Stanley Kurtz is a columnist for National Review Online, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Hoover Institute (both conservative think tanks). For several years, he has been one of the leading figures in the neo-con attack on US scholars of the Middle East, arguing that their work is either irrelevant to the current crisis of the "war on terrorism" or that that they are "soft" on terrorism. As Juan Cole has noted, Kurtz is not trained in Middle East studies. According to his Hudson Institute bio, he has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard, formerly specialized in family life and religion, and more recently has focused on the US "culture wars." Kurtz's writing is symptomatic of the new battlefront of the "culture wars" -- no longer is the main concern of right-wing culture warriors "multiculturalism," as in the early 1990s or, as in more recent battles, gay homosexuality, "political correctness" on college campus or affirmative action. Now it's about campus critics of US imperialism and, in particular, critics of the US occupation of Iraq and unstinting US support for the policies of the state of Israel.
Kurtz recently displayed his anthropology training in two articles for National Review ("Marriage and the War on Terror, Part I and Part II".) A member of the MERIP family, who prefers to remain anonymous, offers the following commentary:
Anthropologists are perhaps feeling a bit chuffed about right now. Corporate marketers are adopting their qualitative methodologies to better understand how people choose and use the commercial products they shill. The Defense Department, revisiting the infamous Vietnam-era Operation Camelot, is drawing on their expertise in small group organization to rewrite their counterinsurgency manuals, and is deploying their ethnographic insights into a supposed Arab "honor-shame complex" (spelled out in Raphael Patai's 1973 book The Arab Mind) to refine torture techniques (as Seymour Hersh and others have documented). And now -- in perhaps anthropologists' greatest moment of triumph -- the neo-conservative right, in the figure of Stanley Kurtz (himself a Harvard-trained anthropologist), in a two-part National Review Online article entitled "Marriage and the Terror War," has decided that anthropology holds the key to answering the current $64,000 question: why Muslims are prone to terrorism or, in any event, are not cut out for modernity.
The answer which Kurtz proffers is (patrilateral) parallel-cousin marriage, the bête noire of anthropological studies of kinship which has puzzled anthropologists for at least half a century. Parallel-cousin marriage, as Kurtz informs us, is the marriage between "descendants of same-sex siblings." In its extreme form -- that of the marriage of the sons and daughters of two brothers (what anthropologists denote as "father's brother's daughter (or FBD) marriage) -- it appears (even to someone as perspicacious as Claude Lévi-Strauss) a veritable scandal of endogamy (in-marriage), dangerously close to incest. In Kurtz's rendition, this "widespread Middle Eastern marriage practice" creates a self-sealing effect on "Islamic" societies and perpetuates a "deep-lying bias toward in group solidarity" that "serves to shelter Muslim society from the interaction with forces of modernity." It tends to "organize and orchestrate... controversial practices" like "full-body veiling, the seclusion of women, forced marriages, honor killing and the like," and, moreover, helps to explain "why Muslim immigrants resist assimilation, and why some Muslims are attacking us."
Kurtz's article is impressive as a primer on the history and contemporary debates within kinship theory, translating notoriously complex technical language into easily understandable prose. Moreover, it is laudable in its emphasis on kinship as a still important feature of the world today. Indeed, anthropologists will have much to be thankful for if his article results in the swelling of student interest in their otherwise under-enrolled kinship classes.
The problem is that Kurtz gets it wrong. Or, rather, like an overzealous schoolboy, learns the lesson without understanding what he has learned. He relies on a pseudo-structuralist/structural-functionalist theory of "cultural rules" in which, apparently, humans robotically follow precepts without any say or agency in making their choices and living their lives. Such a theory of culture is not only retrograde, but ultimately un-anthropological. Since the 1970s, anthropologists have insisted that culture is not a rulebook of behavior, but rather a set of values and orientations that organize (but in no way determine) diverse social practices and allow people to make sense of the world around them. Moreover, anthropologists have emphasized that what people think (about their culture) and what they do are extremely different things altogether. To argue from a rule-based theory of kinship (putatively via the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss or the structural-functionalism of Murphy/Kasdan), while ignoring current anthropological thinking on the subject, is like mounting a biological argument from the basis of a theory of spontaneous generation.
