The lead article in the August issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal reports success in lowering infant mortality rates among Arabs in the Western Galilee. These rates being generally twice as high among Israeli Arabs as among Israeli Jews, by 2002 an Israeli health program launched in the late 1980s had lowered the rate among Western Galilee Arabs to about 1.5 that of the Jews in the area.
The program found three main factors causing the high rates among the Arabs: infections, home births, and diseases resulting from inbreeding. About 40 percent of Muslim and Druze women and 70 percent of Bedouin women in the region were found to be married to first—or second-degree relatives.
Through an information campaign, the infant mortality from infections and home births has almost been eliminated in Western Galilee. The health program is now trying to tackle the inbreeding problem, using ultrasound screening for pregnant women in consanguineous marriages, articles in the media, and study days for health workers, schoolteachers, and religious and community leaders on the harmful effects of inbreeding. The program emphasizes the fact that consanguineous marriage is in no way mandated by Islam.
Rooted in ancient custom, consanguinity is nonetheless widespread in the Arab world; for example, a 1989 study in Iraq found 53 percent of the subjects to be consanguineously married. One result is the prevalence of extended clans that lead to nepotism and lower levels of identification with the state. The clan structure is a major factor in the Arab world’s endemic corruption and lack of civil society.
But if, as the Israeli study highlights, inbreeding is also a major cause of disease, another conclusion seems inescapable. Just as modern medicine recognizes genetic sources of many physical illnesses, modern psychology recognizes genetic components in many psychological problems including criminality. Presumably, a region where inbreeding is rife—and reinforced through successive generations—should also have a greater frequency of such mental ailments. Though, not surprisingly, there seem to have been no studies in that regard given the delicacy of the subject, the high levels of social pathology, violence, and terrorism in the Arab world suggest that inbreeding is one of the causes.
Such observations are not, of course, comfortable because they are likely to inspire absurd charges of racism. Racism, of course, is not the issue; inbreeding is equally bad for all kinds of people, but Arabs happen to practice it. Indeed, in today’s world it is found mainly in a salient extending from Morocco to Southern India.
Skeptics about attempts to reform or democratize the Arab world often point to Islam as a factor more fundamental than political practices such as elections. It seems they should also emphasize the separate problem of inbreeding. Although it would require great resources, it may be that programs like the Israeli one in Western Galilee could contribute more to helping the Arab world overcome its problems than strictly political reforms for which it may not be ready.