Syria is submerged in civil war. The Sunni and the Shi’ia of Iraq are renewing their 1300-year-old conflict. Libyan rebels have shut down the nation’s oil industry. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been suppressed and is resorting to terrorism. Pakistan is a cauldron of violence and assassinations. In short, the Muslim world, as usual, is at war with itself.
This is not a contemporary phenomenon. Islam has been attacking its neighbors ever since the Prophet Mohammed received the Koran from the Angel Gabriel in the 7th century. Within 50 years of his death, Muslim armies had conquered the known world from Spain to Afghanistan. The Moguls invaded India, setting off a conflict that persists today. The Ottoman Empire besieged Europe for hundreds of years before its collapse in the 20th century. As historian Samuel Huntington has written, Islam has always had “bloody borders.”
Is there any explanation for this? Is it temperament or history? Is it the inevitable fight over scarce resources? Or, as Muslim cultures would insist, is it because Islam has always been surrounded by hostile neighbors?
In my book, Marriage and Civilization, I offer a novel explanation as to why Islam has always been at war with itself and others. It is because Islam it is the only major religious culture that embraces polygamy.
Polygamy? What does that have to do with anything? Am I suggesting that because some minor sheik outside Baghdad takes two wives, two young Muslim brothers in Massachusetts feel compelled to blow up the Boston Marathon?
Well, yes. In any human society there are approximately the same number of men and women. Under monogamy, which limits each man to one wife, everyone gets a fair chance to marry. When powerful and successful men are allowed to take more than one wife, however, as they are in a polygamous society, this creates a pool of unsuccessful men at the bottom of society who are constantly in conflict with the system.
The history of Islam has been one continuous story of rebel groups off in the desert and deciding that the religion being practiced by the authorities and their harems back in the cities is not the “true Islam.” They come crashing back upon the palaces, overthrowing the leaders (no Ottoman Sultan ever died of natural causes) and establishing a new regime that is just like the old one, where powerful are allowed to take multiple wives.
The Prophet Muhammad had a novel solution to this problem. Go and conquer neighboring societies and requisition their women. If you die in the process, the reward will be even greater – 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven! “Jihad” has been a clever and effective way of redirecting the hostilities of the “bachelor herd” that polygamy inevitably produces.
The fruits of polygamy are visible all over the Middle East. Because women are always in short supply, families can charge a “bride price” to any man who wants to marry their daughter. Because daughters are now worth money, they must be veiled and sequestered so they don’t run off with some callow youth. Older men desperate for wives push down into younger and younger cohorts of the population. Marriages between 35-year-old men and 13-year-old girls become common. (Muhammad’s last wife was age six.)
But the main product of polygamy is a population of angry young men who are ripe recruits for terrorism. The Koran supposedly limits a man to four wives but in countries where there are vast disparities of wealth this is routinely violated. Osama bin Laden’s father, a successful Saudi businessman, had 22 wives and 54 children. The unbalance between unmarried men and the available women in Saudi Arabia is the highest in the world. Is it any wonder that 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi nationals?
Ann Coulter once suggested that we would cure Muslim violence by converting the Islamic world to Christianity. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Christianity’s long enforcement of monogamous marriage has obviously played a critical role in establishing the more peaceful civilization of the West. The same can be said for China and India, where the vast majority adhere to monogamy. None of these cultures is plagued with the endless internal violence and outward aggression of Islam.
Converting the Muslim world to Christianity may be out of the question, but persuading it to give up polygamy on the grounds that it creates an inherently unstable society is a task that the rest of the world might be willing to undertake.