A fortnight ago a community meeting convened by the Rotherham Muslim Community Forum Alliance (RMCFA) voted to demand that Muslim organisations cut all lines of engagement with South Yorkshire Police. The action was taken in response to their alleged failure to tackle the rise in Islamaphobic abuse in the wake of the Rotherham child grooming scandal. For its part the police acknowledged the alarming rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes but impressed the need for constructive dialogue with community leaders in order to more effectively combat it. In the event the proposed boycott was called off two days later after emergency talks brokered by the local Labour MP, Sarah Campion, yielded an agreement between the two sides to work together to resolve community concerns.
The sad truth is that everybody in Rotherham shoulders a part of the blame for what transpired there over a period of over 15 years. The police, the Pakistani community, social services as well as the white working class community to which the young victims overwhelmingly belonged. In such circumstances and especially given the shocking nature of these crimes too many succumb to the instinctual urge to shift the blame by pointing fingers and offering up facile explanations. The thousands of victims of this harrowing tale of child sexual abuse deserve better though; in light of last year’s report into the scandal it behoves the entire community of Rotherham to draw together for a period of collective introspection. While the culpability for the failure to protect Rotherham’s most vulnerable is collective, its nature is distinctive to each party to this tragedy.
Whilst it goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of the British-Pakistani community (to which I belong) are not child sex abusers and find such activity as repulsive as the rest of society, the accusation that it was the community that shielded the perpetrators is one that cannot be so readily dismissed. For sure the motivations of many who level such accusations are racist/anti-Muslim and I am mindful of the danger of enabling such elements but nevertheless to simply dismiss such a grave charge with a perfunctory cry of, “racist!” only feeds into the Islamophobic canards being peddled by the far-right. It is worth noting at this point that the vast majority of paedophiles and child sex abusers are white; it is only within the very specific sub-category of “on-street grooming” that the offenders happen to be of predominantly of Pakistani (and Bengali) ethnicity.
The Jay report – the independent inquiry into the scandal – laid bare the fact that of the 1400 (conservative estimate) or so victims of sexual abuse in Rotherham, the overwhelming majority were white while by contrast the overwhelming majority of the abusers were Pakistani Muslim. The sheer scale and systematic nature of the abuse, involving hundreds of men (sometimes from areas far outside of Rotherham), as well as the tight-knit nature of Rotherham’s Pakistani community, renders the claim that nobody knew what was happening simply not credible. Without doubt many in the community would have been aware of what was happening, in fact it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say it was something of an open secret. Of those many more than a few would have been well positioned to intervene, speak out or report the matter to the police and to demand of them to take the necessary action. That nobody did and that the abuse ran for as long as it did cannot be regarded as anything other than a collective failing on the part of the community as a whole.
So why did nobody speak out? If the EDL/BNP/Britain First as well as their more articulate cohorts in the right-wing media are to be believed, Rotherham was but one spoke in a nationwide organised conspiracy of “sexual jihad” in which the entire British Muslim (of which Pakistanis constitute the largest ethnic grouping) is heavily invested. The truth happens to be rather less dramatic but in many ways equally as disturbing. The Labour MP for Rochdale – a town which witnessed a similar scandal- Simon Danczuk commented that there was an, “unhealthy brand of politics ‘imported’ from Pakistan” which was “partly to blame for the cover-up of mass child abuse in Rotherham“. He further stated: “There are cultural issues around the way politics are done in the Asian community which have to change”. In short: he’s right. The culture Mr Danczuk refers to is one which has as its foundational stone the concept of unquestioning obedience to age old tribal, patriarchal hierarchies – an obedience enforced violently if so required. It is a culture woven around the twin concepts of ‘izzat’ [honour] and ‘badnaami’ [dishonour], demanding the safeguarding of the former and avoidance of the latter – whatever the cost. The mind-set such a culture engenders strips its adherents of personal agency transferring it to the nearest more senior patriarch in the hierarchy. So the son will defer to the father who will defer to the clan leader who will defer to the pir [spiritual leader]. Naturally women are occluded from meaningful decision making, relegated to mere appendages of their fathers and husbands.
