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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle