Professor sparks “Muslim outrage”. Or does he?

An academic’s comments about “inbreeding” give right-wing papers an excuse to flag up tired stereoty

Apparently Professor Steve Jones, a biologist at University College London, has "enraged" British Muslims and "sparked a political storm".

The offending comments were made during a talk at the Hay Festival. Jones said:

There may be some evidence that cousins marrying one another can be harmful. We should be concerned about that as there can be a lot of hidden genetic damage. Children are much more likely to get two copies of a damaged gene . . . Bradford is very inbred. There is a huge amount of cousins marrying each other there.

It is indisputable that his choice of wording – "inbred" – is unfortunate. But it's also rather telling that the only papers which have chosen to report this story are the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Star, none of which is noted for its tolerant stance on Muslims.

In fact, this smacks of right-wing newspapers using any excuse to flag up tired stereotypes and demonise Muslims. Less "Muslim outrage" than "Daily Mail readers'" outrage, if you will. This is borne out by the comments on the Mail piece, most of which are of the "truth hurts" variety.

The Daily Star goes for the truly farcical opening line "Muslims are inbreeding so much it is causing birth defects in British babies", at once vilifying all Muslims and taking ownership of their offspring.

Let's get a few facts straight. About 70 per cent of the one million British Pakistanis are from one region of Pakistan: Mirpur. Mirpuris do, indeed, place a particular weight on marriage to first cousins. I wrote a piece about the Mirpuri community in Bradford last August which explains this:

The Mirpuri community particularly emphasises clan loyalty, or biraderi, manifested in marriage to first cousins. Studies suggest that 60 per cent of all Mirpuri marriages are to a first cousin, with a substantial proportion of the remainder being between more distant relatives. While other south Asian immigrants tend to work outwards from the family unit through marriage, Mirpuris reinforce existing connections, producing intensely bound communities . . .

In Mirpur, such marriages secure the status of the biraderi against other clans, and also allow the family to retain its land and property. In a transnational context, they permit people to give their families access to better opportunities.

So, yes: cousin marriage is prevalent in Bradford. There is a discussion to be had about this – which the apparently "outraged" Muslims quoted in the Mail piece say themselves. To me, they sound reasonable rather than furious, pointing out that stigmatising language such as "inbred" is unhelpful.

But there is a substantial semantic leap from "Bradford" or "Mirpur" to "Muslims" or even "Pakistanis". While cousin marriage is legal in Islam and tolerated among most Muslims, the same emphasis is not placed on it in other regions of Pakistan. My own experience (my mother's family hails from Karachi, the urbanised centre of Sindh) is that it may have been common in my grandmother's generation, but is certainly not so among my peers.

Reducing "Muslims" to a single homogeneous group – "them" – rather than the reality, which is a hugely varied world population of one billion people with a huge range of opinion and practice, is dangerous, yet all too common.

The singling out of "Muslims" is also pernicious, when cousin marriage is prevalent across Asia. Hinduism is not uniform on the subject – while those in northern India prohibit the practice, those in the south strongly favour it. This is seen in the states of Kerala, Andra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The reasoning behind this kinship structure is similar to that outlined above: securing property and status. Buddhists sanction marriage between first cousins, as do Zoroastrians.

To his credit, Professor Jones did point out that "inbreeding" happens in other cultures, too – a fact that the Telegraph and the Mail both bury at the bottom of their copy.

The subject of cousin marriage is certainly ripe for debate – many British Muslims abhor the practice, while others suggest genetic screening to avoid the replication of faulty genes. But peddling false Muslim outrage as a way to reproduce gross simplifications and paint Muslims as "the other" – a separate species that is inbreeding its way to oblivion – is certainly not the way to raise these issues.

Then again, having a sensible discussion clearly isn't what any of the papers in question wanted to do.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The promises of Brexit can't be kept. You can only decide which bits to betray

Vote Leave's great success was in presenting a menu of contradictory options as if they could all be secured. 

If Britain leaves the European Union but retains its membership of the single market and the customs union, has it really left? Barry Gardiner doesn’t think so. Labour’s shadow trade secretary, writing for the Guardian, argues that to satisfy those who voted Leave, Britain must regain control of its own borders – forcing it out of the single market in order to lose free movement rights – and its own laws, forcing it out of both the customs union and single market to avoid regulatory harmonisation.

Jeremy Corbyn has argued that single market membership and EU membership are one and the same, as has Caroline Flint. They have kept the options open on the customs union. Are they right?

As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to explain what drove Britain’s Brexit vote without conceding that objections to the rules of the single market played a significant role. Gardiner is undoubtedly right to say that two of the biggest drivers of the vote were control over borders and laws, both of which cannot be achieved while remaining within the single market. Neither can the third biggest driver, which was more money for public services in general and the NHS in particular – that £350m a week. Because if the United Kingdom retains its single market membership, it will continue to “send money to Brussels”.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one. The first problem is that while the majority of people who voted to leave did so for reasons that cannot be fulfilled if we remain in the single market, those votes weren’t enough to take Britain out of the European Union. Leave only triumphed because it also secured the votes of people who thought it would take the country out of the political project but would retain a Norway-style arrangement.

The second is that those three big mandates cannot be reconciled with each other. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, then the promise of more money for the NHS will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver, at least not in the way that people envisaged. (When people said they wanted £350m extra in the NHS, they didn’t mean “in order to pay for drugs that are more expensive, to recoup the cost of our new regulatory regime and to plug the recruitment gap left by EU citizens with high-priced locums”. They meant that the NHS would do everything it does now and more, not run to stand still.)

The great success of Vote Leave was in presenting a whole menu of contradictory options as if they could be served on one dish. But you cannot have the Extra Hot and the Lemon & Herb on the same piece of chicken. You have to choose. The big failure of the political class has been not to advocate for one of those options over the other. (Theresa May has effectively been running on a ticket of “Extra Hot, Lemon & Herb, and the French will pay for it”.)

You cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and the rest of the BRICS (five major emerging national economies) and reduce the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously-funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer. You have to choose. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.