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Rochdale street grooming; a minefield of racial, religious and political sensitivities

2012 May 17

The trial of nine men found guilty of sexually abusing underage girls has stirred a storm in Britain in recent days. The men are all Asians and Muslims; all but one were of Pakistani heritage. The girls are all white; their religion – supposing they have one in this increasingly secularised society – is unspecified. The case, in the northern town of Rochdale, has become a minefield of racial, religious and political sensitivities as British society attempts to tease out some wider moral from the case.

Right-wing extremists, abetted by right-wing newspapers with an anti-immigration agenda, are suggesting that the on-street grooming of underage girls by gangs of men is a peculiarly Asian, Pakistani or Muslim problem. Police and social workers, by contrast, anxious not to inflame racial tensions, insist the crimes are not racially motivated. Hindus and Sikhs object to the offenders being described as Asians, saying the generalisation taints their communities. Muslims object to the predators being labelled as Muslim, saying that implies there was something religious about their motivation.

Opinions vary wildly. The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, has said that it is fatuous to suggest that race is not involved.  Judge Gerald Clifton, in sentencing the offenders, opined that the girls were abused because “they were not part of your community or religion”. But Nazir Afzal, the chief prosecutor who brought the men to trial – who is himself a British Pakistani – blames culture rather than race or religion. Focusing on race, he warned, diverts attention from the real problem – that some immigrants had “imported cultural baggage” with them from societies which are misogynistic. Most of those convicted, he pointed out acerbically, were taxi drivers “but no one is talking about this as an issue for the taxi drivers’ community”.  Indeed the Licenced Taxi Drivers Association is one of the few bodies in British civil society which seems to be without a public view on the matter.

So what are the facts?  They are hard to establish. Many are quoting figures compiled by The Times which has run a campaign on the issue. It found 18 trials in which 56 people committed child sex crimes. Of those 50 were nominally Muslim and most British Pakistanis. Yet academics and the government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre say those figures are partial. Greater Manchester Police says 95 per cent of its sex offenders are white. But overall data on the crimes is inconsistent and incomplete.

The truth is that it is impossible to say whether or not Pakistani men are disproportionately represented in grooming gangs. Yet it is clear that the Pakistani community has problems with sex abusers, as do all social and ethnic groups in society, experts tell us.  It is also clear that police and social services have been reluctant to articulate that fact for fear of being accused of racism – and that the elders of the Pakistani community have been publicly in denial at the offenders in their midst.

That has begun to change. A new generation of British Pakistanis – born and educated here – is now speaking out. Lawyers like Nazir Afzal have been joined by community workers like Mohammed Shafiq, who runs The Ramadhan Foundation in Manchester and Alyas Karmani, an imam, psychologist and high-powered youth worker in Bradford.

Many British Pakistani men live in two worlds, Imam Karmani says. By day their lives are encompassed by family, business and mosque. “It is a socially conservative culture where there is no toleration of sex outside of marriage, and little emphasis on sexual gratification,” he says. But by night these same men – as taxi-drivers and takeaway workers – come into contact with young women whose appetites for alcohol and revealing clothing are part of a different world entirely.

Such a culture clash is not new. There were similar double standards in Victorian times, when wives were placed on a pedestal, back home, by men who stalked the streets in search of child prostitutes. Now second and third generation British Pakistani men are struggling a similar cognitive dissonance. Some give in to the temptations of Western life. Others turn to religion, sometimes in a fundamentalist way. But some lead double lives – with a Pakistani wife and a white girlfriend or using prostitutes. A tiny minority have been grooming underage girls, whom they bribe or coerce into sexual relationships which can turn brutal.

Some have suggested that culture or religion are exacerbating factors. The extremists of the British National Party are making inflammatory statements suggesting that Islam in some way legitimises sex with underage girls so long as the victims are ‘kaffirs’ – or non-Muslims. Mohammed Shafiq blames widespread Pakistani attitudes “that white girls are less valuable than girls from their own community” and demonstrate it by wandering the streets, unaccompanied, late at night, scantily-clad and drunk. The problem, says Nazir Afzal, is in cultures that see women as lesser beings. Not that white communities are exempt from that.

The imam, Alyas Karmani, sees religion as the solution rather than the problem. Islam, he believes, is the vehicle for educating future generations in better attitudes towards women. Across the country – in Bradford, Blackburn, Manchester and London – he runs courses to teach young men more openly about sex than has been normal in Pakistani culture. But he does it within the context of a religious understanding of love and relationships which he says young Muslim boys find lacking in sex education in British state schools.  They have to learn not to confuse Islam with conservative Pakistani culture, he says. “They have to learn the importance of self-respect and not being susceptible to peer pressure or older men who offer them alcohol or want to take them to the brothel.” Respect for themselves will lead to respect for women.

The new generation of leaders like Alyas Karmani offer hope for change in the culture in which these aberrant offenders are bred. But there are offenders in all other communities in British society too. Vigilance and insight are needed there too.

from The Tablet

Grooming children for underage sex: Part One – the Asian question

Grooming children for underage sex: Part Two – Muslims and sexuality

A problem not only for Rochdale

Rochdale street grooming; a minefield of racial, religious and political sensitivities

The real truth about child sex grooming


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