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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Want to understand Brexit? Just look at Sports Direct

The notorious warehouse was built on the site of a coalmine. 

In Bolsover, a constituency near Sheffield, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the European Union. If you want to understand why, look no further than its most infamous resident – Sports Direct. 

The cheap-as-chips sportswear company has an 800,000 square foot warehouse at Shirebrook, on the site of a coal mine that shut in 1993. It has been described as a Victorian workhouse, a gulag. After stories of a worker forced to give birth in a toilet, evidence of regular visits by paramedics and workers paid less than the minimum wage, MPs investigated.

The Business, Innovation and Skills select committee’s damning report, published on Friday, declared: 

“Workers at Sports Direct were not being paid the national minimum wage, and were being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Some say they were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours. Serious health and safety breaches also seem to have occurred. For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct.”

Sports Direct has grabbed the nation’s attention in part because of its colourful boss, Mike Ashley. The plain-speaking billionaire refused to appear in front of MPs, and when he finally did, he professed outrage that such abuses were going on. 

MPs concluded that he must be held accountable, either for participating in “appalling working practices” or for not bothering to learn about them in the first place. But crucially, the report noted: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way."

And this is where Brexit comes in.

Sports Direct – despite Ashley’s professed surprise about the internet – operates in a thoroughly modern way. It is not a 19th century workhouse, but a product of its time. 

Like the oh-so-fashionable Uber, it keeps its labour pool as flexible as possible. The warehouse hires agencies to supply workers. The majority of these workers are only guaranteed 336 hours, or seven weeks, of work a year. And here’s the crucial detail – while the agency may choose freely how many more hours it can offer, the worker must accept these or risk getting sacked.

As the report put it: “It is hard to see how in these circumstances, for example, the worker could have a job with another employer, since he or she is permanently ‘on call’.”

Thanks to zero-hours contracts, and shares for rights schemes, employers can legally impose these kind of rules. In a bustling city like London or Manchester, workers who don't like the terms of a contract can still vote with their feet. But in small, deprived towns, this is not an option.

Imagine that you grew up in Shirebrook in the 21st century. The industry that offered permanent employment and the rights that come alongside that, has vanished. And in its place – exactly in its place – your best chance of work is at Sports Direct. Why should gloomy forecasts of a Brexit future worry you when you don’t even know if you’ll get paid next week?

But that is not the whole story. If Sports Direct’s model is based on exploitative working practices, then logically it should recruit the type of workers with least protection against exploitation.

One whistleblower who contacted MPs told them: “When the colliery was closed and the town began to suffer, local people were promised 80 per cent of the jobs, but it came to less than 30 per cent, and the majority of jobs went to Eastern European workers.”

One telling detail of the report is the fact Sports Direct offers employees without a bank account a pre-paid debit card, which costs £10 a month and 75p for cash withdrawals. It is hard to imagine anyone with a basic familiarity of the UK’s free bank accounts accepting such an offer. 

Steve Turner, a Unite trade unionist, said as much. He told the committee: “We have workers here, predominantly from Eastern Europe and recruited in Eastern Europe. English is their second if not third language.

“They are brought across to the UK and then, because they have no bank account, they are offered the facility of a pre-paid debit card.”

If your main experience of the free movement of people is Shirebrook, why on earth would you be in favour of it? The immigrant workers in the warehouse are not aspirational entrepreneurs. They are merely fellow victims in a 21st century labour trap. And at least these workers were paid something akin to a normal salary, compared to the Slovakian "slaves" rescued from a business park in Rochdale in 2014. These unlucky workers were promised accommodation and jobs, but ended up earning just £25 for an 80-hour week. 

Sports Direct is the flipside to London’s coffee-swilling freelancers, or university towns’ cosmopolitan hubs. It epitomises the worst of a flexible labour market and the abuse of an expanded labour pool. But these are problems that could have been fixed in house, if MPs had clamped down on zero-hours contracts and listened more to unions. Brexit on its own will do neither of these things.