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NYTimes.com Article: Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change
by threehegemons
27 September 2003 22:17 UTC
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This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by threehegemons@aol.com.

Wallerstein argues that there are typically two cultural arguments made by the 
core in the modern world system.  On the one hand, there is the promise--be 
like us, and everything will be fine, and on the other, there is the 
justification for the lack of progress--something inherently wrong with you 
makes progress impossible.  It seems like the US has lost patience in Iraq, and 
is switching to argument 2.


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Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change

September 28, 2003


ALEMIYA, 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

"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

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

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

"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

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

"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



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