Minister who left Muslim wedding attacked

Labour peer says criticism of segregation was 'cowardly'

A Labour peer has demanded an apology from Jim Fitzpatrick, the Farming minister, after Mr Fitzpatrick publicly criticised the segregation of men and women at Muslim weddings.

Lord Patel of Blackburn, a senior figure in Britain's Muslim community, accused Mr Fitzpatrick of launching a "cowardly attack" on Muslims who opted for a segregated wedding, accusing him of pandering to "anti-Muslim sentiment" within his constituency.

Mr Fitzpatrick angered many Muslims in his east London constituency when he walked out of a ceremony at the London Muslim Centre last week in protest at being split up from his wife. He also gave interviews suggesting that the custom showed a "degree of intolerance" towards guests who may be offended.

But in a scathing attack on his party colleague, Lord Patel said that Mr Fitzpatrick's stance was merely an attempt to gain votes.

"I suspect Mr Fitzpatrick has one eye on the general election and has mistakenly used this event for political gain," he said. "He is playing to a section of the voters with whom anti-Muslim sentiment is appealing. This is underhand and dangerous."

He warned that Mr Fitzpatrick risked creating "alienation and distrust" within his own community by implying that all Muslims in the area must assimilate for reasons of social cohesion.

The bridegroom has also asked for an apology from Mr Fitzpatrick for "hijacking" the ceremony for political gain. Bodrul Islam said he had been "amazed and shocked" by Mr Fitzpatrick's protest.

The minister blamed the decision to segregate men and women at the ceremony on the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a conservative group with an office at the East London Mosque next door to the wedding venue. However, Mr Islam denied that he or his wife had come under any pressure to separate their guests.

Mr Fitzpatrick yesterday said he had been seeking to highlight the growing influence of the IFE, rather than criticise the wishes of the families involved.

"There was nothing cowardly about the attack on the IFE. It was very direct and very open," he said.

"The IFE are intolerant, not the community. The community is a very generous and open one. My beef is that the IFE is starting to influence the social and political life of the Bangladeshi and Muslim community.

"I have apologised on camera to the families and to the community for any offence that I may have caused. That was not what I was trying to do."

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