The issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) perpetrated by gangs in numerous towns across the United Kingdom appeared in headlines around a decade ago. Largely Muslim and specifically Pakistani origin men were involved in abusing and exploiting white, English girls, with one victim as young as twelve. For me, and this may not be politically correct, but there were too many commonalities between cases separated by time and place, to not do some calling out! Of course, as a campaigner for women’s voices and a British Asian Muslim woman, I feel obliged to speak out. Even if all I can do about it is condemn what happened and encourage further discussion and open debate.
The far-right, led by Tommy Robinson, wickedly and unsurprisingly used these headlines as a fascist rallying call. The establishment, i.e., the government, local government and government agencies, was failed by various police forces’ misplaced political correctness and male-dominated councils’ complacency. In a most extreme case, in my eyes, a police officer and councillor were proactively involved in looking the other way. By negotiating the return of a girl from her abuser, the police officer and councillor promised the abuser immunity from prosecution, for the crimes they knew he was engaged in. Even as I write this, I can’t believe it.
Another voice in the conversation was Quilliam, a Muslim-run anti-extremism think-tank, with close links to Tony Blair and the anti-radicalism agenda of his government. In a report which was vociferously challenged, Quilliam authors claimed “84% of grooming gang members are Asian.” Dr Ella Cockbain, lecturer in Security and Crime Science at UCL, shunned the reports claims, describing it as “a case study in bad science.” Later government reports contextualised the proportion of Pakistani Muslim offenders compared to any other ethnicity or social category, unequivocally arguing there was no link between race, religion and sexual abuse.
Looking at the geographical distribution of the cases, it staggers me how many places were affected by similar phenomena. Young girls from broken families and in social care, plied with drugs and alcohol, and abused by multiple men. Takeaway owners, taxi drivers and even some men described as “pillars of the community,” were left free to abuse young girls. Although some justice has been achieved, the fact that convictions are still occurring go to show how there’s a long way to go. Furthermore, numerous reports have shown scandalous remiss from local government and associated bodies, including social services and the police.
As a British Asian Muslim woman, brought up in a conservative Muslim socio-familial milieu, I see certain behaviours displayed by the child abusers resonating with some belief-based notions accepted as religious dogma. Firstly, for example, the topic of underage sex. According to strict interpretations of the Sharia, a Muslim man can marry (and then have sex with) a girl under the age of sixteen, as long as she has passed puberty. It may not be commonplace, but it is enshrined in dogma. The Prophet Mohammed married Aishah when she was either nine or fourteen. I’m not saying that makes all Muslims paedophiles, but the notion does exist in religious dogma.
Secondly, the existence of a dehumanising dichotomy, in other words, an “us” and “them” narrative. A narrative of Muslims and non-Muslims, believers and infidels. Belief, and equally disbelief, are incredibly important tenets in Islam. According to the most extreme interpretations, as held by the likes of ISIS, non-Muslim women are fair game, to be used as one pleases. Of course, most Muslims would be absolutely horrified at the thought. But, theologically and dogmatically, a believer is superior to a non-believer. How this manifests in practice, depends on interpretation. However, as a Muslim, I can categorically say that I’ve witnessed this dogmatic prejudice play out in more contexts than I think one could imagine! It’s a mentality.
Of all the voices contributing to this debate that I reviewed for the purposes of this piece, I found Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s to be the most pertinent to my particular concerns. Despite being Britain’s most senior Muslim politician and the first Muslim woman to be in the Cabinet, the nuance of her concerns demonstrates her understanding of what is a very complex reality on the ground. In an interview in 2012 with the Evening Standard, Baroness Warsi summarised the issue I seek to raise very succinctly: “There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game and we have to be prepared to say that. You can only start solving a problem if you acknowledge it first.”
In addition to ideas and beliefs related to underage sex and attitudes towards non-Muslims, there’s also the belief in polygamy. According to all Muslim schools of thought, men are allowed up to four wives at one time. Although this is not very common, and I’m certainly not claiming this belief translates into child sexual exploitation, I do believe it helps contributes to attitudes allowing some men to feel they can get away with playing away from home. For me, from my personal experience, this leeway given to males and male children compared to females, in the family home, can contribute to misogynistic attitudes. For example, while I was expected to learn to cook and clean, my brothers’ gender gave them a free pass. Here, I’m not blaming a belief in polygamy for child sexual exploitation, or the fact I was made to cook and clean. That’s ridiculous. Instead, I am saying that there are a number of religious beliefs whose extreme interpretation have real-world consequences.
Referring to the child sexual exploitation gangs operating in Rotherham, Rochdale, Bradford, Telford, Derby, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax and Peterborough, Baroness Warsi put it best: “This small minority [of Pakistani men] who see women as second-class citizens, and white women probably as third-class citizens, are to be spoken out against.” Although for the purposes of this discussion, I’ve discussed some religious beliefs, I don’t think for one second it’s a purely religious or race-based issue. However, with all the political correctness that has surrounded the topic, I feel there’s no harm in calling for a difficult but open debate, right?