Recent headlines in British newspapers announce another controversy about Islam and Muslims. This time it is not a novel or another stupid cartoon to challenge the very much stressed British Muslim population, but instead a branch of science: genetics. Indeed, Prof Steve Jones, one of Britain’s most eminent geneticists, who lectures at University College London, has warned at The John Maddox Lecture at the Hay Festival that the level of inbreeding among the nation’s Muslims is endangering the health of future generations.The professor, as any anthropologist working with Muslim populations, particularly from South Asia, had observed that among British Muslims there is a high rate of first-cousin marriages. For instance, some scholars have reported that in Bradford up to 70 per cent of marriages are between relations, with more than half involving first cousins.
Of course, Prof Steve Jones has touched a sensitive topic, but let me say that there is a need that this topic be discussed and Muslim communities have only two choices: to be part of the discussion or to be discussed by others. The reaction that I have seen at the present seems to suggest the second option, as often happens. Indeed, the reply has been defensive, as in the case of Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive and a founding member of the Ramadhan Foundation,
British Muslims criticize the description of inter-Muslim marriage as ‘Inbreeding’, warning that the term demonizes the image of the sizable minority. Obviously, we don’t want any children to be born disabled who don’t need to be born disabled, so I would advise genetic screening before first cousins marry.
Using language like ‘inbreeding’ to describe cousins marrying is completely inappropriate and further demonizes Muslims. Many inter-Muslim marriages result in healthy children. I know many Muslims who have married their cousins and none of them have had a problem with their children.
Let me also address one clear misunderstanding: ‘inbreeding’, in the jargon of geneticists and other biologists, is the correct terminology. The word is not any more offensive than the usage of ‘native’ among anthropologists. The issue is, as I will explain below, how this data and ‘terminology’ may be misused politically and racially. Yet we cannot stop research only because of this risk and sadly in the academic study of Muslim communities today, the risk that rogue politicians and racists in general may misuse valid scholarly research by valid scholars is very high.
Another important aspects is that ‘cousin marriage’ has nothing to do with Islam as a religion (or with religion in general). It is a cultural-social tradition with rationale behind it. I have no space here to discuss in detail these aspects, but you may wish to read Alison Shawan’s Negotiating risk: British Pakistani Experiences of Genetics. So, some may ask: why do Prof. Jones and others refer to Muslim marriages instead of, say, Pakistani or Arab marriages? One of the reasons for this is that many Pakistanis and Arabs, as well as others whom happen to be born into, or convert to, Islam, tend to emphasize and stress their religious affiliation in almost every aspect of their lives.
There is nothing wrong with this, but of course the rhetorical expression has inevitably migrated from usage inside of the community to general public usage. Hence, many things may appear to be Islamic/Muslim even when they have little to do with religion.
Endogamous marriages, such as first degree cousin marriages, were historically among the most common form of marriage, also in the mediterranean area (just to say, my maternal grandparents were indeed first-cousins themselves). Professor Robin Fox has suggested that that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer. However, this does not mean that research, such as that which Prof. Jones has presented, is not serious or correct in raising the alarm.
Had some British Muslims, instead of starting a new, possibly back-firing, futile polemic, Googled a few words such as ‘inbreeding’ ‘Arabs’ or ‘Muslims’, they would have discovered that Arab universities, such as Qatar, are investing a considerable amount of research money in similar genetics research. For instance, Qatar has introduced premarital genetic screen for all. Indeed, Dr Teebi Sai was not wrong in observing that ‘The issue here is not the cousin marriage, the issue here is to avoid the disease’ but also he has added:
However, virtually none of us is free from carrying some bad genes, and when you are cousins the likelihood of you are carrying the same bad gene is higher. Marriage between second cousins or more distant relations has very little impact on the passing down of genetic disorders.
Yet the children of first cousins, who share 12.5 per cent of their genes, are nearly twice as likely as the general population to contract a disorder. And within populations that intermarry regularly over generations, the coincidence of disorders can increase exponentially.
Now, there has been no protest against Dr Teebi Sai, or against the many Arab (as well as other Muslim) scientists, such as Abdulbari Benera and Rafat Hussain, whose study showed
… a higher incidence of certain diseases in consanguineous couples and that, in a population with a high rate of consanguinity, there is a significant increase in the prevalence of common adult diseases: cancer, mental disorders, heart diseases, gastro-intestinal disorders, hypertension, hearing deficit and diabetes mellitus. (p. 266)
In these instances, technical terms such as ‘inbreeding’, which appear often in these studies, pass without notice. At this point, I am sure that the reader can see how Muslims in the UK, often because of the leadership they have (which is frequently inadequate and unprepared for successful public relations), end in being discussed instead of actively engaging in the discussion.
Although this debate should be welcome and it is a very good thing that certain ‘sensitive’ aspects are discussed, as far as marriage is concerned, genetics is probably one of the least important issues, at the present, among Pakistani communities in the UK. Other urgent issues should be studied and addressed and politicians as well as intellectuals have to engage with the discussion to find solutions.
I am speaking of the problems connected with the tradition of ‘importing’ brides directly from Pakistan. Indeed from the Census we can notice that that people from South Asian backgrounds (Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) were the least likely of the minority ethnic groups to be married to someone from a different ethnic group. Only 6 per cent of Indians, 4 per cent of Pakistanis, and 3 per cent of Bangladeshis had married someone outside the South Asian group.
Settlement and integration problems are high and endogamy has been often presented within some families as part of ‘respecting Islam’, which of course it is not. One of the reasons why Islam is used to ‘scare’ new generations from exogamous marriages is the first generation’s rejection of the ‘British way of life’. The issue is that communities such as the Mirpuri have partially isolated their future generations. As my research has shown, Mirpuri youth often accept ‘suggested’ (in a few cases forced) marriages out of a fear that they may be not only ostracized by the family but also by the Muslim community (which is often Mirpuri itself).
Young people often feel trapped and marriages are tense, with wives in some cases unable to speak English, depressed by their lack of support networks and dreaming only to go back to their villages. Often academics have focused their attention mainly on the condition of these women, while little has been discussed about the young Pakistani man whom is forced, by the mechanics of cultural traditions, against their will to marry a person they do not want. Alam’s Made in Bradford is not a proper anthropological ethnography, but reading some of the real life stories may help readers, in a lighter way, to understand what I have encountered in my fieldwork.
Finally we have to be very careful, as I said above, to detect and condemn the instrumental manipulation and the intellectual dishonesty of those whom use respectable research (and scientific terminologies) to discriminate against others. The battle should be focused on avoiding misinformation and the mass media has the highest responsibility for this. At the same time, the British Muslim communities should avoid focusing on the wrong target: it is not Prof. Jones with his research and terminology who ‘demonizes’ Muslims. Furthermore, those Muslims whom avoid engaging in serious discussions concerning the condition of their communities and demonize whomever raises relevant issues may in reality facilitate the discrimination and misrepresentation of their own community.