How on earth is my religion to blame for Asian gangs and sex abuse?

Melanie Phillips's latest outburst against Islam and Muslims is opportunistic and goes beyond the pale.

So there I was, on a Monday morning, in a rather good mood, having had Ed Miliband give my forthcoming book about him a free plug, live on Sky News and BBC News, and still recovering from the shock of having Norman Tebbit (yes, that Norman Tebbit!) aim some warm words in my direction in a blog post on the Telegraph website about British Muslims; a post in which he wisely concludes:

There are Muslims out there seeking an accommodation with our society. They may not be able to defeat the Islamist fanatics, but we would be foolish to reject a hand held out in understanding and reconciliation.

But then I turned to the Daily Mail and, specifically, to Melanie Phillips. The headline?

While Muslim sexual predators have been jailed, it is white Britain's hypocritical values that are to blame

My first response? Can you imagine a headline that said, "While Jewish murderers have been jailed . . ." or "While Hindu bank robbers have been jailed . . ."? When was it that we first started classifying crimes and criminals by religious affiliation?

Phillips, of course, has long suffered from a sort of Muslims Tourette's syndrome -- she refers to Muslims 18 times in her column today. From the outset, she makes clear that she plans to go beyond Jack Straw, Leo McKinstry and others who have fallen over each other to make spurious arguments about the "cultural" factors behind the so-called on-street grooming of young girls for sex by criminal gangs. Nope, Mel has the dastardly religion of Islam in her sights:

Police operations going back to 1996 have revealed a disturbingly similar pattern of collective abuse involving small groups of Muslim men committing a particular type of sexual crime.

Sorry, but I have to ask again: what has the assumed faith of these men got to do with the crime itself? I must have missed the chapter of the Quran that encourages Muslim men to go out and ply young girls with alcohol (!) and drugs and then pimp them out to older men for sex. While I disagree with Straw, McKinstry, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, David Aaronovitch and others who have speculated about the various cultural factors behind these crimes, I'm not that surprised that "culture" has raised its ugly head -- and I, for one, would welcome some peer-reviewed, nationwide studies of this particular crime and the perpetrators of it. But religion??

Phillips writes:

For while, of course, most Muslims repudiate any kind of sexual crime, the fact remains that the majority of those who are involved in this particular kind of predatory activity are Muslim.

First, we don't know that's the case. Sorry. But we don't. You can't extrapolate from such a small sample (50 out of 56 men) in one corner of the country. That's also the view, I might add, of the two UCL academics whose research was cited by the Times in its original story last Wednesday. In a letter to the Times published on 7 January, they wrote:

While we were heartened by the open and insightful discussion of the crime, we are concerned that limited data can be over-extended to characterise an entire crime type, in particular, in terms of race and gender. The identity of victims and offenders identified to date, primarily in the Midlands and the north of England, may misrepresent this crime on a national level.

In our work, based on two major police operations, we found that perpetrators were predominantly but not exclusively of Pakistani descent: several other ethnicities featured, too. Only through nationwide scoping studies can ethnicity be reliably established. If we allow ourselves to be blinded by this emergent and untested racial stereotype, we risk ignoring similar crimes perpetrated by offenders of other ethnicities.

It is also worth remembering that the "fact remains" that the "majority of those who are involved in" internet child sex offences (95 per cent) are white, as are the majority of prisoners (80 per cent) behind bars for sex crimes. And, as Chris Dillow notes:

Straw gives us no statistics to justify his claim.
Those that do exist seem to undermine his claim.
Table 5.4b of this pdf shows that, in the latest year for which we have data, Lancashire police arrested 627 people for sexual offences. 0.3% of these were Pakistanis. That's two people. 85.5% were white British. In Lancashire, there are 1,296,900 white Brits and 45,000 Pakistanis. This means that 4.163 per 10,000 white Brits were arrested for a sex crime, compared to 0.44 Pakistanis. If you're a journalist, you might say that the chances of being arrested for a sex crime are nine times greater if you're white than Pakistani. If you're a statistician, you might say they are 0.037 percentage points greater.

So what conclusions should we draw about white people from such statistics? Has Melanie checked with her white husband Joshua or her white son Gabriel as to why white men are so much more likely to commit sex crimes in this country than men from non-white, minority communities? Is this a problem of "white culture" or Judeo-Christian culture? Why the "conspiracy of silence"?

Phillips continues:

For these gang members select their victims from communities which they believe to be 'unbelievers' -- non-Muslims whom they view with disdain and hostility.

