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Reflections on a wedding

I am attending a wedding tomorrow, of the daughter of a school friend (the other daughter is my god daughter), and this got me thinking about Muslims and Muslim weddings, which are, or so I have been persuasively told, not like our weddings.

When we marry, we marry outside our family, and our weddings are thus gatherings involving and uniting two families, and what is more two families who probably had nothing to do with one another until the bride from one and the groom from the other brought them together. Our marriage customs are, in the patois of the anthropologists, “exogamous”. We marry outside the clan.

Muslims, on the other hand, by custom, marry within their own clans, and a Muslim wedding is thus a gathering of and a celebration of just the one family, together with its various friends and hangers-on. Arab marriage customs are “endogamous”.

As one of my favourite intellectuals – a French anthropologist called Emmanuel Todd, known to the Anglo-Internet mostly for his bizarre opinion that the Euro-economy is racing ahead of the US economy, but better than that at anthropology, trust me – puts it, in his brilliant book (which fully lives up to its amazingly confident title) The Explanation of Ideology:

From Morocco to Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, a single family form dominates, its unique trait being preferential marriage between paternal parallel-cousins. Typical of the Muslim world and not simply of the Arab one, this characteristic can be observed in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and among Berbers of Algerian or of Morocco. …

This does not apply to all Muslim societies, because Islam conquered some non-endogamous societies on its perimeter in its early time of military supremacy. But it does apply to the Muslim heartland.

Here in the West, alliances and cooperative ventures that go beyond mere clan membership are commonplace. You may not like, for example, the Labour Party, but at least its upper echelons are not confined to people who are all related to one another. Yet Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to take one particularly famous example, was ruled by a clan all of whom lived in one town, and old habits die hard.

One result (among many) of this peculiar fact is a society in which them and us remain permanently divided. Islam, in Islamic minds, is irreconcilably divided from the rest of us, and similar them/us divisions afflict Muslim society itself. We in the West indulge in plenty of themming and ussing, so to speak. I am, after all, doing it in this posting. But the Islamic version of this habit is now, I think it is fair to say, far more absolute.

This could have been a very, very long posting, but I will keep it short and just say that I think this explains a lot.

27 comments to Reflections on a wedding

  • Another problem is inbreeding. It turns out that these customs are so pervasive in some areas, and have been going on for so long, that they’ve started having health consequences. I recall reading that it’s a particular problem in Saudi Arabia.

  • One could make similar comments about the clannishness of my own ancestors, Gaelic-speaking people in Ireland and Scotland. Arguably, this is why the English were successful in dividing and conquering the rest of the British Isles. Then they turned around and used that very clannishness to be militarily successful in their colonial efforts overseas, forming the Scottish regiments primarily of extended family groups, intensely cohesive because of family loyalties, used to fighting as a group, and marching them off to war far from home where they could not effectively rebel.

    Trust of ‘the other’ was slow coming in that society. As Russ Nelson touches peripherally on this in his article about Trust (Link).

    Societies’ efficiencies are harmed by the high transaction costs (economically, socially, and politically) of a culture that lacks in trust. When it is perfectly morally acceptable to classify humans into divisions of “the people” and “not-people”, masters and slaves, dar-al-islam and dar-al-harb, then there can be no trust.

  • toolkien

    Picking up Thebastidge’ thought that Western cultures once were more similar to Eastern and Mid-Eastern cultures.

    That was the case, but we somehow managed to move beyond such contructs birthed in the age of rationalism, classical liberalism, and individualism. That has yet to happen in the Middle East. That is why, IMO, they simply vacillate back and forth between various forms or authortarianism.

  • Guy Herbert

    Isn’t that clan system (like so many other things that we lazily think of as Islamic) not Islamic culture, but Arab culture, and a shared feature of other pastoral nomadic cultures?

  • Thon Brocket

    Hypothesis: the kind of clannishness and inbreeding Brian describes is typical of pre-industrial societies. It was the Industrial Revolution and its attendant mixing and moving of populations that changed it all for us. The Muslim world never had an IR.

  • Jonathan L


    Hole in One

    I live in a society that is effectively going through the industrial revolution right now. The difference in marriage habits of the rural and urban populations is chalk and cheese. The peasants still largely marry cousins, whilst the city dwellers are much freer to choose from a wider gene pool.

    Where wealth is largely held in land, marriage outside the clan creates problems. In modern societies, wealth is primarily human capital and so there are no economic penalties for casting the net wider. In fact the economic benefits of doing so are much better.

  • Guy Herbert

    Not sure it is industry that makes the difference. Cities do. The observation of the cultural divide between desert monotheism and civilized polytheism goes back to the Enlightenment.

