Walking away from a Whitechapel wedding,. What is Jim Fitzpatrick's game?
IS Jim Fitzpatrick just an ill-mannered berk, or is this Labour MP and government minister playing a stupid and dodgy game?
Glasgow-born Fitzpatrick, the minister for food and farming, is MP for Poplar and Canning Town, in east London. Invited to a Muslim constituents' wedding in the hall next door to the East London Mosque, in Whitechapel, the MP accepted the invite, but then walked out after being told that male and female guests would be segregated.
Fitzpatrick said it was "strange" he could not sit with his GP wife Sheila at the ceremony on Sunday. "We've been attending [Muslim] weddings together for years but only recently has this strict line been taken. We left so as not to cause offence," he said.
In fact, Fitzpatrick has caused offence, both by his behaviour and his comments. The couple who had invited him to their big day were upset by his walk-out and making what was a family event into an occasion for political controversy.
A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said:"Segregation is a feature in religious, cultural and social occasions and is not specific to Muslims. It is a private matter and is up to families concerned, We cannot comment on the motives of Mr Fitzpatrick, but it would seem that the minister has sought to turn what was a kind, personal invitation from the families concerned into a political matter. Our best advice is that Mr Fitzpatrick would do well to brush up on his social skills."
A spokesman for the East London Mosque said: "We are saddened to read that Jim Fitzpatrick MP did not like the arrangements at a wedding he attended with his wife at the London Muslim Centre. Segregated weddings have always been popular in the Muslim community. The London Muslim Centre has facilitated them for over five years. It is part of the attraction for Muslim families so they can celebrate their happy day in a religious atmosphere, a custom which is also found in other religious traditions represented in Britain. We have always allowed non-Muslim guests to be seated together without segregation, but this is entirely at the discretion of the families who have hired the halls."
As the MCB spokesperson says, segregation is not specific to Muslims. I was brought up in the Jewish religion, and every synagogue I attended had its Ladies' Gallery. It is a long time since my bar mitzvah, but from what I remember my Mum had to sit up there with aunts, and the very unusual lady who'd schooled me through the texts, a "Rebbe" called Dora whom no Orthodox synagogue would recognise to this day, because however observant or learned she was the wrong sex. We did not have any MPs or celebrities present, but if we had, I doubt whether they would have been given special arrangements, or expected any.
It is almost as long since I pretended any religious belief, or attended a place of worship, except as a guest on special occasions, or as a tourist. Unlike my Royal namesake, I've never been to that Greek monastery where even a stray female cat would be forbidden, but I have been to more than one place where women were expectd to cover their arms, or head, and men to cover or uncover their heads according to the denomination of the premises. Why should this be objectionable? "When in Rome..." should do as a rule even for Labour ministers.
When I was in Jim Fitzpatrick's native Scotland thirty years ago the pubs in our region were closed on a Sunday - now there you have a case of the religious minority imposing its will on everybody. But I was soon introduced to the local club scene. A bunch of us enjoyed a pleasant convivial Sunday evening or two down the British Legion in the nearby pit village, and all of us - including three commies like me and two Irish Republicans - stood dutifully when at the end, as we'd been warned, they sang the national anthem. Calling upon an entity in whose existence I do not believe to "save" a personage I'd like to abolish. But as the local friend who had got us into the club put it, "we're not standing in respect for God or queen, but for the people who have welcomed us into their club".
In this Whitechapel wedding case it is reported that after the Fitzpatricks had left, a Labour councillor telephoned them, asking if they would come back, and promising they could sit on a mixed table with other non-Muslim guests. But apparently it was too late.
I know some Muslims say separation of men and women is not essential to Islam. Not all Muslim events are segregated. I once attended a memorial evening for someone at Regents Park mosque, it was mixed, and I was privileged to sit with the man's family. This makes questionable the way that some Muslim groups or individuals have imposed seclusion in secular events such as Stop the War meetings, making it an issue.
Jim Fitzpatrick claims some Muslims agree with him, and blames the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), an organisation that calls for Sharia law, for imposing a tough stance. The IFE is based in the same East London building. He told the BBC's Today: "This is a very exceptional occasion, it's a new ocurrence. It perhaps demonstrates that there is a degree of intolerance - certainly exclusion rather than inclusion which we are trying to build in the East End."