It’s not hard then to see in such an environment why the activities of the abusers could flourish unchallenged. The community grandees – an apathetic, myopic clique of old men generally more concerned with the goings-on of Pakistani Kashmir – were never going to risk ruffling feathers (or their own statuses) by speaking out against what was happening; that is if anybody had even bothered to inform them in the first place. Individuals who might otherwise have chosen to speak up remained silent paralysed for fear of being branded troublemakers or being accused of bringing the community into disrepute. The odium suffered by prominent community activist Mo Shafiq (who did speak up) from Rochdale bears testimony to this. The ultimate irony of such myopia is that far from protecting the honour and good name of the community it ended up irreparably tarnishing it. Had community leaders taken robust, expeditious action to root out the bad apples the offending would have been viewed as the handiwork of a few unrepresentative miscreants. As a result of their Nelsonian blindness, however, the whole community must now endure the shame and ignominy of being viewed as accomplices to child sex abuse.
As to the role of Islam then it was largely incidental. Much as Tommy Robinson, Nick Griffin et al. might wish you to believe the Islamic scriptures were the catalyst for the type of behaviour witnessed in Rotherham and other northern towns it simply isn’t true and for the following reasons:
- The Qur’an forbids extra-marital sexual relations with the only exception being for concubines. Concubines being those women seized as slaves in times of war. For a Muslim to seize a woman who is a citizen of the nation in which he resides in under covenant is forbidden (not to mention impractical). Even were we to suppose for a moment that it was lawful then there is a further impediment to the actions perpetrated by the Rotherham abusers:
“But let them who find not [the means for] marriage abstain [from sexual relations] until Allah enriches them from His bounty. And those who seek a contract [for eventual emancipation] from among whom your right hands possess – then make a contract with them if you know there is within them goodness and give them from the wealth of Allah which He has given you. And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek [thereby] the temporary interests of worldly life. And if someone should compel them, then indeed, Allah is [to them], after their compulsion, Forgiving and Merciful.” [TMQ 24:33]
- While it is true that the Shariah doesn’t recognise the age of consent being fixed at 16 point (i) still applies. Pakistani/Bengali Muslim men have no more of a predilection for young teenage girls than white men of a similar age.
- It is abundantly clear that many of the groomers/abusers/rapists exhibited a flagrant disregard for basic Islam strictures. The prohibition Islam places upon the consumption of drink and drugs is absolute and widely known yet most of the abusers were known to freely partake in such activities.
So whilst it is easy, as well as convenient for some, to blame Islam for these episodes, more germane are factors such as, for example, forced marriage (for men as well as women) to overseas spouses. Often brides from Pakistan find themselves – as a consequence of their rural, conservative upbringing – unable to satisfy the emotional and sexual needs of their UK born and raised husbands, resulting in an abundance of frustrated young men in search of extra-marital sexual gratification. Lastly it can’t be denied there is an element of racial stereotyping at play also. White girls are seen as naturally more promiscuous (a view not entirely without foundation) and in the eyes of such individuals a promiscuous woman is a worthless one bereft of any rights. That having been said it would be remiss not to mention the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report which stated: ‘one of these myths was that only white girls are victims of sexual exploitation by Asian or Muslim males, as if these men only abuse outside of their own community, driven by hatred and contempt for white females. This belief flies in the face of evidence that shows that those who violate children are most likely to target those who are closest to them and most easily accessible.’ The Home Affairs Select Committee quoted witnesses saying that cases of Asian men grooming Asian girls did not come to light because victims ‘are often alienated and ostracised by their own families and by the whole community, if they go public with allegations of abuse.’
But what of the victims? According to the Jay report many came from vulnerable homes afflicted by alcohol/drug abuse or mental health illnesses. Some were already victims of sexual abuse or neglect and in many instances the parents seemed unconcerned that their young daughters were constantly out unsupervised late at night. The idea that many white working class parents see (consensual) sexual activity and (often excessive) alcohol consumption as some sort of rite of passage for their teenage offspring is one which has considerable traction amongst the Pakistani community. Sexual predators target the vulnerable and the available and due to the aforementioned reasons, in Rotherham – as in so many other towns – these were overwhelmingly – although I again reiterate, not exclusively – young white girls, typically between the ages of 11 and 15. At the risk of sounding old fashioned to me the best place for a 13 year old girl at 11 pm on a Friday night is her bedroom (alone) – not “somewhere in town with her friends”. Why the broken home phenomenon disproportionately afflicts the white working class and why the same intra-community support framework that exists amongst Pakistanis (and other Muslim ethnic groups) is so signally absent are questions requiring of some deep soul searching. In many ways it is a reflection of the disintegration of the traditional family unit and the descent of Britain as a nation into the abyss of amorality and social solipsism.