    To live in a city you have to trust and tolerate your neighbour much more than if you manage roaming livestock. A herdsman on the other hand (more so than a peasant, who must maintain some relationships with neighbours) is rewarded by a habit of suspicion and aggression.

    It is when rulers start to regard themselves as herdsmen that you are really in trouble.

  • zmollusc

    Without fornication there can be no marriage and without marriage there can be no diplomacy – Richard IV

  • David Crawford

    So, rather than your American hillbilly of popular legend, your average Muslim is a cousin-marrying, in-bred people.

    No wonder that they are such fucking retards.

  • talking carp

    For people interested in the theme of inbreeding and in-group/out-group bias, see Gene Expression and http://www.isteve.com

  • Susan

    Isn’t that clan system (like so many other things that we lazily think of as Islamic) not Islamic culture, but Arab culture, and a shared feature of other pastoral nomadic cultures?

    Guy: Because of the Sunnah (the collected sayings and doings of Mohammad and his Sahaba, or sacred companions — Arab tribalism, Arab culture, Arab traditions have been hard-coded into Islam. There is really no difference.

  • mike

    So, nuanced qualifications aside, the thesis here is something like:

    (a) ‘Endogenous’ family structure – collectivist ideology
    (b) ‘Exogenous’ family structure – individualist ideology

    And yet collectivist ideologies are not unknown in societies with an ‘exogenous’ family structure (French socialism for example). There must logically therefore be some other explanations for the ideological differences among societies – and family structure cannot thus be ‘the’ explanation as the book’s title proclaims.

  • mike

    Picking up on points by toolkien and thon, I’m sure they are right in pointing out that rationalism, liberalism and the Industrial Revolution are not really compatible with a collectivist ideology.

    But neither rationalism nor liberalism were ‘invented’ during the Enlightenment (think of the Greeks), and the importance of the Industrial Revolution was in terms of the social change (breakdown of land-based tribal feudalism) engendered by economic pressure.

    Perhaps what the Arabic/Muslim world is experiencing now in the increasing intensity of its contact with the West is their equivalent of our Industrial Revolution – in the sense of massive pressure for the breakdown of old, now malfunctional social forms (or maybe I’m being optimistic). What heritage of rationalism does the Arabic/Islamic world have to draw on (as our guys in the Enlightenment drew upon the Greek classics as well as Christian works)? They did have scientists and philosophers during the Ottaman Empire, no?

  • eoin

    You are being optomistic, Mike, because the Ottoman empire was in control of most of the area that had been civilised by Greek civilisation. If the society remained endogamous in spite of that, it is hardly going to change now with contect with a “muti-cultural” Europe in continual relative decline. Group evolutionary theory indicates that endogamous socities are more stable, that endogamous sub-populations tend be more evolutionary fit, that few people defect from endogamous cultures, and that the endogamous culture is more agressive in it’s own defence. There are few multi-culturalists in these Kin groups. Meanwhile the secular multi-cultural society finds it hard to defend itself, even it’s secularism, and many European countries are contemplating laws which ban the criticism of mad clerics, but not the clerical criticism of benign secularism. Which is madness, of course, but a product of patholigical anti-tribalism.

    Long term – in the hundreds of years – we would expect endogamous societies to overwhelm exogamous cultures.

  • mike

    Eoin: yes I am being optimistic. Bone-idle as well I might add, but your post is interesting and I have some questions for you:

    1) You point out that the Ottoman Empire remained an endogenous society in spite of covering with the area formerly civilized by the Greeks. Aside from questions about the specific means of cultural influence and change, why do you think (as you seem to) that a society with ‘endogenous’ family structures will be more resistant to change under external pressures than any other? I cannot see the connection, neither in your post nor in Brian Micklethwait’s aticle.

    2) I am reasonably familiar with evolutionary theory and its’ relevance to the social sciences, but could you explain what you mean by ‘group’ evolutionary theory?

    3) I don’t understand quite how secular society is difficult to defend – or has difficulty defending itself. Seems to me that secularism is doing pretty well at defending itself from religious subversion (though not all bloggers here agree with this). Maybe you can enlighten me?

