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Paul Goodman: If gay marriage is recognised, why not multiple sharia marriages?

By Paul Goodman
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In 2004, I voted reluctantly against civil partnerships (though I was all for equality in relation to life assurance, tax exemptions and so forth) because I was against the state compromising its practice in relation to marriage - in other words, that it takes place between a man and a woman, the usual practice in Europe for a very long time.  Whether I was right in believing that civil partnerships have such an effect is debatable.  That I am right in asserting that legalising gay marriage would do so is not.  Such is David Cameron's intention.  "I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative.  I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative," he said yesterday.

This pleased my old friend Douglas Murray, who mocks other MPs that take a different view. He points out, doubtless correctly, that "few sights in politics are quite as risible as the male politician in full, puffing flight from an issue of basic gay equality".  Though I am no longer a politician, he takes an interest in my views - which are now of no public significance - and circumstances.  "This time around," he writes, "in opposing the government’s equal-marriage proposals, [Goodman] cites among other things the importance of canvassing Muslim opinion in any plan for equality. To call this disingenuous is to state the situation too generously".

I've been puzzling over what I've written that could bear this construction.  I think, though I am not sure, that Murray is referring to a piece I wrote on this site called "Gay marriage, and why CCHQ should carry out more polling".  Readers will see - since I have supplied a link to the piece, which my old friend omitted to do - that I indeed suggested canvassing Muslim opinion. However, they will also see that I no more stressed its importance than that of canvassing Roman Catholics and Anglicans (who may not share the views of their bishops, as I observed) and voters in marginal seats (who may hold no religious views at all).  I ended by writing: "Does it really matter to most voters anyway?"

Quite why Murray quotes only one of the groups that I believe should be canvassed is another puzzle.  I could write that to call this disingenuous is to state the situation too generously, but I will give my old friend the benefit of a doubt that he didn't give me.  I think - though again I am not sure - that the explanation may lie in the relationship between the Conservative Party's views on Muslims and on his.  (He once said that "conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board", and I told him that front bench members could therefore share no platform with him.)  However, that is by the by, and I will try to make up any offence I've caused by not only giving Murray the benefit of the doubt, but by conceding much of his argument.

Its essence is that the meaning of marriage can change, and that the state should recognise this.  It is not necessarily for the procreation of children (he's right), nor is it the property of religion (right again).  It may, as he says, "encourage more straight people back on to the marital path", and "the making conservatives of gays" (I'd have thought more likely than not).  All this I admit, and my old friend may be right when he claims of those who believe otherwise that "some people will seize any boomerang they can to resist the case".  However, he appears to have overlooked that in making his case he has seized one himself - and, furthermore, gone on to fling it, with the effect that flinging boomerangs tends to have.

For since the meaning of marriage can indeed change, why should the state not recognise, say, polygamous marriage?  Edward Leigh has made the point: "There is no logical reason why the new alternative institution should be limited to two people. Why not three?" he asks. "Or 33?" To which my old friend responds: "All of which tells us more about his imagination than his logic" - an illustration of the knockabout debating skills which have made his platform appearances with Tariq Ramadan such a pleasure.  But it is, note, a debating jibe, not a proper response.  In effect, Murray is saying: "I can't be bothered with an answer, so let's move on rapidly to the next point."

And since my old friend can't be so bothered, I will supply him with one: nobody wants to marry more than one person.  Unfortunately, that is where his case, so watertight to date, starts to come apart.  For there is a group of people who want to marry more than one person - or, to be more precise, more than one woman.  Namely, a percentage of my old friend's old friends, British Muslims.  I suspect it is a very small one, though he may disagree.  But whether he does or not, the boomerang that he has dispatched comes hurtling back at his own head. "Few sights in journalism are quite as risible as the male journalist in full, puffing flight from an issue of basic religious equality", as a Muslim set on the state recognition of multiple sharia marriages might put it.

Now I can rehearse Murray's counter-arguments even before he supplies them - namely, that the two cases are different.  The first involves the liberation of people, the second the oppression of women.  And so on.  But once he has opened the door to gay marriage, by what authority does he close it to multiple sharia unions?  The only truthful answer is: none.  This being so, it's best to avoid the prospect altogether.  Which can be done by applying a conservative principle less heard these days than it should be: leave well alone.  If you don't do so in relation to marriage, prepare not only for proponents of multiple marriages to come beating at the door, but for them to arrive with their lawyers.  I am not one, and suspect that the courts would give them short shrift, but cannot be certain (and nor can you).

For clarity: both my old friend and I oppose making multiple marriages legal.  Readers must judge for themselves whether legalising gay marriage would be more or less likely to make the law of unintended consequences apply.  It is one of the great laws of life, and brings, I believe, a seriousness to what some readers may believe to be lunatic exchanges between two journalists obsessed by gays and Muslims.  But I am no less vulnerable to that law than Murray, and must therefore admit: I may be wrong.  In which case, I should show as benevolent an interest in his welfare as he has shown in mine.  As I say, Murray has pursued Ramadan through the TV studios of Europe with even more zest than he has pursued me.  If gay marriage is legalised, isn't the next step obvious?  I'm not sure which of the two would be more delighted.


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