More drastically, Kurtz conveniently ignores the most basic facts that don't lead to his preconceived conclusion that Islam is incompatible with modernity. He regularly conflates Islam and the Middle East, forgetting that the majority of Muslims live outside of the area in South Asia, Southeast Asia and China, where parallel-cousin marriage is by no means preferred. He neglects the fact that parallel-cousin marriage long preceded Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, and that it is still idealized and to one extent or another practiced by men and women of Christian and Jewish descent who live in the region. While he searches hard, following Korotayev (Ethnology 2000), for the "functional connection" that would link parallel-cousin marriage to Islam, the best he can come up with, following Ladislav Holy (Kinship, Honour and Solidarity: Cousin Marriage in the Middle East), is the idea that in-marriage secures "family honor." While it is certainly the case that "honor" is an old anthropological trope to describe Mediterranean (Muslim AND Christian) societies, it is by no means a particular or necessary features of these societies. And, to his credit, Kurtz doesn't try to mount an implausible textual or theological argument to show why honor or parallel-cousin marriage is particularly Islamic.
One might retort that although there is no inherent connection between Islam and parallel-cousin marriage, it is hard to deny that it is preferred in the region of the Middle East and North Africa, which happens to made up of majority-Muslim societies. And, indeed, when anthropologists have interviewed Muslims from this region, they have tended to underline parallel-cousin marriage as a central aspect of their societies. But, again, what people say and what they actually do is by no means the same thing. Genealogical and statistical studies from throughout the region consistently demonstrate that parallel-cousin marriage is a marginal phenomenon that only occurs in a small minority of alliances. French ethnologist Pierre Bourdieu's findings based on genealogies taken in Kabylia in the 1960s demonstrated that, while a large number of folk married within their local village, only a very small number (6 percent) married within their lineage, and only 4 percent of total marriages were with parallel cousins. The remaining 2 percent were with cross-cousins, which does indicate a relative preference for parallel-cousin marriage, but only within a very rare number of cases of endogamous marriage (Outline of a Theory of Practice, pp. 209-210, n. 86).
But, perhaps the Maghrib is the exception, being relatively far from the center of Islamic life. However, the Mashriq (Middle East proper) proves to be no different. Fuad Khuri, based on statistical evidence from Lebanon shortly after Borudieu's study, found similar results, with only about 14 percent of marriages occurring within the lineage and 11 percent with close parallel cousins ("Parallel-Cousin Marriage Reconsidered," Man (n.s.) 5, 1970, statistical tables from p. 599). And, like with Bourdieu's case, these are small village settings that, according to the self-sealing principles Kurtz claims, should be insular to the point of incestuous. All of which indicates that Kurtz's premise, that parallel-cousin marriage is "widespread" among Muslims, is spurious at best.
Moreover, it is clear both in the contemporary period and throughout history that an avowed preference (and minimal practice) of parallel-cousin marriage has never been the impediment to cross-cultural communication, in spite of Kurtz's arguments to the contrary. People from the region -- Muslim or otherwise -- have been cultural mediators par excellence, as traders and travelers, scholars and sojourners abroad. Middle Eastern and North African societies have readily adopted cultural forms from the outside, be it in terms of religion (how else would have Islam spread so fast and so far?), language, technology, politics, philosophy, etc. What we see today in the region is a sedimentation of diverse influences from Africa, Asia and Europe, a sedimentation which continues to adapt and transform in relationship to new cultural and material influences from places as far afield as India, Hong Kong and, yes, the United States.
For all of these reasons, Kurtz's attempt to argue for Islamic incompatibility with modernity fails to live up to the empirical evidence. His recourse to an explanation of cultural essentialism (that Muslims supposedly act in a certain way because of deep-seated cultural tendencies) only serves to absolve the US government or military of any responsibility in the current "war on terror" by transforming it into an inevitable "clash of civilizations" or "war of cultures," or by painting US martial practices as merely a necessary reaction to a primordial, xenophobic rage against otherness that lies wholly within the Islamic world. But, in the end, no matter how much Kurtz sugarcoats his rhetoric with anthropological verbiage, it is his own fundamental Islamophobia that ultimately pushes through.