  • eoin

    1) endogenous cultures will resist change because of strong cultural values which keep “in-group” members within the culture. These cultures tend to have honor killings if someone tries to marry outside the group, or a person leaving the group, or culture, is shamed and shunned. The In-Group does not have to be related, in fact – early Christianity was had strong in-group tendencies although it also tried to proletyse. Islam is similar. A good example of In-Group cohesiveness is Catholic resistance during the penal laws in Ireland : Catholics were forbidden to own horses over a certain value, could be removed from their land, were not allowed to be educated, were not available for government jobs, and a lot more besides. All they had to do to avoid all that was convert to Anglicanism – which was, rather than a countrywide discrimination – the aim of the laws. Some individuals did convert; however they were shunned by the local communities and kin groups: a fate, for many in strong societies with strong In-Group tendencies, worse than death. Obviously, of course, some also thought they would go to Hell of they converted, in fact Monotheism is a good In-Group ploy, for that reason.

    Conversely, similar ( though less egregious) laws against the Christian Dhimmi in the Arab invasions of North Africa did convert – over time – most of the Christians to Islam – Hellenistic North Africa was more multi-cultural and urbane, prior to the Arab invasion, than Ireland in the 18th century, .

    2) The idea is that “groups” can be seen as having cultures that are evolutionary fit or not , rather than individuals. A culture is fit if it is more cohesive than another group, and if it produces more group offspring than any opposing group over time – either by conversion, or just higher birth rates. Think of history as unfolding across longer times than you are used to thinking of now – say a thousand years. It is a mathematical truism to say that a smaller sub-population with a higher birth rate (and no defectors) will eventually have a greater population than the larger sub-population with a lower birth rate, no matter how much greater the larger sub-population is now as a percentage of the total population. Secular societies show the exact traits you would expect in a dying culture – low birth rates, no group cohesiveness, and no tribal loyalties – quite the opposite, in fact. Result: misery. It would not take that long either – a sub-population at 10% would need 2 generations to have a larger number of births, than the 90% majority culture – if the birth rate of the smaller population is 4 per couple, and the majority population’s birthrate is 1 per couple.

    3) If Secularism were able to defend itself we would not be contemplating laws against criticism of religion, and be faced instead with laws against criticism of secularism.

  • mike

    Thanks eoin. Have some thoughts on this…

    1) My point here was that I couldn’t see any necessary connection between endogenous family structure and greater resistance to change (greater resistance than exogenous family structures). Your response focuses on ‘in-group’ loyalty tactics in general – from shunning to theological ‘threats’ and even honour killings – but I don’t see that these are in any sense specific to endogenous family structures, as they may well be used even when family structure is exogenic (as you admit yourself in mentioning Christianity). I suppose it may be true that such in-group loyalty tactics may be more strongly associated with endogenous family structures, but then, as a response to my original point, I would like an explanation for why this should be so. In-group loyalty tactics may indeed make some groups more resistant to change, but perhaps this may depend on the kind of pressure for change being exerted. Economic pressure for example may be severe enough for people to take jobs which are at least much less compatible with a strong and continuous group affiliation.

    2) Sorry, of course you were talking about ‘group’ evolution in cultural terms – got the shivers for a second there… But I wouldn’t give up on secularism just yet. For Britain (for example) to acquire an Islamic majority population within a few generations, current birth-rate trends would need to stay more or less constant. However, we know that they tend to be affected in the downward direction by higher living standards and that higher living standards are arrived at by moving up the economic ladder – therefore the more economic pressure on Muslims, then the more likely (a) they will achieve higher standards of living (and thus lower birth-rates), and (b) they will have to integrate culturally more than they currently are. A first step might be to dismantle/remove the welfare state protecting them from the consequences of cultural isolationism.

    3) I am ignorant – maybe you can tell me more about these ‘laws against criticism of religion’? Also do you know any examples of criticism of secularism that are not left-wing whinges about capitalism? But as for laws against criticism of secularism – is not the ‘spirit’ of secularism criticism itself? A ban on such criticism would thus be self-defeating. I’m reminded of the Apology of Socrates.

  • eoin

    Yes, nobody is saying that human beings could “evolve” in a thousand years, I am asking what is the best group strategy over that length of time, if a culture or group is to remain strong, or even exist.

    I think Mike for points 2 and 3, we now both understand each other, but are more or less optimistic on whether these particular subgroups will assimilate, or not. Certainly there is plenty of middle class assimilation, but that may not be enough – the Middle Classes in Northern Ireland golfed together during the troubles, it was the working classes who fought.

    For point 3 I was making a casual reference to proposed laws – discussed on these boards – by David Blunket to make criticism of religion impossible : the Religious Hate law. He has backed off for now: but there are laws against criticism of Islam in other European countries – Brigette Bardot has fallen foul of the French law.