The bridegroom, Bodrul Islam, director of a training company, rejects Fitzpatrick's attempt to make it a political issue. : “I didn't let the IFE dictate to me or tell me what to do. Neither they, Mr Fitzpatrick, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia or the Pope has a right to tell me and my wife what to do. I am not part of the forum and neither is my wife. We liked the religious service, we paid for it, that's it.”
His bride, investment banker Mahbuba Kamali, 24, said they had chosen a segregated wedding to please elderly relatives, and it was solely a family issue.
Mr Islam, who is a Labour supporter, called on Mr Fitzpatrick to apologise for the embarrassment he has caused to the family. "Please apologise for the fact you have hijacked an innocent wedding,” he said.
Mr Fithttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6029146/Jim-Fitzpatrick-condemned-for-hijacking-Muslim-wedding-by-bridegroom.htmlThere are issues that ought to concern socialists (of which Mr.Fitzpatrick used to be one) around the East London mosque. Bengali socialists have alleged in the past that men wanted for crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh war were permitted to enter Britain and obtain teaching positions at the mosque. The right-wing Jamaat e Islami party has established itself in the local community.
But what on earth have such political issues, about which Labour has done nothing, got to do with telling a couple how to conduct their wedding? Why is a Labour MP, let alone a minister, interfering with matters of religious tradition and making a family event supposedly an obstacle to "integration" and "social cohesion"?
We can't help observing, incidentally, that in entering parliament and government, Jim Fitzpatrick, a former Socialist Workers Party member, must have encountered a few age old traditions himself...the oath of allegiance to a monarch, who also heads an Established Church, whose bishops sit in the House of Lords; and quaint customs involving men in wigs and knee-breeches, and titles like Black Rod, as well what used to be called "Spanish customs" in Fleet Street but have been accepted up till now where MP's. expenses were concerned. Some might see obstacles to social cohesion in that direction, but Jim Fitzpatrick has put up with them presumably not only for his career but for the 'common good'. For which we are all grateful.
Fitzpatrick's wedding walkout was condemned by Respect MP George Galloway, whose Bethnal Green seat is due to be merged with Poplar. Galloway was considering standing agaust Jack Straw in Blackburn, but he now intends battling Fitzpatrick in the new Poplar and Limehouse constituency.
Galloway said: "If he doesn't wish to attend an Islamic wedding and observe the religious customs preferred by the bride and groom, he should not go rather than insult them for perceived political gain. I am absolutely amazed and astonished that a government minister with a substantial Muslim minority in his constituency should have decided to give such a gratuitous insult to so many Muslims."
"If you don’t want to go to a Muslim wedding, don’t go. But don’t turn up and then carry out a wholly artificial politically motivated stunt. I am amazed and astounded by this behaviour by a Government minister who represents a very substantial Muslim minority in his constituency. I honestly did not think anyone could stoop so low. Fitzpatrick really has got down in the gutter in his increasingly desperate attempt to hold onto his Parliamentary seat.”
Prospective Tory candidate Tim Archer also suspected Fitzpatrick of trying to appeal to anti-Muslim feeling for political gain: “I can’t help but feel he’s playing a certain race card to save his skin at the next election. I think it’s a desperate strategy.”
Whatever we think of George Galloway's opportunism in counting on Muslim support (including, it has been said, that of Jamaat e Islam), Labour's Fitzpatrick is picking the wrong fight, on the wrong issue. It is not up to white christians to tell members of other religions how to interpret their traditions, especially when these neither harm them nor cause a problem for anyone else. Blaming the minority for lack of 'integration' or 'cohesion' is not just a cop-out by those in authority but a nod of encouragement to the racists.
Ironically, Fitzpatrick may have antagonised Asian Muslim voters in his constituency without gaining any renewal of support for Labour from working class whites. If you're going to blame the Muslims and play the race card, the benefit is likely to go to the far Right racists like the BNP, who don't bear the burden of being in government, and are so much better at the racist game.