Iraqi Modernity

Juan Cole has recently argued that the Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq is actually a very recent phenomenon. Here is a quote taken from Crooked Timber (linking to this post):

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

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:


13 thoughts on “Iraqi Modernity

  1. I think a certain skepticism about how such a map might possibly be generated is in order. Did someone review marriage records from every country on earth? Across how many generations? And does every nation on earth (1) keep 100% accurate marriage records and (2) check a box, very clearly, for what you or I might call “cousin marriage” on those forms? Finally, “consanguinuity” isn’t a genetic term, but the source from which you take this map purports to be dedicated to “genomics” research. It’s peculiar to say the least.

    The map looks to me more like hearsay and pop knowledge (Arabs! cousin marriage!) turned into a coloring-book exercise, than it does like proper social OR biological science.

  2. I think perhaps what people are trying to say that ‘Arabic’ style kinship uses patrilineal parallel-cousin marriage is a mechanism to keep land and property within in lineage rather than having it pass on to affines. It’s true that “most Americans” don’t know this but surely anthropologists have known this for, like, a century already.

    We might even remember Bourdieu’s discussion of this in (if I remember correctly) Outline Of A Theory Of Practice, which draws on the history of all the problems that plagued R-Bian prescriptivist kinship systems when actually applied to the real world. To wit,

    1. Everyone classified as a ‘cousin’ might not be biologically a ‘second cousin’ as described at

    2. People’s chosen marriage partner might be contrued a ‘cousin’ after marriage despite their actual biogenetic constitution in order to fulfill the strong cultural imperative to label mates ‘cousins’

    Now, I _do_ think that understanding kinship and kinship ‘ideologies’ would shed a great deal of light on social organization in Iraq. Cf. “Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination” by Andrew Shyrock.Or just Guests Of The Sheik.

    As for, their focus on biogenetic makeup is clearly a very different thing from cousin marriage. Biogenetic relationship is related to but separate from the cultural systems of classification that label individuals as standing in a ‘cousin’ relationship with each other. And of course ‘kinship’ as an autonomous and cross-cultural domain is sort of problematic to begin with…

    As for the map at, the bibliography for Oceania is five (5) entries long and focuses on Middle Eastern immigrants to Australia! So much for the demography of one third of the globe. There are no citations for Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Israel, etc. etc. etc. in the demographics bibliography. That’s not a map of the global prevalence of consanguineous marriages. It’s a mape of the bibliography they’ve managed to acquire so far. It is kinda cool, tho.

  3. Good points all around.

    While I appreciate the criticisms of cross-cultural comparisons in kinship, I’ve always enjoyed such comparisons (i.e. Goody).

  4. Agreed, it might be problematic to talk of patrilateral parallel cousin marriage in terms of the rejection or “failure” of “modernity,” but it seems reasonable to associate it with an orientation to the outside world in which there is a strong impulse to build a boundary (as discussed in Janice Boddy’s work in the Sudan, and, as Rex notes, much other anthropological literature over the last 100 years).

  5. It’s not just “Arab” customs re patrilineal parallel cousin marriage — to a great extent, the custom can be explained as a way to circumvent Islamic rules of inheritance, which mandate giving portions to the daughter of the family. Half the size of their brothers’, but still … If there is any clan or tribal joint property to preserve, patrilineal parallel cousin marriage preserves it. (For a quirky look at this, see Germaine Tillion’s The Republic of Cousins.)

    What’s interesting is that there are some strongly Muslim areas that don’t show up in red, and some south Indian areas that do. Could the south Indian results (if they are valid results) be explained by intra-jati marriage?

  6. Kerim,

    Thank you for posting this–two very interesting articles. The importance of the second one, it seems to me, is what the other commenters have already recognized, namely, that it reminds us of the importance of understanding things like kinship in Iraq, but understanding it in all its (modern) complexity, which the author has not done. That article would make a lot of anthropologists’ skin crawl with the whole tradition vs. modernity argument (I think you’re being very kind, Kerim, when you say that “she overstates her case”).

    There has been a long debate on parallel cousin marriage, and it seems important to distinguish between it and cross-cousin marriage, considered “exogamous,” even if such a distinction may often be false…Anyway, regarding patrilineal parallel cousin marriage (‘arab’ marriage-the arab should be taken just as a name to designate the type of marriage, like eskimo marriage, not to designate the group who does it) the above statements seem to coincide with functionalist explanations that coincide with common sense representations in social life: that it’s useful because it maintains clan integrity and thus the reproduction of social life. Interestingly, one of the most well-known examples of such an explanation is Frederik Barth’s essay on the Kurdish “parallel cousin marriage,” based on fieldwork done in northern Iraq.

    Unforunately Bourdieu didn’t do any fieldwork in Iraq, but I wonder, with Rex, how much of it is based on representation of preferences versus practices. The other thing Bourdieu showed is how one the whole clan idea didn’t really work in the patrilineal system because people could be members of several different clans and thus the whole label of endogamous was mistaken. There are lots of other arguments though, on why people ‘intramarry,’ (Barth says it’s because the male clan members have a very shaky unity–and are not and that marrying daughters to nephews helps integrate clan groups, which finally suggests something similar to Bourdieu), but I think we have to ask at what point we do qualify something as “endogamous” (marrying within a group) and that this is the most misleading thing about the article and about the map: that even if the data were perfect, there are tons of examples of cousin marriage that is the opposite of marrying within a group. Anne Bobroff-Hajal and you all understand this, but the article doesn’t make it explicit. So if Iraqis married their cross-cousins would that make everything okay, they’d be “modern enough” for us to successfully transition them to democracy? Understanding kinship is important, but not useful if it is used to make this kind of “traditional systems” argument–it needs to be understood regarding Iraqi modernity, as Kerim said.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinship practices, in relation to Algeria and French-Algerians who live in France and often go to Algeria…

    The map is still really cool, even if as we all know it doesn’t represent “reality,” but what ever does these days? 😉

  7. Just a quick note on the previous two comments — as Julie correctly notes, I\’m using \”arab\” in scare quotes to refer to an anthropological model of kinship whose emblem is Arab. I agree with Karen in this regard — there is a lot of literature out there to indicate that the honor/shame complex is circummediterannean.

    Then again, isn\’t it also argued that much of what European ethnographers find \’other\’ about Mediterranean studies is actually class difference construed as cultural difference? Been a long time Since I read _Anthtopology Through The Looking Glass_ or _People of the Sierra_…

  8. Hello! A website of anthropologists, how terrific! I am delighted to find you discussing my op-ed published in the Christian Science Monitor.

    My goal with the op-ed was to stress the importance of understanding other countries within the context of their own social institutions, institutions that may have a long history, that intertwine intimately with other social institutions and so can’t be changed overnight, especially from the outside by a foreign power. I’m not an anthropologist, but I think the way anthropologists look at societies provides crucial understanding for foreign policy makers, who should be consulting anthropologists on a regular basis.

    The issue of the prevalence of Iraqi parallel cousin marriage is one example of a societal institution which has been mostly unknown to Americans, and apparently little grasped by those who planned and directed the war. Rex wrote, “It’s true that ‘most Americans’ don’t know this but surely anthropologists have known this for, like, a century already.” And that’s exactly my point. Anthropologists DO know, but most Americans who pushed for the invasion of Iraq don’t know. That’s why I wrote an op-ed for a newspaper, not an academic piece. Any American who pushes for invasion of another country – most importantly those in government – needs to have some idea of that country’s social institutions, to assess whether invading is likely to produce their hoped-for result or its opposite. If a US president is militating for war, I feel he has an obligation to use his bully pulpit to educate the broad American public about these issues.

    My intent was not to make an argument about general resistance to modernity, but to say that when the US intervenes in a country whose social institutions it does not comprehend, the result may be the opposite of what was intended. Bush expected greater modernization as the result of his invasion, but in fact the destruction of government order and civil functioning has caused Iraqis to regress to relying on older ways of protecting themselves. As “SakisRakis” wrote on another forum, when the central Iraq government failed,

    interfamily marriage meant that the Iraqi people would fall back on their own ‘family-based’ networks …. When the central government broke down, it was a foregone conclusion that extended families would form localized military/ administrative networks … militias.

    Another writer on this forum wrote,

    The rise of the militias was predicted by middle east military analysts who were familiar with Iraq (Toby R Dodge for example). The militias are fairly invincible because they are composed of people related by by very strong familiy ties and their close associates. … [T]his administration [should] have listened to the military analysts who predicted that failure of the central government would result in the rise of city-based militias and sectarian fighting.

    Kerim raised the question “How did Saddam Hussein manipulate clan relations to secure his power?” There’s a very interesting paper written on this topic, available on the web, “TRIBES IN IRAQ & THEIR REACTIONS AGAINST AMERICAN ATTACKS,” by Pinar Dereli of the Middle East Technical University, for a course in Kinship, Tribe, Confederation and State in Central Asia and the Middle East. Dereli’s paper presents a detailed history of Saddam Hussein’s years-long manipulation of clan relations throughout Iraq to maintain power. There were periods when he tried to tamp down on clan identity, and other periods when he promoted it in his own interests. I won’t try to summarize the article here, but recommend taking a look at it. You can google Pinar Dereli tribes to find the pdf file. (For starters, 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.)

    Kerim also wrote,

    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. … In fact, the causality might be the reverse: the failure of modernity might explain the continued strength of the clan system.

    I didn’t mean to imply one-way causality in my piece. Rather, I believe there’s a continuous feedback loop. The failure of modernity causes people to continue to rely on clans for protection and services, and the continued strength of clans interferes with the development of modernity. One of the best writers on middle eastern clans is the anthropologist Stanley Kurtz, whose work I recommend. For example, he writes:

    Think of the Islamic Middle East as a split-level society. On the one hand, there’s the government, with its bureaucratic rules and periodic attempts at economic modernization. And counter posed against the government (and a relatively small modernized elite) is a world of traditional family solidarity, where ties among neighbors and extended kin spell the difference between survival and disaster. The inability of the government to deliver the material or political benefits of modernization drives the populace more deeply into their traditional networks as the only defense against chaos. Or is it the other way around? The reliance of the populace on traditional social forms continually undercuts the government’s attempts at economic modernization.
    This article gives much more detailed analysis of many of the issues raised in your SavageMinds thread, as does

  9. quite interesting discussion as it breaks the boundry surrounding arab/muslim as “other” & please reframe germaine tillion beyond “quirky” for as a student of marcel mauss & model for pierre bourdieu’s later field work & theory, & as a pioneer french female social scientist, tillion set some incredible motifs to ponder, from the question of sexual /reproductive capital ownership by the “clan” in relation to ecological/economic conditions of mediterranean neolithic society to present … to her neo-hegelian inquiry into master-slave dialectic based on her internment in auschwitz ….

    … cross-cousin marriages were ported from iberia to the americas becoming entrenched in many areas among differing social classes … remnants which can be seen today among some mexican-american/hispano groups, my own family as a case in point of pre-anglo southwestern & california culture, socio-economic status & identity …

  10. as to contemporary arab/muslim society, in which i live as an expat, albeit muslim (with some family roots in pre-conquest andalusia), many of the anthropological motifs of segmented society are still valid … kareem is close to cutting the gordian knot, but many questions beg answers as perception does not always accord with practices of everyday life, much of which run on auto pilot, under the radar of analysis … but try this 50% divorse rate in the UAE, often within 2-3 years, most marriages having been cross cousin for economic reasons, half of the females are not able to find new mates, the other half divide into two — those whom remarry within the family & those who remarry outside of it, the latter having better chances of making it last … males have better options, although it is no longer prevalent to bring in cheap brides from india or egypt … but remarriage outside the family/clan structure is still more popular & possible in modern urban country well connected by transport & communication … the losers are females with children & less attractive attributes, including personal wealth, who have great difficulty in finding mate … whereas their grandmothers had almost as many divorces, but were quickly remarried — one less mouth to feed for their families — often many times … nearly all my students come from “blended” families with half-siblings from multiple marriages of both parents … lastly, their average number of siblings is ten or more, of which most are girls, ergo a demographic gender imbalance increasing difficulty for remarriage … it is also becoming more common for an unmarried female over 30 to choose being a second wife in a polygamous marriage than stay single & childless … which is also spreading among divorcees … one way to solve the gender imbalance …

  11. For a great discussion on this subject, there is the article “Discourses of Modernity and the New: Performing Colonization from Morocco to Iraq” by the scholar, Julian Vigo (found in the book _Rethinking Modernity_). In this chapter, Vigo argues that modernity has become a tool for colonizing forces in legitimating their wars in places like Iraq, showing how “modernity” is the stage for changing currencies and local leaders…In essence, the idea of modernity has become an uniquely Western construction, obliterating any chances for cross-cultural dialogue.

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