    The criticism of secularism, or of the West, is of course criticism that comes from the Mullah’s in their Mosques, or any cleric. In short, under Blunket’s law, A Mullah has the right to pour vitriol on the secular society he lives in without reproach, while across the road The National Secular Society in attempting to fight back against Muslim ideology will find itself made illegal, or it’s member’s jailed. From a group evolutionary standpoint – where secular democracy is the cultural “group” – this is clearly madness. You may be right that democracy has these inherent weakness – thinking of history across a thousand years we may conclude that it contains the seeds of it’s own downfall.

  • mike

    I was vaguely aware of Blunkett’s ‘religious hate’ bill, but knew nothing of Bridget Bardot – animal rights woman with Muslim-beef over religious sheep killings!! Dear me..

    I’m no fan of censorship though. One of the things about enlightenment (that so characterises our societies) is that it is intellectually irreversible. Once you know that the earth is round, you can’t go back to believing it is flat. So although mullahs (or anyone else) might pour scorn on our secular society, the individuals who hear these claims are always free to think critically about them, and there will always be sources of counter-criticism for an open mind to turn to.

    If the Islamofascists established an authoritarian reign in Britain or France tommorow, it would not be because they had converted everyone to Islam, but because they had acquired a monopoly over force. The growing Muslim population in Europe is threatened by the variety and accessibility of ideas as much as anything else.

  • Susan

    Bardot has been convicted not once, but three times, of “incitement” against Muslims. Italian journalist and author Oriana Fallaci has been tried in France for the same thing — I don’t recall the case’s outcome. Michel Houllebecq, “bad boy” French novelist du jour, was also tried, simply for stating that he thought “Islam is the most stupid religion” in a magazine interview. Houllebecq was acquited, but lives in seclusion in Ireland and is frankly scared to death of the practiconers of the “religion of peace.”

    In Britain, a man received a one-year sentence for exchanging harsh words with a Muslim in the aftermath of 9-11; a British Council press officer has been fired for writing nasty articles about Islam for the Torygraph; a UK schoolteacher named Hazel Dick was put on trial for allegedly saying nasty things about Islam to one of her Muslim charges (Dick was acquitted by the trail was probably extremely discomfiting); a British vicar is being “investigated” for saying that Islam is evil in an interview with his local newspaper; and of course, most people here are familar with the Kilroy-Silk affair.

    A man writes to the Telegraph this morning regarding the sacking of British Council man:

    “Sir – The BBC sacked Robert Kilroy-Silk in January and now Mr Cummins of the British Council has met the same fate (News, Sep 2) – both for being brave (or stupid) enough to challenge the Muslim interpretation of Islamic history.

    It is a shame that Britain has allowed itself to become such an insecure society, where any criticism of Islam is met with intimidation reminiscent of the anti-Communist McCarthy era in the US.

    The current process of Islamisation of Britain started in the mid-1980s, when Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headmaster who committed the cardinal sin of criticising Islam, was sacked. Since then, this circle of political witch-hunting has widened relentlessly.

    Britain’s Muslims today have separate schools, a separate parliament, a separate bank and a “separate” privilege to have their critics sacked. If this trend of separateness continues unabated, it is only a matter of time before they ask for separate laws (Sharia laws), and eventually a separate country.

    Randhir Singh Bains, Gants Hill, Essex”

    Note that this brave signer is not your stereotypical “Little Englander” but a man sporting a traditional Sikh surname.

  • mike

    Good to have some facts on this, thanks Susan. However, the fact that in most of the cases you mention the accused was aquitted is at least evidence that our judicial system works pretty well don’t you think? Were not most of these cases brought by multi-cultural equal-opportunity zealots? They’re always doing this sort of thing, and are quite often defeated. Bloody right as well.

    However I should point out that in cases of people being sacked from organisations for writing nasty things about Islam – if their employers have good reason to believe that this will interfere with their objectives (I dunno – say a company having to deal with Muslim customers) then they *might* well be justified in sacking them. We don’t like it, but then nobody forces them to work for such organisations in the first place.

  • Susan


    the problem is that, regardless of whether the persecuted people are acquitted or not, the next group of folks will be intimidated into keeping silent.

    That schoolmistress Hazel Dick for instance — she had to endure a very public trial and see her reputation utterly trashed in the multi-culti press. And didn’t she have to pay for legal representation? That is not cheap, especially on a school-teacher’s salary.

    All for the sake of what was obviously a malicious little Muslim girl getting “back” at her teacher for some slight or another.

    Witch hunt? Damn straight, and very frightening.

