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.

Habbo Hotel
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GirLand, Habbo Hotel and me: how I learned to masturbate online

The forum was a kind of guerrilla support group, hidden on a pretty pink website that our parents didn’t even think to worry about.

In 2004 I was 13 years old, bored, curious and perpetually horny. To make matters worse, writers like Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham hadn’t yet bared the truth about female masturbation, and society was still operating under the illusion that teenage girls had no sexual feelings to speak of. 

When I discovered the ability to make myself orgasm I, like many girls before me, thought I’d done something deeply dark and possibly sinful. My one solace was the internet.

GirLand was a haven. It was an interactive site where you had your own avatar, a Barbie-style character who could go shopping and chat to other avatars. But the best part of the site was the message boards. They were totally anonymous, and were home to hundreds of girls who would post questions and give each other advice.

While some of the conversations focussed on face masks and crushes, the most popular board by far was about masturbation. Women swapped tips, told anecdotes about getting caught, and advised each other about what really doesn’t work. It was possibly the the most positive and wholesome exchange I’ve ever seen online.

We on the GirLand message boards had one united purpose: getting ourselves off. This common goal transcended background, ethnicity, and location. Decades later, I have reminisced with dozens of women about the boards and realised that we probably interacted all those years ago. In a world where female masturbation is so often airbrushed out of the conversation, it was essential. It was the only thing in my world that showed me I was normal, and that what I was doing was healthy.

The GirLand website in 2005.

Now, the conversation has moved on a little, and teenage girls seem more encouraged to explore their own bodies – parenting advice has become far more supportive of “alone time”. But we didn’t have any of that. What we had was a kind of guerrilla support group, hidden on a pretty pink website that our parents didn’t even think to worry about.

Of course, some of my teenage explorations weren’t quite so wholesome. Another favourite website was Habbo Hotel, a sort of chatroom crossed with the Sims, where I would occasionally convene with other avatars for “cyber sex”, which consisted of typing what you’d do if you were together. Unsurprisingly, the site has subsequently been dubbed a “paedophile’s haven”, and suspended its chat function following a Channel 4 investigation. 

I’m not sure what I make of this nickname, even if it’s accurate. I don’t doubt that I had sexual conversations with older people on Habbo Hotel, probably men much older than me, who enjoyed the fact that I was a child. But I still think I had a better deal than today’s teens, who grapple with Snapchat nudes and FaceTime sex.

On Habbo Hotel, I was able to be totally anonymous, and at least there was no evidence that could be used against me in the way that revenge porn would be today. My identity was never connected with what I was doing online, meaning I could explore in a safe, controlled way, and if it felt too much I could click the red "x" in the top right hand of the screen and it all disappeared. In some ways, it really didn’t matter who was on the other side of that screen.

So where was the child protection in all of this? As I remember it, there wasn’t much. Adults did their best to shelter us, but like every generation of teens before us, we resisted them. The early 2000s were a gloriously odd decade in which children understood new technologies much faster and most instinctively than the majority of the adults around them.

IT lessons were delivered by middle-aged teachers who were still a little afraid of the machines they introduced us to. They warned us of paedophiles lurking in the shadows; of the fire and brimstone that lurked in chat rooms. And of course, we totally ignored them. As fast as schools and parents tried to block our access, we worked ways around them through proxy sites.

Now, most parents wouldn’t give their child unfettered access to the internet. The relative freedom and anonymity that my generation enjoyed growing up has disappeared in families where parents set up child locks and carefully monitor screen time.

I know that if and when I have children, I’ll be the same, and the idea of my children exploring sex through strangers on the internet will frighten and repulse me. Rightfully so. But right now? I can’t help thinking that I owe the darker sides of the internet a great deal.