Friday, March 02, 2007

The Tribal War Against Modernity

Victor Davis Hanson says (here), “[I]f we have an orphaned war that is dubbed lost, it nevertheless can still be won. None of our mistakes has been fatal; none is of a magnitude unprecedented in past wars; all have been cataloged; and few are now being repeated.” Hanson’s article includes a very fine catalog of our failings in Iraq, but as has been the case throughout the conflict, he takes an optimistic view of the path ahead.

Some would agree with him. Some would not. I think the best option available at this point is to hope that General Petraeus’ plan is somewhat effective. But conservative family researcher Stanley Kurtz thinks that our problem in the Middle East is far more intractable than most have thought.

A couple of weeks ago Kurtz published two provocative articles (part 1, part 2) where he explores what he believes is at the root of Islamic extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. I have waited to write about this because he promised to discuss in a future article what should be done about it. That should be interesting, because the problem he discusses is so deeply entrenched in the culture that a solution is difficult to imagine. Alas, after two weeks of waiting, part 3 has yet to be published.

Kurtz’s theory is that the preferred family structure in many Middle Eastern societies results in a natural conflict with modernity. It all comes down to exogamous and endogamous marriage practices. Exogamous marriages between clans open them to external thought and external alliances. Endogamous marriages, on the other hand, create extremely tight “self-sealing” clans that shun external influences.

Long before Islam was founded, the preferred marriage practice in many parts of the Middle East was within clans, and it still is. Clans are defined solely along patriarchal lines. Although most Americans find the idea anathema today, the practice in significant swaths of the Middle East has been and is today marriage between parallel cousins. That is, marriage to a child of your father’s brother. Being a strictly patriarchal order, this strengthens the clan against external thought and external influences.

Not all of the results of this are bad, Kurtz notes. Endogamy provides “benefits of heightening social cohesion and preserving cultural continuity.” But endogamous societies rely mostly upon who you are rather than what you know or can do. Also, “Instead of encouraging cultural exchange, forging alliances, and mitigating tensions among competing groups, parallel-cousin marriage tends to wall off groups from one another and to encourage conflict between and among them.”

Endogamy specifically goes against integrative factors such as “cultural communication, adaptive development, and mutual trust,” which are essential elements to coping with modernity. Kurtz explores examples of how the Middle East has found successfully implementing modern business organizations to be an impossible task, unless they are significantly staffed with foreign help. He discusses how Middle Easterners moving to the West often have incredible difficulty integrating, even after generations.

Kurtz is quick to note that endogamous marriage is not an Islamic tenet. However, religious reasons are often cited for continuing its practice. Indeed, it was Mohammed’s ability to bring so many endogamous tribes and clans together under a single head that was one of his crowning achievements. But Kurtz suggests that this achievement now threatens our entire world.

I find Kurtz’s thesis intriguing. He shows no malice toward Islam, but does harbor significant concerns about preferred family structure in many traditionally Islamic societies. I believe he makes his point quite convincingly. It makes me ponder the significance of family structure as we experiment and tinker with it in Western societies. The impacts of this tinkering are unpredictable and may result in significant problems many generations down the road.

What I want to know is what Kurtz proposes to do about the problem he has defined. I’m not smart enough to perceive any reasonable way to solve it. I think that it’s quite obvious that there is no quick fix. Is it even possible to implement a solution that could prove useful any time during the life of children being born today? Come on, Dr. Kurtz, let’s have the next part in the series.

(A full library of Stanley Kurtz’s NRO articles can be found here.)


Democracy Lover said...

Wouldn't Kurtz' statements about endogamous marriages apply to any religious group? Does the discouragement of intermarriage with non-Mormons go against "cultural communication, adaptive development, and mutual trust, which are essential elements to coping with modernity."?

It is somewhat easy to criticize Islam (or LDS for that matter) from the outside and attribute various ills to it. However, there is little reason for a fundamentalist religious group to engage in terrorist activities simply because of their beliefs. We have Christians in the US who are as radically fundamentalist in their beliefs as any Muslim, but they don't strap bombs to themselves or fly planes into buildings.

Maybe Kurtz is looking in the wrong place for the root of terrorism in the Middle East.

Frank Staheli said...

What troubles me is the allegations made by Noam Chomsky (I just finished his book "Hegemony or Survival" and Barry Lando ("Web of Deceit"). I'm beginning to think the mistakes Mr. Hanson is talking about are decades old, and have been made by American imperialists of essentially every administration on both sides of the aisle. We have whimsically supported ruthless dictators when we thought it was in our best short-term interest. But these US administrations never considered the long-term effects such actions would have--mainly resentment and unwillingness to trust America when we say we're here to help you achieve liberty.

Reach Upward said...

DL, I thought heavily about the strong focus on prescribed LDS marriage practices when reading Kurtz's articles. And I think there's something to be said about that.

But the modern practice of LDS intra-faith marriage differs by dramatic degrees from parallel-cousin marriage. I have only to look at my own marriage and the marriages of people to whom I am closely related to see the types of exogamous alliances Kurtz references. LDS culture is not quite as monolithic as some would make it out to be.

I'm not saying that Kurtz is right. I'm saying that I find his take intriguing. I want more evidence. And I would like to see what kind of ideas he has for addressing the issue.

Frank, the hate America crowd does not see itself as such. They think they are themselves patriots that are trying to achieve a better America. The fact that their solutions would have us be Europe Jr. seems somewhat lost on them. They think the love America crowd are hopeless rubes that are oblivious to our nation's mistakes. But as Bill Bennett would say, we definitely have some warts, but we're not all warts, as is the popular notion in some circles today.

Democracy Lover said...


I have read 'blame Islam' stuff from both right and left and I tend to discount most of it. Endogamous marriages would not be much of a negative force if the culture at large was moving toward modernity. I tend to think there are a number of forces that have worked to slow modernization and development in the Middle East and all should be taken into account.

I question your characterization of left solutions as making us "Europe Jr.". We need to have an open discussion about what kind of nation we want to be without closing off ideas because of their ideological roots. If we can say what we want America to be in the world, and what we want American life to be like, we should then take actions to make those goals real, regardless of which side of the ideological fence that may put us.

maikel said...

The Family is the building block of society within which the human needs for identity, love and belonging are met. It is the context within which moral values play out. Endogamous marriages secure these needs strongly as they are unconditional and truly filial. The Exogamous marriage structure is weaker because there is less familiarity and it is often based on superficial conditions of sexual desirability and economic viability camouflaged as love. The weak exogamous bonds in modern societies leaves families susceptible to the perversion of sexuality leading to seperation and alienation denying the individual of true identity, love and belonging.