Tue 10 Oct 2006
There are multiple ways of looking at polygamy, but in an op-ed piece this summer William Tucker did so with blinders on. His July 26 op-ed piece, called “How polygamy fuels terrorism” foolishly fuels nonsense instead.
I suppose enterprising American pundits like William Tucker need to find things to say for weekly (or shall I say weakly?) columns. In the column Tucker cites the permission for polygyny in Islam as a catalyst for jihad and terrorism. “Polygamy creates dysfunctional societies,” he claims. “’Jihad’ and its perpetual social unrest are unlikely to disappear until it is eliminated,” he concludes.
Since Tucker appeals to anthropology for his moralistic swipe at polygyny, I feel compelled to respond first as an anthropologist. Consider the following claim: “The consensus among anthropologists is that humanity spent the first 4 million to 5 million years of our evolutionary history living monogamously in small hunting-and-gathering tribes. We know this because the few hunter-gatherers that remain – the Kalahari bushmen, the pygmies of Africa, the Australian aborigines – are all monogamous.” I would like to know which anthropologists he is reading. It is, of course, not possible to trace monogamy or polygamy in early fossils, but there are a number of reasons why the pair-bonding “monogamy” idea (pushed a long time ago by zoologist Desmond Morris) is problematic. The other apes are not monogamous (even gibbons only appear to be monogamous but are apt to “cheat” when given a chance). Indeed, the size of the human male organ and our sexual dimorphism suggests a rather promiscuous evolutionary past akin to chimps. There is a readable discussion of all this in Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It? (Anchor Books, 1995).
Polygamy (almost always polygyny, which is having multiple wives) is allowed in a majority of societies, although the number of such marriages is always small. Anthropologists look at polygamy as socioeconomic practice, not in Christian moral hindsight. This linking of polygamy and jihad is a moralistic trope widely used in the past by Christian missionaries to Africa and the Middle East. Nor do anthropologists think that pygmies or aborigines represent a prime example for earlier hominids. Take an intro anthropology course, Tucker…
He continues with a caveat: “Today polygamy is not practiced widely in Islamic countries, but there is a firm residue of about 10 percent of all marriages. The country where the distribution of wives is most unequal – Saudi Arabia – seems to be the best at producing roving jihadists who roam the world in search of conflict.” I very much doubt that 10% of marriages among Muslims are polygnyous; it is usually only an option for the wealthy. Many Muslims take to heart the Quranic admonition to treat each wife equally (a virtually impossible challenge) and remain monogamous. Nor does this necessarily translate into a shortage of brides, as Tucker suggests. Indeed, the stated reason for Islam allowing up to four wives was due to a lack of Muslim men for the orphaned daughters of the early believers. If Tucker is right, then a country like Qatar or Kuwait (which has a relative high percentage of polygnyous marriages) should be rife with suicide bombers.
The chief howler is the following: “The absence of a norm of a ‘man for every woman, a woman for every man’ also creates an entirely different male psychology. At one extreme, men consider their own lives to be worthless and expendable because they will not have the chance to reproduce. At the other extreme, they are promised ‘72 virgins in heaven.’ Sometimes the extremes converge.” If this is true, then we should be wary of all celebate Catholic priests as “jihadists” in the making! And never, ever, take a vacation in Mormon Utah.
I am not quite sure how a desire to reproduce is satisfied by heavenly sex with 72 virgins unless Tucker thinks Islam preaches reincarnation. If the failure to reproduce is an inducement for terrorism, is a man who uses a condom more likely to become a jihadist? Individuals obsessed with sex or the lack thereof do not need to wait until they get to heaven (and few of this sort will get there anyway) when they can rape women in this world. In fact rates of rape are lower in the Islamic Middle East than they are in Western countries. Every two and a half minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.
The chief problem with Tucker’s absurd commentary is that it ignores the political reasons that motivate individuals engaged in acts of violence for a cause. Jihad is a complex issue within the history of Islam, but history suggests that it is far more a political than a theological or psychoanalytic point. Tucker writes as thought the victims of most of these bombs are in the West. Sensational news stories keep the World Trade Center and London subway bombings in the limelight, but most victims are not in the West and many target fellow Muslims. Why is it so hard to admit that uncritical American support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the unilateral taking over of Afghanistan and Iraq are not sufficient to drive some individuals to extreme acts? Suicide bombing, which is hardly unique to Muslim extremists, is better understood by reading Machiavelli than Freud or Luther.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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