Does polygamy cause violence?

A still from a video produced by the Economist, showing African child soldiers, one of them (a boy aged about 10 or 11) holding an assault rifle, with the words "Polygamy is practiced in all of the 20 most unstable countries in the world" in capital letters at the bottom, and the Economist's logo in the top left hand cornerA few months ago The Economist put out a video on its Facebook page which tried to make the case that polygamy made a society more violent and prone to civil war. I noticed at the time that the video was very weak in its arguments and relied on presenting correlation (and a dubious correlation at that) as causation and making generalisations about the cultures where polygamy occurs. Last week they reposted the video, titled What’s Wrong with Having More Than One Wife?, and have not changed it at all; there is no link to any article which would flesh out some of the claims made in the video, though the Economist did actually publish one last November, which hilariously claims:

This is one of the reasons why the Arab Spring erupted, why the jihadists of Boko Haram and Islamic State were able to conquer swathes of Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, and why the polygamous parts of Indonesia and Haiti are so turbulent. Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are. The taking of multiple wives is a feature of life in all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace, an NGO.

(Note: the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, where polygamy had been illegal since the 1950s, and was motivated by political corruption, tyranny and impoverishment in all the countries affected.)

The video starts out by claiming:

Countries in which men can have more than one wife are more violent. How does polygamy destabilise society? If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this fate.

This claim makes enormous assumptions about societies in which polygamy is legal. It assumes that whenever polygamy is legal, most men will seek to marry polygamously, particularly the richest and most powerful. It assumes that women will not marry for love but simply for money and prestige, or that she will have no say in the matter at all but will be married off for these reasons by her family. In fact, not all men want the complications of having more than one wife; they do not want to deal with wives who are jealous of each other or families who resent what it means for their daughter or sister to be her husband’s number two, or be ‘replaced’ by a number two (or more). In some societies, polygamy is a social imperative for men and having more wives is a sign of social status and wealth; in others, it is not, even if it is legal.

The limit of four wives is specific to Islam; this video’s example of South Sudan (see below) is not a Muslim country and there are countries where chiefs and other powerful men have many more wives than that while polygamy is rare in wider society (e.g. Swaziland). In the most extreme example, the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints in the USA and Canada (where polygamy is illegal but tolerated if done unofficially) expelled young men from their community because they were a rival to them for wives. But these are rare, extreme examples.

Polygamy is banned in all western societies, but it’s common in the Islamic world, parts of Asia and Africa.

Polygamy was banned in Europe (before the notion of “the west”, including the Americas, became known of) well before it became a well-developed civilisation; when it was a set of impoverished, warring kingdoms dominated to one extent or another by the Pope where learning was restricted to the religious orders and thus most people could not read or write, polygamy was banned then as well. Many of the most vicious wars of the 20th century took place or had their origins in Europe or in other places where polygamy was banned.

In South Sudan, more than 40% of marriages are polygamous, so there is a shortage of brides. It can cost 100 cows to get married. Poor young men cannot afford this, so some of them are tempted to pick up a gun and steal cows from neighbouring villages. Thousands of people are killed in cattle raids every year. This is one reason why South Sudan is blighted by civil war. For many young men the alternative to war is celibacy.

South Sudan is also a country which lacks any cultural, linguistic or ethnic coherence. It has no major native language; the various groups which came together to secure independence from Sudan have only the fact that they are not Arabs and Muslims in common. The name of the country (which is of Arabic origin) rather gives this away. There being a large number of men unable to marry is of course a destabilising factor but there can be other causes for this in different countries — a shortage of women as a result of son preference, unreasonably high bride-prices or dowries — but polygamy features in societies with both these features and neither. The solution is to make marriage easier for young men so there are fewer of them hanging around and “sowing their wild oats” when they could be married and helping with their domestic responsibilities.

Polygamous societies are bloodier and more prone to collapse. Polygamy is practiced in all of the 20 most unstable countries in the world.

This claim is based on the Fragile States Index, published by the Fund for Peace; there is a map here and a table on Wikipedia here. The twenty most unstable countries from the most unstable are: South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Haiti, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Burundi, Eritrea and Pakistan. On the other hand, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are all countries where polygamy is widely practised and are all in the ‘stable’ category although Qatar’s stability rating has worsened from 2017 as a result of the sanctions imposed by its neighbours.

It is very clear that polygamy is not a major cause of the instability in many of the most unstable countries. Many of them are former colonies whose borders were imposed on them by European powers in the 19th century and bear no relation to linguistic or cultural boundaries but were simply a way for European powers to divide up Africa’s resources between themselves. Anyone who has studied African politics will know that this has been a major cause of political strife and war since many of the former colonies became independent. In others, there are religious conflicts (Yemen, Afghanistan, CAR), strongmen who refuse to let go of power and who hold grudges (Syria, Zimbabwe, Eritrea), debts imposed by foreign powers (most of the list but particularly Haiti), and foreign interference, particularly as a result of the post-2001 “war on terror” and by powers that regard the countries concerned as part of their “sphere of influence” (Syria, Iraq). One cannot blame polygamy in Yemen for Saudis bombing the country with munitions brought from the UK and USA, or the fact that the United States invaded Iraq and was subsequently so incompetent and brutal that they allowed another violent Islamist movement to emerge out of the ashes of the one they had tried to destroy. Polygamy has nothing to do with the conflicts in most of these countries and in some of them there are whole groups that do not practise it.

This is not to say that as a Muslim I believe all men should have four wives if they can afford it, but it is ridiculous to blame polygamy for the instability in a number of countries which have suffered colonialism, the debt burden and foreign invasion. There are often good reasons to allow polygamy; when a society needs to rebuild itself after the death of a large number of marriageable young men after a war, plural marriage allows this to happen more quickly rather than does the western approach of leaving some women unmarried (which some would prefer, but others would not) while others were expected to spend their entire adult life pregnant or nursing children. There are some women who might not want to spend their most of their time in their husband’s house, or who are in a demanding profession that means their time for raising children is limited (e.g. medicine), or who do not want to have children but still want the companionship that marriage brings. So, it is not just about men enhancing their status or finding outlets for their sexual desires.

How can a respected magazine, read by people with university degrees who are upwardly mobile and work in big finance houses and have aspirations to run major British companies, put out a video with an argument totally based on a textbook logical fallacy and which completely ignores every other factor in the instability of the countries they are talking about, including western interference? It rather reminds me of something an old headmaster of a school I went to used to say in his morning assembly lectures: “so much for so-called intelligentsia”. Polygamy does not make societies prone to collapse and monogamy is not a great guarantor of stability.

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