When Kissing Cousins Aren’t So Cute

In an article first published by the London Sunday Times this week, Britain’s Environment Minister Phil Woolas again cited the dangers of inbreeding in the Pakistani immigrant community in Britain. Appropriately calling it “the elephant in the room”, Woolas was careful to point out it was the “Pakistani community” – who just happen to be largely Muslim. Despite choosing his words carefully, Woolas, who served previously as Race Relations minister, has sparked a controversy amongst British Muslims.

Woolas, who represents the ethnically mixed region of Oldham East and Saddleworth, said, “If you talk to any primary care worker they will tell you that levels of disability among the… Pakistani population are higher than the general population. And everybody knows it’s caused by first-cousin marriage. That’s a cultural thing rather than a religious thing. It is not illegal in this country.”

“The problem is that many of the parents themselves and many of the public spokespeople are themselves products of first-cousin marriages. It’s very difficult for people to say ‘you can’t do that’ because it’s a very sensitive, human thing,” Times Online reported.

The online blogosphere and other newspapers quickly followed the story, often irresponsibly. Spero published a similar story titled, “UK minister warns of ‘Muslim inbreeding”, even though Woolas said no such thing. That does not seem to matter any longer though as the “elephant in the room” has been uncaged.

Bloggers and readers commenting on the story quickly took sides and argued about “anti-Muslim politicians” or how all Muslim men want to marry their sister and then give her a beating for good measure. Sadly, these vicious, knee -jerk and oft ill-informed debates shift attention from the real problem.

Interfamily marriages and the resulting inbreeding are found in many societies and cultures all over the world. Several states in the US have passed laws banning inter-family relations or marriage as time and science began to show the resulting genetic problems that it causes. It is not a matter of religion, but a matter of culture and being uninformed of the hazards.

British Pakistanis’ inter-family marriages are a concern of public health, due to disproportional representations of birth defects in their population. For British society it puts an added strain on the National Health Service, but short of introducing a law to forbid these marriages, there seems little can be done. The continued attempts to educate people about this seem to have been fruitless thus far.

Woolas is supported by Labour member of Parliament Ann Cryer, who first spoke out on the issue two years ago after research showed British Pakistanis were 13 times more likely to have children with birth defects than the general population. Cryer told the Sunday Times, “This is to do with a Medieval culture where you keep wealth within the family.”

“I have encountered cases of blindness and deafness. There was one poor girl who had to have an oxygen tank on her back and breathe from a hole in the front of her neck,” she added. “The parents were warned they should not have any more children. But when the husband returned from Pakistan, within months they had another child with exactly the same condition.”

A possible answer might lie in going to the source of the cultural problem, to Pakistan. A study more than a decade ago found, “The prevalence of inter-family marriages was studied in 940 families belonging to four different socio -economic groups in and around Lahore, Pakistan. The overall prevalence of interfamily marriages was 46%. The first-cousin marriages were most common at 67%, followed by marriages between second cousins, 19%.”

Marriages between families are often meant to strengthen the bond of kinsmanship. Indeed, women are often more warmly welcomed into the households, less likely to face abuse and retain some status because they are well, family.

The Koran does not have any passages that forbid marrying within the family and inter-family marriages are documented back to the times of the Prophet Mohammad. Herein lays a possibly more effective solution that actually makes Islam a positive force in this debate.

If Islamic scholars and influential mullahs could be presented with the evidence of why this practice is bad for their culture, then maybe sharia law could be amended. Or at the very least have some of Islam’s most influential mullahs in Pakistan offer guidance to Muslims.

Meanwhile, media and bloggers that make this a divisive topic based solely on religion ignore the real victims that this problem creates. But perhaps misinformation and religious banter simply make it easier for people to avoid having to take a good hard look at themselves and their culture.