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.

UPDATE:

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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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.