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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Brexit would jeopardise the rights of working women

Europe isn’t perfect, but without it millions of women and millions of trade unionists would be at risk of Tory deregulation. 

One of the most important arguments in favour of staying in the EU is the protections that membership affords working people.

Whether it’s equal rights for part-time workers, the agency workers directive or limits on the length of the working week, we all owe the European Union and its Social Charter – campaigned for by a generation of trade unionists from across the continent – a great deal.

Outside of Europe British workers would find themselves worse off both in terms of their pay packets and the rights that they rely on. Add to that the reality that outside the EU risks being a place with lower public spending thanks to a troubled economy and rising privatisation of our public services, you can understand why the vast majority of British trade unions are recommending that their members vote to remain.

And for working women, the choice is starker still, because women have that much more to lose when rights and protections are stripped from the workplace.

Just think what EU law guarantees for all working people through the social charter, and how losing these rights (and putting the Brexit bunch in charge) would impact on things we’ve all come to rely on like maternity pay and guaranteed holiday pay.

Think about how much harder the struggle for equal pay will be if it’s not underpinned by EU law.

Think about how a Boris Johnson led Tory government – outside of Europe, on the fringes of global influence and under increasing pressure from UKIP to withdraw even further from the modern world – would attack your working conditions.

The Tory right – fresh from dragging our country out of Europe and away from regulations that help keep us safe at work aren’t going to stop there. Their next port of call will be other sources of what they deem “red tape” – like equal rights legislation that helps ensure women have all the same opportunities afforded to their male colleagues.

That’s something that matters to me as a trade unionist and as a woman.

It’s something that matters to me as Assistant General Secretary of a union with more than a million female members – UNISON, the biggest membership organisation for women in the country.

It matters to me as President of the TUC – when most trade unionists are women and when we have the first female TUC General Secretary in Frances O’Grady.

But most of all it matters to me because of the stories of all of the women I’ve met and am proud to represent who benefit every single day from Europe-wide protection of their rights.

What we face is the risk of losing those rights to a cynical and desperate campaign based around false promises and rhetoric from the Brexiteers. What we need in this campaign is some straightforward honesty. So here’s my position in a single sentence: Europe isn’t perfect, but without it millions of women and millions of trade unionists would be at risk.

I won’t stand for that. Neither should you. And neither should they either.

Liz Snape is Assistant General Secretary of UNISON and President of the TUC