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.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times