An ungodly row with no respect on either side

By Libby Purves (The Times)

The Muslim wedding fracas is a culture clash that has everything to do with smugness and nothing to do with faith

Well, the proverb says that the Devil can quote Scripture, so accord the same privilege to a comment writer, fresh back from a dampish summer break to a bad-tempered set of newspapers. Begin with the Koran: “Keep to forgiveness, enjoin kindness” it says at 7:199, pointing out at 25:63 that “The servants of the All-Merciful are they who walk upon earth gently, and when the ignorant ones address them, they say, ‘Peace!’.” Proceeding to the Christian Bible, some 600 years older, in I Corinthians xiii we find injunctions to charity: a quality prized above all others because it “suffereth long, and is kind . . . envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”.

Then what? We turn on the news and find a ridiculous, infuriating, unforgiving, unpeaceful, thoroughly bilious car-crash clash of rude and stupid smugness. I refer, of course, to the affair of Jim Fitzpatrick, MP, and the wedding of Bodrul Islam and Mahbuba Kamali at the London Muslim Centre.

In case you have been fortunate enough to miss the story, Mr Fitzpatrick was invited by the groom’s father, a constituent, to join the celebrations. The MP for Poplar & Canning Town duly turned up with his wife, but on finding that men and women would have to sit separately, he left “as discreetly as possible”. He says that he has been to other Muslim weddings where the sexes mixed, and claims that it is the influence of the Islamic Forum of Europe — the IFE, which has an office there — that is making things stricter and thus threatening social cohesion. The hosts aver that he was invited to come back and sit somewhere special with his inseparable wife, but didn’t. And despite his vaunted discretion, he spoke to the press. Whereon the young couple — rather than shrugging and saying “peace” to the infidel, took the trouble to go on telly, demand an apology and claim he was “hijacking an innocent wedding” to win votes (a surprising accusation given that a third of his consituents are Muslim). Insults are hurled to and fro, and now everybody concerned is cross, pouting, puffing and thoroughly unholy.

Really, to hell with the lot of them! I spent a good 18 hours brooding on which side to take, and ended only with a powerful desire to bang all their heads together. I see why the bride and groom are annoyed: it was their expensive and showy wedding (800 guests and the local MP) as well as a religious declaration. Modern young couples of all persuasions all seem remarkably picky and touchy about their Big Day, whether the issue is fairy-themed silverplate favours, compulsory tailcoats or gender segregation. But the newly-weds are not simple people, new immigrants from a desert culture. They are denizens of a modern Western world — he a company director, she an investment banker — and could have worked out that when you invite non-Muslims it is civil to forewarn them explicitly that you are following a particularly strict tradition, in which men and women may not mix. It was a bit arrogant not to make it clear in advance: though if indeed they later offered to have the pair back, they may feel justifiably a bit aggrieved.

On the other hand I also see where Mr Fitzpatrick stands. He is frustrated by the “hardline” Islamic Forum’s influence in general, understandably in a time when the aggressive radicalisation of young Muslims is a serious social concern. He suspected the forum of pressuring the couple into non-essential traditionalism. As to the segregation itself, a number of male Muslim commentators leapt into action when the story broke, patronisingly explaining that women are more “comfortable” in an all-female environment and can wear nice clothes without “exposing” themselves to men.

Frankly, I find this aspect of Islam (an exaggerated and marginal element, like the full-face veil) every bit as creepy as Mr Fitzpatrick does. The apologia are too reminiscent of the phase of my childhood spent in apartheid South Africa, with separate park benches and bus stops and smooth politicians explaining that “separate development” of blacks and whites was good for the blacks because they could preserve their “culture”. In reality, of course, the white minority held the whip hand, and a savage whip at that. The separation, veiling and hiding of Muslim women — however individually assertive some are in private — is a troubling reflection of a tradition (still strong in much of the world) of giving women inferior status in property, marriage, divorce and self-determination. Also, like the niqab or burka covering the face, it carries an atavistic undertone of sexual suspicion that is equally offensive to men: as if one glimpse of bright hair or bare arm would provoke them to rape. Yes, I can see why Mr Fitzpatrick felt uneasy. But all the same, he was damn rude. And particularly rude to talk to the press.

Nobody comes out of it with any credit. More importantly, neither side comes out of it looking even remotely godly. I refer you to the Koranic and biblical lines I began with: if any religion is anything at all beyond flummery and flapdoodle, it is an inward self-surrender to some ultimate and unchanging goodness, beauty and strength. This in turn makes the individual forbearing, respectful and loving towards all other human beings, seeing in each of them a reflection of that splendour. Everything else — dress, chants, rituals, food, big orange drums, reliquaries, rosaries — is marginal.

Taking offence, puffing with indignation and issuing self-justifying statements are not religious activities, any more than persecution and terrorism. And when non-believers show tact by covering their heads, taking off their shoes or staying quiet during other people’s ceremonies, it is because they respect that sense of spirituality and grandeur even if they do not share it.

My Catholic mother, travelling the world as a diplomatic wife, taught us in infancy to incline our heads as we passed golden Buddhas, Hindu temples, mosques and synagogues. It did not indicate that we wanted to sign up, just that we respected other people’s journeys. Many ways up the holy mountain, all that. On the other hand, I doubt she would have expected her Jewish, Muslim and atheist friends (or indeed her atheist husband) to genuflect to a tabernacle or kiss a bishop’s ring. This seems to me a fine and reasonable attitude. Neither party in the present shenanigan deserves that accolade.