As British society has become more secular and the influence of traditional Christian morality has waned the overt sexualisation of young boys and girls has gathered apace. The attire and demeanour of young girls today is a far cry from when I attended school in the 80s. Whereas in my day any schoolgirl approached by a 20 or 30-something year old man in a car would likely flee as fast as possible and report the approach to her school and parents post-haste, sadly faced with the same scenario today more than a few seem apt to pull out their mobile phones and exchange numbers. We live now in an age where children in their early years of secondary schooling find themselves exposed to hard core pornography, often depicting violent sexual acts or acts of female sexual humiliation. The pernicious influence of ubiquitous hard core pornography has been noted by judges on more than one occasion when sentencing teenage rapists for their crimes. At some point as a nation Britain must ask itself if these “values” are conducive to a cohesive, functional society and if not what might be the alternative.
The police contribution to the tragic debacle was nothing short of criminal (the irony). While the inquiry report did lay bare a culture of “political correctness” and a desire on the part of senior police officers to avoid antagonising community relations by properly investigating repeated complaints by parents of victims, it also went further, accusing the police of treating victims and their families with contempt and disdain. In numerous cases the attitude of detectives ranged from dismissive to at worst, actively hostile. Parents of victims garnered the distinct impression they believed that the girls were “problem children” or had “asked for it” by willingly going with their abusers. I have already made reference to the condemnable attitude of many Pakistani men vis-à-vis sexually active white women, but here we witnessed a predominantly white police force displaying a similar attitude of contempt towards what many of them viewed as “white trash”. To quote one of the survivors: “The police just looked at us as dirty little prostitutes”. For the avoidance of doubt – whatever the attendant circumstances, if a teenage (and in many cases pre-teenage) girl is being plied with drink and drugs and passed around adult men for their sexual gratification the police have a duty to intervene. Forcefully. Anything less constitutes a gross dereliction of their duty and frankly speaking heads deserve to roll at South Yorkshire Police.
The failings of social services and the care homes were no less spectacular than those of the police. While it is conceded that child protection services were operating in straitened circumstances the testimonies of victims again reveal a deep seated culture of apathy and indifference towards the plight of the young girls. Social workers were often little more than pen pushers, constantly bemoaning their workloads while taking no active interest in the welfare of their cases. Furthermore children above the age of 11 were categorised as low priority cases leaving them highly vulnerable to exploitation. One victim in an interview with the Telegraph, recounted how staff at the care home she was lodged at, supposedly for her protection, would acquiesce in her abuse by paying for taxi fares back after nights out with her abusers. One might be tempted to laugh were it not so heart-rending.
Interspersed in this Kafkaesque tale of human turpitude there are notable vignettes of compassion and courage, of individuals who dared to buck the trend of indifference to take a stand against the prevailing depravity. In the final estimation, however, the tale of Rotherham is one of extraordinary pathos, of what happens when good people do nothing and allow evil to fester and metastasise. That profound changes are required in order to avoid any repetition of this shameful episode would be to state the obvious; the question is whether the people of Rotherham have the integrity to face up to their failings and more importantly take the necessary steps resolve them.
From the part of the Pakistani community its current gerontocracy must be supplanted by a more vernal leadership. There needs to be a recognition of our failings and the state of denial we have for so long persisted in and most importantly of the necessity for change. Imams need recruiting from local born second generation British-Pakistanis not importing from Pakistan. Crucially culture and religion must be disjoined; ironically the cultural practises most in need of jettisoning are those most antithetical to Islamic teachings (e.g. forced/coerced marriage, blind devotion to tribal/spiritual allegiances). To reject cultural practises with no basis in Islamic scripture is not to be a bad Muslim, quite the opposite. The misoneism of successive generations needs to end. Speaking out against injustice is not “bringing shame upon the community” but rather averting it and on this point the Qur’an is unequivocal:
“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.” [TMQ 4:135]
To any who have been offended by what I have written I apologise but I cannot state it except as I see it ,while accepting that others’ perceptions may differ.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our master, Muhammad. Ameen.