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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The alcohol safety of new “female Viagra” drug was tested mostly on men

An investigation into the libido-enhancing drug’s side effects was carried out on a group of 23 men and two women. Spot the problem? 

Say you've designed a new libido-boosting drug aimed specifically at women, which, as it turns out, reacts badly with alcohol. You need to carry out further testing to investigate the side effects. Do you:

A) run a study with a group of mostly male subjects? 


B) run a study with a group of mostly female subjects?

To even the average layperson, the answer seems obvious. But drug company Sprout Pharmaceuticals, creator of new headline-grabbing “female viagra” drug Addyi, decided in its infinite wisdom to go ahead with option A anyway.

Addyi, is according to Sprout, to be used "for the treament of premenopausal woman with acquired generalised hypoactive sexual desire disorder", yet in research designed to investigate the interactions of the drug with alcohol, the company used a study group of 23 men and only two women. 

Let's look the study itself. In the notes on the trial supplied by the FDA, it's described thus: 

“A dedicated alcohol interaction study with Addyi in 23 men and 2 premenopausal women.”

OK, perhaps, for some reason, the researchers wanted to study two women's reaction, with a control group of, er, 23 men. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and read on.

The study summary then notes that "four of 23 subjects" who were given the drug plus two glasses of wine displayed hypotension (low blood pressure) or syncope (loss of consciosuness caused by hypotension). "Six of the 24 subjects" given four glasses of wine plus the drug experienced these side effects. 

The problem here is that neither of these conclusions separates the results for gender - it could be that both women fainted after a few glasses of wine, or neither did. This implies that the researchers weren't particularly interested in exploring any gender difference in results, depite the fact that, as DrinkAware notes, men and women metabolise alcohol differently. Presumably, they metabolise a drug aimed at the female libido differently, too. 

In Sprout's defence, the skewed study, first picked up by New York Magazine's Science of Us vertical, was not one of the original clinical trials carried out on Addyi. Instead, it was a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS). The FDA, which approves new drugs, can require manufacturers to carry out these REMS studies either before or after a product goes on the market to further understand known side effects. 

This REMS was carried out after 13 of clinical trials on the drug, all of which used test groups of women. This sceenshot from the drug's safety information page gives you an idea: 

Screenshot from Addyi's listing on a pharmacy intelligence site.

So we're not implying that the drug wasn't rigorously tested - in fact, it was rejected twice by the FDA before it was finally approved. But the REMS study is still significant: the drug's manufacturers recommend that users shouldn't drink alcohol at all during treatment, thanks to the fainting and blood pressure side effects (which actually contributed to the FDA's earlier decisions to reject the drug). This further investigation, and the patient advice it fed into, is pretty useless to female users if it was carried out mostly on men.

I asked Sprout Pharmaceuticals why the study had such an unhelpful gender divide, and a spokesperson told me:

The alcohol interaction study, which was designed with FDA guidance, required participants to drink the alcoholic equivalent of a half a bottle of wine within 10 minutes on a nearly empty stomach before taking Addyi. More men than women agreed to enroll in this kind of study... Sprout plans to conduct post-marketing studies to further evaluate the effects of alcohol in women when taken with Addyi.

The answer: they just didn't get enough women signing up. It seems reasonable to expect a bit more of drug companies, especially following a series of articles in Nature journal in 2010 outlining how an over-reliance on men in drug trials, along with other gender inequalities in biochemsitry, are "undermining patient care". Let's hope the "post-marketing studies" on Addyi actually focus on the drug's target audience. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.