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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Lib Dems beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park

With a campaign fought around their opposition to Brexit, the Lib Dems overturn Zac Goldsmith's 23,000 majority.

The Liberal Democrats have defeated Zac Goldsmith to win the seat of Richmond Park, south-west London.

Goldsmith resigned from the Tory party and contested the by-election as an independent, citing his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. But the Lib Dems fielded Sarah Olney - who only joined the party in 2015 - and fought a campaign on their opposition to Brexit. Goldsmith backed leaving the EU in June.

Olney received 20,510 votes to Goldsmith's 18,638 - overturning his previous majority of 23,015. The Greens, Ukip and the Tories did not stand a candidate. Labour, along with the smaller parties, lost its deposit.

Sarah Olney becomes the Lib Dems' ninth MP - and their only woman in the Commons. 

She said: "The people of Richmond Park and North Kingston have sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government, and our message is clear - we do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to be pulled out of the single market, and we will not let intolerance, division and fear win."

As my colleague Stephen Bush wrote yesterday, the Lib Dems have been increasingly bullish about their prospects in Richmond Park all week, despite an early poll of the seat which put them well behind: "Richmond is ripe with the voters that the Liberal Democrats believe represent their path back: affluent, educated, part of that small group that might not have voted for Tony Blair and David Cameron, but felt the benefits of both administrations, and, broadly, hasn’t been actively distressed by the result of an electoral contest – other than the European referendum."

The result in Richmond will make many in Labour and the Conservative party nervous. For Tories who won their seats from Lib Dems in 2015, this is a sign that there is a small but significant block of voters for whom Brexit is a motivating issue. (Nearly three-quarters of voters in Richmond voted Remain.) For Labour, the concern is that a political discussion polarised around pro/anti-Brexit lines leaves them out of the picture - as has happened in Scotland, where the narrative is framed around independence/unionism. 

This is the second good result for the Lib Dems' anti-Brexit strategy: in the by-election on 20 October, they reduced the Tory majority in Witney by 20,000. The Oxfordshire seat, previously held by David Cameron, is also affluent and Remain-voting. The party has also done well in local elections since the referendum, particularly in the south-east of England.

However, don't start ordering your "Prime Minister Farron" baseball caps just yet. By-elections are notorious for wild swings, and the Lib Dems' polling is still low nationally . Plus, the party threw the kitchen sink at Witney, with the leadership privately saying that they had activists braced for an autumn general election, who would instead be deployed there.

Also in "smaller parties quite chipper" news, the Greens are claiming credit for the win, saying that by not fielding a candidate, they helped the Lib Dems defeat a "regressive alliance". In 2015, the Greens received 3,548 votes in Richmond Park, while Goldsmith was defeated by 1,872. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.