatfields and McCoys.) In any given clan, the men all trace their descent from a common male ancestor. In such a society, a rule or preference for cross-cousin marriage would create a systematic form of exogamy. In other words, if every man in a patrilineal, clan-based society were to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, every man would be marrying someone from a different clan. (For example, if you were to marry your own mother’s brother’s child, you would be marrying someone from outside of your father’s family line.) Since every man’s mother in our imaginary society is born into a different patriclan than his own, when a man marries the daughter of his mother’s brother (i.e., his cross cousin) he is renewing an alliance with another patriclan (i.e. his mother’s birth clan) by bringing a woman from his mother’s birth clan into his own clan as a wife, just as his father did before him.
On the other hand, in a society made up of competing patriclans, a rule or preference for parallel-cousin marriage would have exactly the opposite effect. Parallel-cousin marriage would seal each and every clan off from all of the others. If, say, every man in a society made up of patrilineal clans was to marry his father’s brother’s daughter, every man would be married to a descendent of his own birth clan. (For example, if you were to marry your own father’s brother’s child, you would be marrying someone from within your father’s family line.) That would be a very strong form of endogamy, or “marrying in,” which, according to Tylor, would encourage social isolation, cultural stasis, rivalry, and high levels of conflict between clans.
Although modern social anthropologists largely jettisoned the speculative historical reconstructions favored by nineteenth-century scholars like Tylor, they held onto Tylor’s central insights into the political significance of exogamy and cousin marriage. For example, building on Tylor, the great modern anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the incest taboo was the foundation of human social life. By prohibiting sexual ties among close relatives, Levi-Strauss claimed, the incest taboo effectively forces human beings to create alliances with strangers, through marriage. The prevalence of cousin marriage in many traditional cultures seemed to contradict this claim for the significance and function of the incest taboo. Yet Levi-Strauss’s brilliant, Tylor-inspired, analysis of the many political alliance systems created by cross-cousin marriage proved that even societies that encouraged the marriage of close cousins were in fact practicing a form of exogamous alliance-building. In the wake of Levi-Strauss’s achievement, some anthropologists even returned, in a more sophisticated mode, to Tylor’s original historical thesis, suggesting that the early discovery of exogamous marriage may have played a critical role in the evolution of modern human beings. (See Robin Fox’s Kinship and Marriage and The Red Lamp of Incest.)
Well, maybe exogamy played a central role in human evolution, or maybe it didn’t. However theoretically sophisticated, those sorts of historical reconstructions are nearly as speculative today as they were in the nineteenth century. In any case, early history aside, there is a critical flaw in Levi-Strauss’s theory of contemporary human kinship. Levi-Strauss did indeed show that the widespread practice of cross-cousin marriage confirms, rather than contradicts, the leading role of exogamy in human social life. Unfortunately, Levi-Strauss almost entirely failed to deal with the single great exception to his rule. Although the vast majority of societies with a preference for close-cousin marriage favor the marriage of cross cousins, a significant minority of such societies favor the marriage of parallel cousins.
And as we’ve already seen, parallel-cousin marriage has an effect precisely the opposite of the alliance-building interchange encouraged by cross-cousin marriage — and praised by Tylor and Levi-Strauss. Instead of encouraging cultural exchange, forging alliances, and mitigating tensions among competing groups, parallel-cousin marriage tends to wall off groups from one another and to encourage conflict between and among them. However strong the urge among anthropologists to identify the cooperative advantages of exogamy as a core characteristic of human nature itself, the hard fact of the matter is that a significant minority of human societies have chosen to organize themselves according to principles quite the opposite of alliance-based exogamy. Care to hazard a guess as to exactly where in the world those societies might be?
