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Why cousin marriage matters in Iraq

Clan loyalty fixed by cousin marriage was always bound to undermine democracy in Iraq.

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Compared with the rest of the world, the United States is a young country. Its people left many of their traditional social structures behind, crossed vast oceans, and started anew. So to understand the lives of the majority of people around the world, who live within institutions that have shaped human existence for centuries, Americans need to make a special effort to see things from a very different perspective.

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.

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

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.

But still, what does this have to do with marrying cousins? Cousin marriage occurs because a woman who marries into another clan potentially threatens its unity. If a husband's bond to his wife trumped his solidarity with his brothers, the couple might take their property and leave the larger group, weakening the clan. This potential threat is avoided by cousin marriage: instead of marrying a woman from another lineage, a man marries the daughter of his father's brother – his cousin. In this scenario, his wife is not an alien, but a trusted member of his own kin group.

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