  • mike

    Susan – you’re right and I’m starting to nod-off. Call me ignorant/lazy (or both, not to mention just tired) but what would you suggest we do to stop these stupid cases being brought to court in the first place? My knowledge of the legal-judicial system has nothing like the subtle and admirable qualities of a squirrel darting through an obstacle course to the sound of James Bond music…

  • Guy Herbert

    Susan: Because of the Sunnah (the collected sayings and doings of Mohammad and his Sahaba, or sacred companions — Arab tribalism, Arab culture, Arab traditions have been hard-coded into Islam. There is really no difference.

    Well that’s certainly what the Islamists claim. But neither we nor muslims in general have to agree with them. Like all compiled texts the Sunnah has an open texture, and problems of internal consistency. It may incorporate features of 7th century Arab society–what else could it do?–but it does not perfectly or completely encode the whole thing.

    There was a broader interpretative tradition in Sunni Islam, which for some reason weakened in earlier times, but is only now driven to the margins by petro-dollar-fuelled rigidity; there still are Sufi sects all over and the place, and Shia has its imams precisely because its tradition doesn’t assume the hadith are complete.

    Gerry Falwell’s teachings may instantiate rural early 20th century American values as the infallible word of God and claim that they are precisely what Jesus taught in first century palestine, and we must assume his supporters sincerely believe it. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the other Christian traditions.

    People everywhere tend to regard their own customs as particularly sanctioned by religion. In parts of sub-saharan Africa, the non-Arabic custom of female genital mutilation is seen as “Islamic” by those otherwise muslim who practice it.

    In religions everywhere the extremists are loudest in claiming the right to define membership of their religion. But if we accept their definition all we do is secure their power. If I dismiss the next Christian I meet as a purblind Falwell-ite, without enquiring as to his actual beliefs and culture, then any possibility of influence or dialogue is lost. Precisely as the reverend Falwell would prefer (since I am in uncountable ways controlled by Satan, deviant, cosmopolitan, and corrupt).

  • Susan

    Guy: You seem to be completely unaware of how extensively the Sunnah codifies human behavior — down to “proper” toilet habits (never take a whizz in the direction of mecca, for example), how to drink water, what foot to step out of bed on, and how many swallows of water one must take at a time. And largely this is based on Arabic culture and customs. Comparing it to Jerry Falwell’s version of Christianity is utterly absurd, a bit of multi-culti sleight of hand that belongs in Al-Guardian, not Samizdata.net.

    Regarding Sufis, they are not all peaceful dervishes. Many Sufis do support violent jihad and rule of Islamic law. It seems to me that the more unorthodox the Islamic sect is (Bahai, Druze, Ismaili), the less problematic it is. And that is due largely to non-Muslim, non-Arabic influences.

    The more closely the Quran and Sunnah are followed, the more “Arabic” it is — the worse it is. You can see today how the syncretic Hindu-Pagan-Islam of Indonesia and Malaysia are now being replaced by a more Orthodox version, that is forcing Arabism on these people.

  • Dunk

    This blog is littered with errors, misjudgements, and frankly a liberal degree of what borders on racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. You are absolutely mistaken in suggesting that the Arabs did not undergo enlightenment, sweeping through in generalisations from the Greeks to the Turkish Ottoman Empire I might add! The Arabs carefuly recorded and preserved most of the Greek philosophy during the ‘Dark Ages’ to be rediscovered via Andalusian Spain. I would enquire of the gentlemen discussing exogenous and endogenous familial structures actually have a clue what their talking about. As for BNP like suggestions of an ‘islamisising’ Britain and the over-use of PC I can only say tosh! You are all over-emphasising western so-called development and the importance of the industrial revolution. Susan you should go and talk to Indonesians about their ‘hindu-pagan-islam’, Mr Singh-Bains where is the UK’s ‘muslim parliament’ located exactly I would like to know… As for the caln system it exists throughout the world in all tribal societies including the dear streets of London. To the last contributor – rubbish read something decent please. The problem underlined by this perverse series of analyses is exactly that found in the mis-managed Iraq war. What right have we to suggest that our secularist, commerciall dominated democracies are the one true way? Here’s a thought for Mr Toolkien – perhaps our europeanised society is not actually that different from the oriental after all….

  • Master of Sidon

    Here’s a thought for Mr Toolkien – perhaps our europeanised society is not actually that different from the oriental after all…

    I lived in Dubai for 4 years, Saudi for 2 hellish years and Lebannon for 2 years and you are, good Mr. Dunk, talking out of your arse. I must have missed all those London clans somehow, or were you thinking of Chelsea Football Club? Arab society is pre extended and bloody primitive and the pan Islamic gloss blinds outsiders to that fact there is no broader civil society.