Minister’s Comments Inflame Islam Debate

The Scotsman (Edinburgh), February 10, 2008

A GOVERNMENT minister has prompted a fresh row over the place of Muslims in British society by warning that inbreeding in immigrant communities is causing a surge in birth defects.

Phil Woolas, an environment minister, said the issue was “the elephant in the room” which was never discussed because of its sensitivities.

But he said: “The issue we need to debate is first cousin marriage, whereby a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability.”

Woolas’s comments came as tensions rose yesterday over the claim by the Archbishop of Canterbury that the adoption of some parts of Muslim Sharia law in the UK was “unavoidable”.

Woolas said his comments did not refer to all Muslims but only to those whose families originated in rural Pakistan. Up to half of marriages from such communities are thought to involve first cousins.

He spoke out after research found that British Pakistanis accounted for 3% of all births and they are responsible for one in three British children born with genetic illnesses.

“If you talk to any primary care worker, they will tell you that levels of disability among the .&;nbsp;. . Pakistani population are higher than the general population. And everybody knows it’s caused by first cousin marriage,” he said.

Woolas said the practice of inbreeding was a “cultural” issue, not a religious one. He added: “The problem is that many of the parents themselves and many of the public spokespeople are themselves products of first cousin marriages.”

He said that, as a result, the matter was often left alone. “It’s a very sensitive issue. That’s why it’s not even a debate and people outside of these areas don’t really know it exists.”

Sensitivities over the place of Muslims in Britain are at a high this weekend following the claims by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Last night, those criticising Dr Williams were joined by his predecessor Lord Carey, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England.

Lord Carey said that accommodating any part of Sharia law in the UK would be “disastrous” for the nation.

However, the head of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Sheilagh Kesting, promised to stand by him, claiming that the response to his comments had been tantamount to a “witch-hunt”.

Kesting has written a letter of support to Williams, stating that she believed his views on Sharia law had been “wilfully misconstrued”.

She added: “I am appalled by the way in which the response to your lecture has become a personal witch-hunt calling for your resignation.”

Lord Carey, writing in a Sunday newspaper, said of Williams: “He has in my opinion overstated the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes.

“His conclusion that Britain will eventually have to concede some place in law for aspects of Sharia is a view I cannot share.

“There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights.

“His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation.”


LONDON (AP)—The archbishop of Canterbury said Friday he never proposed the creation of a parallel Islamic legal system in Britain, as anger continued to simmer over statements he made seen as backing Islamic law.

Rowan Williams told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview aired Thursday that some aspects of Shariah law, a venerable Islamic code of conduct, already fit easily within the existing British legal system, and he agreed when asked if its implementation was inevitable.

Britain’s media took the statement as broadly backing Shariah law, which delighted some British Muslims—and outraged almost everyone else.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum condemned Williams’ statement, and Britain’s tabloid newspapers reacted with fury, publishing pictures of people being beheaded under Shariah law and showing the carnage after Islamic suicide bombers attacked London’s transport system in 2005.

In an editorial, The Sun newspaper called Williams “a dangerous threat to our nation” and said Muslim terrorists would “see his foolish ramblings as a sign that our resolve against extremism is weakening.”

Williams acknowledged the “strong reaction in the media and elsewhere” but said in a message posted to his Web site he never intended to propose the creation of a parallel Muslim legal system.

Williams said his aim was “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state” and was using Shariah law as an example.

He explained that Christians could not be expected to claim religious exceptions to secular rules—for example, by refusing to carry out abortions—unless they were willing to accommodate other religious traditions.

The heated reaction prompted some British Muslim groups to soften their initial support for Williams’ plans and to complain about “Islamophobia” making British Muslims feel unwelcome in their homeland.

“The reaction has escalated into hysteria,” said Catherine Heseltine, a spokeswoman with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK. “People hear the word Shariah and have an emotive conjuring of Taliban beheadings. It’s seen as threatening Muslim outsiders coming in and imposing something on Britain.”

In reality, she said, the changes Williams is advocating are not a high priority to British Muslims. For most Muslims here, she said, Shariah law deals primarily with questions of how Halal meat should be prepared and how marriages should be conducted.

Shariah is a wide-ranging Islamic code that has evolved over the centuries and is subject to differing interpretations in various countries. It deals with many aspects of daily life, including dress and dietary restrictions, and also codifies how to punish serious offenses.

The code imposes some restrictions on banking practices and in fact some British banks have introduced Shariah-compliant programs for certain types of transactions.

There are already some Shariah councils operating in Britain for Muslims who agree to abide by their rulings, but these are unofficial bodies not recognized by British law.

[Editor’s Note: Last week’s account of His Lordship’s comments can be read here.]

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