I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 years. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don’t see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we’re seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.
It is tempting to see battles we can’t solve as intractable divisions rooted in tradition, despite their modernity, but doing so often obscures more than it clarifies.
However, I was intrigued by a very different culturalist argument about Iraq from today’s Christian Science Monitor, this one grounded in some very interesting data.
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.
Indeed, whether or not consanguinity explains anything about Iraq, the consanguinity web site is itself worthy of mention on Savage Minds. You can see their global consanguinity map at the bottom of this post. I’m less sure what to make of Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s argument regarding the explanatory power of cousin marriage in Iraq:
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.
Therefore, according to Bobroff-Hajal, we can use cousin marriage to explain Iraqi resistance to modernity since modern government and business practices threaten these traditional kinship networks.
I think Bobroff-Hajal overstates her case when she presents this as a conflict between modernity and traditional culture, since one has to explain the persistence of clan-based social networks in terms of Iraqi modernity. How did Saddam Hussein manipulate clan relations to secure his power? Moreover, just because there is a correlation doesn’t mean that there is causality. In fact, the causality might be the reverse: the failure of modernity might explain the continued strength of the clan system.
Still, I do think that the importance of Iraqi kinship networks is something that has been overlooked in most analysis of the war. It is something I have heard from other people I know who have spent a lot of time in Iraq. In fact, it is a point that Juan Cole himself has made on several occasions, such as this post where he critiques the U.S. military’s rules of engagement on the grounds that they were likely to incur “large numbers of clan feuds with Sunni Arab families.”
But more than anything else, I really just wanted to share this cool consanguinity map: