Family ties, Iraqi style

Here in North America, marrying one’s cousin is considered to be on the icky side, best left used as fodder for slightly edgy humour. The most mainstream example of cousin-marrying humour comes from an episode of The Simpsons(Lemon of Troy) in which the founding of Springfield and its rival town, Shelbyville, are explained:

Springfield: People, our search is over! On this site we shall build a new town where we can worship freely, govern justly, and grow vast fields of hemp for making rope and blankets.

Shelbyville: Yes, and marry our cousins.

Springfield: I was — what are you talking about, Shelbyville!? Why would we want to marry our cousins?

Shelbyville: Because they’re so attractive. I, I thought that was the whole point of this journey.

Springfield: Absolutely not!

Shelbyville: I tell you, I won’t live in a town that robs men of the right to marry their cousins.

Springfield: Well, then, we’ll form our own town. Who will come and live a life devoted to chastity, abstinence, and a flavorless mush I call “rootmarm”?

According to this New York Times article, the situation is the opposite in Iraq: it’s expected that you marry your cousin:

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 democracy.

Nepotism, civic duty. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to.

Now don’t get me wrong here: I’m big on family ties. I think that when done right, they teach you about love, kinship, cooperation, teamwork, sacrifice and loyalty, qualities that translate well into extrafamilial situations. However, when carried too far, the world gets split into two kind of people: kin and strangers.

Once you’ve got that kind of binary thinking going on, the next is Mafia morality: Be honourable to and trust only the family, be treacherous with and distrust everyone else. You socialize with, hire, vote for and help only those with whom you have blood relations, rather than picking the “best” person. Anyone who’s done any kind of web site development, especially during the early days of the dot-com bubble will be familiar with the disasters that this can cause; in fact, that’s the reason a term like “nephew art” exists.

Some of you will point out that this sort of corruption isn’t limited to group joined by blood ties. “What about Enron?” you might ask. Enron, while not a company made up of blood relatives, practiced a corporate nepotism where those “inside the circle” got treated well at the expense of those outside (many of whom were Enron’s own rank-and-file employees). Enron’s structure was a an analog to a “family” model; Ken Lay has even been described as the company’s “patriarch”.

Putting value judgements aside for a moment, if what is reported in the article is true, the differences between the North American and Iraqi social structures are bound to create misunderstandings of intent on both sides. I had to laugh out loud at this passage at the end of the article:

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 families.

Recommended Reading

Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States. An article that appears in PARAMETERS: US Army War College Quarterly, Spring 1998, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1. According to author Ralph Peters, the seven habits of unsuccessful states are:

  • Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  • The subjugation of women.
  • Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  • The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  • Domination by a restrictive religion.
  • A low valuation of education.
  • Low prestige assigned to work.

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