Lurid details of the horrific criminal acts committed by sexual predators in Oxford, Rochdale and High Wycombe that have recently been exposed in court hearings are gut-wrenchingly repulsive. Evidence on the grooming of vulnerable young girls, lacking in family stability and self-esteem, by men who spared no thought for the innocence of their victims or the lasting effects of abuse and degradation, are beyond comprehension.
The emergence of the sex grooming cases involving men of Muslim background around the same time as those concerning Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall, is a potent reminder of the many faces of sexual predators. And while society as a whole recoils from the disclosures, it would seem the temptation to engage in Islamophobia has been too great for some to resist.
Inevitably, there have those who have sought to uncover a misogyny rooted in Islam to ‘explain’ the behaviour of these men. So we learn than an ‘unWesternised Islamic culture’ is to blame for these acts – any yet the men involved displayed no signs of Islamic culture and all the signs of ‘uncivilised’ behaviour with their heavy drinking and drug taking.
We’re also told that misogynistic views espoused from pulpits in mosques the length and breadth of Britain are responsible for the attitude these men displayed towards females, white women in particular. The idea that a fetish for fair skin is taught by religious leaders who sanction treating white women as ‘pieces of meat’ is a fantasy.
Much of what has passed for ‘intelligent’ comment in this area has sometimes felt like a suspension of reality with more hyperbole than fact informing the debate. Coverage of the trials brought the sordid details into full public view and they are shocking in the extreme. But a narrative that has channelled news of these crimes through a filter that has magnified the ‘racial’ or ‘religious’ facet is inexcusable.
Criminologists have argued that statistics are patchy on ethnicity for the simple reason that they are not comprehensively documented. Moreover, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, has warned of the consequences of going down the route of ‘racialising’ the criminal. To do so, she says, is to neglect his many faces and his many victims.
British Muslims have fought ‘guilt by association’ vigorously since the terrorist attacks of 7/7. ‘Not in our name’ has been the resounding cry of those rejecting the inference that sharing a religious tradition makes one complicit in the acts of the criminal. Is this not applicable now too with some seeking to place the crimes of sexual predators at the door of the Muslim community?
Reactions from some quarters in the Muslim community are a cause of alarm. Initiatives have been announced that are akin to the ‘naming and shaming’ of paedophiles in local communities pursued by The Sun newspaper some years ago. Such amateur vigilantism is not a helpful in the least. Nor is the prospect of a conference on sex grooming held by Muslims likely to dispel this manufactured bogeyman – the Muslim male as ‘sexual predator’. The unintended consequences of these knee jerk reactions is their reinforcing the notion that Muslims are disproportionately represented in these crimes and that it is their responsibility to tackle them.
It is because the far right exploit these issues to demonise law-abiding Muslim citizens that some are moved to act. But questioning how far right views are formed and what role biased media reporting plays in this, has been ill-explored.
We cannot help but feel that we have been here before. When Ministers and critics called on Muslim leaders to exorcise the scourge of terrorists from within their midst, the leadership sensibly responded to say that counter-terrorism work is the proper responsibility of intelligence and security agencies and of police officers. The most that can be expected is fulsome support and unstinting co-operation.
The rational reaction to the sex grooming scandals should have been a call for greater vigilance by social workers and care home staff, who witnessed these events and triggered no alarms, and an heightened effort to repel the Islamophobic discourse that has pervaded the coverage of these heinous crimes. Instead, we are left with the disappointing spectacle of do-gooder Muslims wanting to perform amateurishly the tasks of specialist agencies trained and equipped to do this work, all the while providing this latent Islamophobia a respectable platform.