While the vast majority of societies that practice cousin marriage favor the marriage of cross cousins, the relatively small number of societies that encourage parallel-cousin marriage can be found in the Islamic cultures of North Africa and west and central Asia. Russian anthropologist Andrey Korotayev has shown that, while the region that practices parallel-cousin marriage does not map perfectly onto the Islamic world as a whole, it does (with some exceptions) closely resemble the territory of the eighth-century Islamic Caliphate — the original Islamic empire. So there is one great exception to the claim that human society — and even human nature itself — are built around the principle of extra-familial marriage. Almost every known contemporary case of preferential parallel-cousin marriage is the result of diffusion from a single source: the original Islamic Caliphate. And while parallel-cousin marriage may not be Islamic in any strict or formal sense (in fact, the practice apparently predates Islam in the region), as Korotayev puts it, “there seems to be no serious doubt that there is some functional connection between Islam and FBD [father’s brother’s daughter — i.e., parallel cousin] marriage.” Sounds like we’d best find out what that “functional connection” is.
…Proves the Rule
Once you give up the idea that every human society depends in some fundamental way on the practice of marrying out, it’s fairly easy to see the other side of the coin. If in-marriage stifles cultural development and change by walling society off from outside influences, then strong endogamy also has the corresponding benefits of heightening social cohesion and preserving cultural continuity. That is precisely the argument of Kansas State University anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer, who notes that parallel-cousin marriage among Pakistanis in Great Britain tends to reinforce cultural continuity in Muslim immigrant communities. Ottenheimer’s study, Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, was published in 1996, several years before it became apparent that reinforcing the “cultural continuity” of immigrant Muslim communities in Britain might have a down side. (See especially chapter 7.)
Determined to puncture the American “myth” that cousin marriage poses any sort of problem, Ottenheimer explains that the bans on cousin marriage adopted by many American states between the 1840s and the 1920s were the product of a biased and decidedly non-multicultural nation. As Ottenheimer sees it, given the foolish determination of our forbears to assimilate immigrants, Americans used intermarriage (a modern form of exogamy) as a tool to help break up ethnic communities and encourage a sense of national unity. Laws against cousin marriage fit right into that strategy, helping to break down in-grown traditional cultures and encouraging a shared sense of American identity (even if America never faced anything quite as in-grown as Muslim parallel-cousin marriage). Multiculturalist that he is, Ottenheimer prefers the “cultural continuity” fostered by parallel-cousin marriage among British Pakistani Muslims — a continuity facilitated by Europe’s permissive marriage laws — to America’s tradition of immigrant assimilation.
Ottenheimer has a point. Tylor and Levi-Strauss were mistaken to identify the functional gains of exogamy with human nature itself. The pattern of social adaptation, developmental flexibility, and relative peace achieved through intermarriage isn’t the only social game in town. Although a strongly in-marrying society may sacrifice these advantages, functionally speaking, intense social solidarity and unbreakable cultural continuity are the powerful payoffs received in return for the rejection of exogamy. Of course, the fly in this ointment (invisible to Ottenheimer in 1996) is painfully obvious today: Intense social solidarity and unbreakable cultural continuity in immigrant Muslim communities (and in the Middle East itself) are exactly what have been getting us into trouble. This means that any a long-term strategy for winning the war on terror will have to undercut, counter-balance, or reverse the functional “advantages” (cultural stasis and isolation) accruing to Muslim society through the ongoing practice of parallel-cousin marriage.
So the one great exception to the anthropological maxim that human advancement and peace require a certain minimal level of exogamy turns out to prove the rule. Islamic society has found a way to turn a uniquely intense form of in-marriage to its advantage (if advantage is defined strictly in terms of cultural survival, rather than adaptive change). Unfortunately, from the perspective of the rest of the world, the cultural stasis and isolation promoted by Muslim parallel-cousin marriage is now a serious problem.
We still need to discover the “functional connection” between Middle Eastern parallel cousin marriage and Islam. Find that link, I argue, and you will see what stands between the Muslim world and modernization. Grasp the connection between Islam and Middle Eastern kinship, and you’ll have a far better chance of devising a long-term strategy for winning the war on terror. These are the questions we’ll pursue in Part II of “Marriage and the Terror War.”
Part II of the essay is available here.