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.

Show Hide image

Did Cornish voters for Brexit just kill off their own language?

Brexit may well pose a threat to some of the few aspects of British culture that we can agree are truly indigenous - its ancient languages.

Cornwall’s majority Leave vote in the EU referendum came as one of last year’s biggest ironies. In 2014, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly was classed as the second poorest region in northern Europe, and had become one of the EU’s biggest beneficiaries. The European Regional Development Fund’s and European Social Fund’s Objective One and Convergence plans aimed at equipping the region’s transport, ICT infrastructure and innovation capacities with hundreds of millions of Euros between 2000-2013.

If you take Cornwall’s burgeoning movement for a regional assembly at face value, the Leave vote would seem like a case in point for those who believe that Brexit was less about economics and much more about British identity and culture. The anti-immigration tone of the Leave campaign brought urgent debate to the question of what, exactly, constitutes “Britishness” and British culture. Yet moving away from Europe may well pose a threat to some of the few aspects of British culture that we can agree are truly indigenous - its ancient languages. It is European frameworks that in recent decades have prompted support to minority language survival efforts.

There’s a Cornish saying that goes: “A man who loses his tongue has lost his land.” Cornish and Welsh are living examples of how this has worked, as the original Brittonic languages that gave way to English after the Anglo-Saxons took hold across the British mainland and shaped these islands’ nations and regions as we understand them today. Their survival is intimately connected to local self-determination. While Welsh, Irish and the Scottish Celtic language Gaelic have gained substantial recognition and usage along with devolved governance, the revival of Cornish has been a harder battle.

A Cornish language revival movement has brought the number of fluent speakers from practically zero at the beginning of the 20th century, to around 500 today. Yet the protection of the language in recent years has been driven more by European initiatives than by British government. Campaigners now fear that Brexit, ironically enough, will close off lifelines to the language’s survival.

In 2001, the United Kingdom ratified the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which includes recognition and protections for Cornish, Manx Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, Ulster-Scots, and Irish. The Council of Europe is not an EU body, and we will remain an eligible member for as long as we are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR). But Theresa May has long wanted Britain to abandon this, and Brexit is providing the political conditions to question it. In February this year, a cohort of 53 human rights lawyers and experts led by rights organisation 89up were alarmed enough to write an open letter to the Observer asking ministers to ensure that acceding the ECHR remain a condition of Brexit negotiations.

Britain’s membership of the EU paved the groundwork for the recognitions and funding that British minority languages receive today. Quintessentially bureaucratic as it sounds, it was the European classification of Cornwall as a distinct region - rather than merely being part of the collectively richer South-West England - that allowed the EU’s Objective 1 and Convergence funding to flow that way. This in turn strengthened a bid to the European Social Fund (ESF) to set up MAGA Kernow, the Cornish Language Office, which sets out a strategy for the development of the language for the coming years, through initiatives such as classes, broadcasting, and place names. In 2010, ESF funds matched UK government funding of £120,000 towards the protection of the language.

It took until 2014 for the UK government to officially recognise Cornish people and their language as a distinct entity, and it is yet to put in place legislation similar to the Welsh Language Act. Soon after the Brexit vote, the Autumn 2016 budget abruptly ended its funding commitment to the Cornish language. In response to a petition garnering over 10,000 signatures, the Department for Communities and Local Government stated that they have “always been clear that its funding … was time-limited,” and that Cornwall Council should reallocate funds from its budget. Loveday Jenkin, councillor for Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish Nationalist Party and longtime language campaigner, disputes this. She claims that Cornwall Council had been assured of continued funding, but then government “took that out at the last minute.”

Independent councillor Julian German says, “We were asked to re-apply for the renewal of the funds, and were informally assured that the funding would come through the DCLG. But when the budget came out, the funds weren’t there.” In March 2017, the Council of Europe urged the government to reconsider the decision, and recommended establishing BBC support for the language.

Membership of the EU affords several opportunities to support minority languages, whether as part of regional development funds or as direct cultural bids. In 2015, Creative Europe funded Hinterland/Y Gwyll for the second time, a bilingual Welsh/English TV series distributed in 30 countries and Netflix. Further opportunities for support to the languages come from the new Erasmus+ youth and culture fund, as well as Truro’s submission this year for 2023 European City of Culture, on behalf of the region of Cornwall. British cities are eligible to apply until 2019; as a non-EU country after this, we’re unlikely to be marked as a priority.

The biggest fear from campaigners is that, despite rising nationalist sentiment country-wide, multiculturalism is viewed only in terms of foreignness. “Are we interested in multiculturalism and linguistic diversity?” asks independent councillor German. “Or are we looking to a future of a monoglot country?” There’s an argument that Brexit brings a contemporary opportunity to retrieve and redefine a lost understanding of Britishness. If so, this needn’t necessarily even be regressive or overly traditionalist. But despite these claims, without the prompting and support of common European frameworks, there’s little evidence that British cultural diversity will flourish in Brexit Britain.

0800 7318496