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UK MPs’ remarks on cousin marriage spark furore

February 15, 2008

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LONDON, Feb 14: For the second time in just a week, pronouncements by politicians and religious leaders are highlighting the cultural divide between Britain’s large Muslim community and the rest of British society.

First came Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s suggestion last week that the adoption of some form of Islamic law was “unavoidable” — which sparked angry protests from commentators and politicians who said Muslims must abide by British law.

Then, as that furore subsided, two governing Labour Party lawmakers called for a frank discussion of the health risk posed by Pakistanis who marry their cousins.

Lawmakers Phil Woolas and Ann Cryer, citing high rates of birth defects, said Britons must question the common Pakistani practice of marriages between first cousins. Both warned of grave public health consequences if the custom continues. Predictably, newspaper headlines warned about the dangers posed by “inbred” Muslims.

Their comments prompted fresh cries of Islamophobia from beleaguered members of the Muslim community. Woolas, a junior environment minister, drew the most attention because of his cabinet-level status.

“We feel strongly that the minister was irresponsible in his choice of wording,” said Catherine Heseltine, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affair Committee.

“When you have headlines about ‘Inbred Muslims,’ that takes things off track. We’re not saying health concerns should not be addressed, we’re saying it should be done sensitively during this climate of Islamophobia.”

Heseltine said the practice of cousin marriage is legal under British law and was widely practised by Britain’s royal family during the reign of Queen Victoria. It is legal and common in many parts of the world.

“This is a cultural phenomenon among people from particular regions within Pakistan,” she said. “It’s a tradition that has nothing to do with religion. We have to separate it from Islam.”

She said the comments — and the vehement public outcry that followed last week’s call for Islamic law in Britain — were part of a larger pattern that leaves Britain’s estimated 1.6 million Muslims feeling isolated in their homeland.

“Our biggest concern is the drip, drip effect slowly eroding the view of British Muslims as British citizens but seeing them as an alien threat,” she said, urging Prime Minister Gordon Brown to “hold the minister responsible” for his inflammatory statements.

The prime minister seems to want no part of this particular issue. “We believe these matters are best addressed locally by local members of the community,” said Mr Brown’s spokesman, Michael Ellam.

The scientific evidence is complex. There seems to be little question that the practice of marrying first cousins produces a slightly elevated risk of birth defects, but the magnitude of the risk is unclear.

Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College, London, said the increased risk of genetic disorders can be managed by pre-natal screening. He said the politicians addressing the issue were spreading misinformation and unfairly targeting Muslims for criticism.

“I would advise that ministers make sure their brains are engaged before opening their mouths,” he said, adding that western behaviour like smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy is far more risky for offspring than cousin marriage.

A 2002 study by the United States National Society of Genetic Counsellors found that most parents face a three per cent to four per cent risk of producing a child with a serious birth defect or genetic problem while closely related cousins who have children face a risk increased by two per cent.

But the experience of researchers at Bradford Teaching Hospital suggests a more serious situation.

The hospital, which services a community with a large Pakistani population, reports an unusually high rate of inherited gene disorders. Researchers estimate the rate of birth defects is 10 times higher than in the general population, said spokeswoman Leanne Wilson in a statement.

High rates of deafness, degenerative nerve disorders and children born with a small head and learning disabilities have been found, she said. The paediatric unit reported more than 140 genetic disorders, compared to the 20 to 30 that would be expected in a typical district, the statement said.

The statement said marriage patterns among Pakistanis are “likely to be a major factor” in the high disease rate.—AP