You can see that this is not a racial but a religious animosity from the fact that, while the vast majority of the girls who are targeted are white, the victims include Sikhs and Hindus, too.

"Religious animosity"? According to the Times's own research, several victims of a British Pakistani gang in an unnamed northern city were Bangladeshi Muslim girls. So much for Islamic solidarity among Asian gangs. And has Phillips, or Straw, ever been to Pakistan? Don't they know that young girls are sold into sexual slavery in Pakistan, too, where they all happen to be Muslims, as do the perpetrators of this heinous crime?

The only "fact" that we learn from Phillips's rant is that she is willing to find an Islamic angle to any story, no matter how horrific the story, no matter how tenuous the angle. For someone who rails against anti-Semitism under every bed and foams at the mouth at the first sight of journalists or bloggers stereotyping or generalising about Jews or Israelis to then make such sweeping and lazy assumptions about Muslims is particularly hypocritical and, I would add, unforgivable.

Since the Times story broke last week, just two people have decided to "Islamise" it and thereby exploit it for their own Muslim-baiting agendas: Nick Griffin and Melanie Phillips. Shame on them both.


On a side note, I should point out that I am the co-author of the Ed biography that I referred to in passive, above, and that is provisionally entitled Ed: Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party. My co-author on this project is my former New Statesman colleague, James Macintyre. You can read more about our forthcoming book here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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George Osborne’s plan to spend the tampon tax on women’s charities is simply crass politics

It makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes.

It is not a pretty scene. “Guys,” says a male special adviser in George Osborne’s office, as they work late into the night finishing off the Spending Review. “What about, like, women?”

“Hmm,” nods another, finishing off his Byron burger disguised in a McDonald’s bag. “You’re right. We haven’t put any women in it.”

“Maybe we should give some extra money to women’s charities? I think there are some left. How about it, lads?” moots somebody else. Probably a man.

Everyone stops what they’re doing. Someone removes his tie, and solemnly rolls his sleeves up.

“Money? Where from?”

“Obviously not man money! We need that for proper things!” laughs the kind heart who wishes to fund women’s charities. “We’ll get women to pay for it themselves.”

“How? They don’t have any money to spend because of our austerity programme hammering them disproportionately hard!” chorus some Treasury bods in the background.

“Well, they pay for those luxurious little cotton thingies. Theyre always buying those. It’s some kind of monthly tax, I think. We could spend that on them?”

“Brilliant!” cries the Chancellor. And the most ridiculous announcement in this year’s Autumn Statement is born in a wave of high-fives and fitful backroom testosterone.

Yes, to much worshipful braying, Osborne stated with glee and pride in this year’s Autumn Statement that the VAT raised from women’s sanitary products – the “tampon tax” – will be spent on women’s health and support charities:

“There are many great charities that work to support vulnerable women, indeed a point that was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions. And my honourable friend the new member for Colchester has proposed to me a brilliant way to give them more help.

“300,000 people have signed a petition arguing that no VAT should be charged on sanitary products. Now, we already charge the lowest 5 per cent rate allowable under European law, and we’re committed to getting the EU to change its rules.

“Until that happens, I’m going to use the £15m a year raised from the tampon tax to fund women’s health charities and support charities. The first £5m will be distributed to the Eve Appeal, Safe Lives, Women’s Aid and the Haven, and I invite bids from other such good causes.”

It all ended with the Colchester MP and man Will Quince being patted on the back by fellow backbenchers for having such a tidy little idea:

Now, the government can’t help it that there is VAT on women’s sanitary products. Only the EU can change that. And, of course, any money being given to charities for vulnerable women is welcome – especially in light of the financial trouble women’s refuges have been facing due to cuts.

But this idea is crass politics. The way they’ve concocted and framed it is all wrong. It suggests that only money paid by women should support women’s services; if women are suffering, then it’s just the responsibility of female taxpayers. It’s their problem, and they should pay for it.

It also makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes. Ironic, as men should probably be picking up the tab for domestic abuse if anyone’s going to.

Of course, the government does spend general money on women’s charities – tampon tax revenue is just an extra boost. But the point is, why didn’t the Chancellor say that? Why didn’t he tell us how much the government is spending on women’s charities? And how it plans to make up for how hard domestic violence refuges have been hit by cuts? Cuts that are part of his austerity programme, by the way.

A neat little channel of a few million pounds from a wildly misjudged tax (tampons are a “luxury item” apparently) to a few women’s charities shouldn’t be championed as a genius idea by the Chancellor and the male MP whose brainchild it is. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips yelled in the chamber: “You’re not paying it, George. I am!”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.