Was race a factor in Rochdale?

Simon Danczuk, the town's MP, and Myriam Francois-Cerrah discuss the relevance of race and religion

A child sex abuse case has put Rochdale in the media spotlight. (Getty Images.)
A child sex abuse case has put Rochdale in the media spotlight. (Getty Images.)

On 9 May, nine men were jailed for their role in a child sex abuse ring in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Eight were of Pakistani origin and one was from Afghanistan. Their victims – teenage girls from local care homes – were white. Far-right groups have tried to exploit the issue while debate rages over whether race or religion played a role in the crimes. Here, we present two perspectives on the case.

We can’t ignore it

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale

This month, Labour experienced some of its best ever local election results. Turnout, however, was worrying, falling as low as 13 per cent in parts of Greater Manchester. For me, one of the abiding memories in Rochdale was the exhilaration of new councillors as they won their seats; but I also recall walking up to a group of youths fixing a motorbike outside a house on a council estate in the Littleborough area on polling day. “Will you be voting?” I asked. They shifted uncomfortably, looked askance and mumbled, “No, but we would if the BNP were standing.”

A few weeks earlier I had sat facing a distraught mother in one of my weekly surgeries, watching her shake with fear and anger as she described how an Asian man had raped her daughter.

If politics is to mean more than bureaucratic white noise to people, it has to give a voice to the voiceless. When mothers tell me their daughters are being hounded by groups of Pakistani men, I will not leave it to the likes of the BNP to address their concerns.

Economic anxieties, high unemployment and uncertainty about the future blight the country, but in working-class Pennine seats like mine in the north-west of England, a host of other complicated issues follows in their slipstream.

I thought long and hard before telling the media this past week that race was indeed a factor in the grooming scandal that has brought shame on our town, and that a small Asian subculture has to be confronted. Anti-racist vigilance is the default position of many politicians like me who remember the deeply entrenched societal racism of the 1980s, but this should never blind us to uncomfortable truths in some sections of the Asian community – or any other, for that matter.

For a while now, I’ve had concerns about disturbing attitudes towards women shown by some of Rochdale’s Asian residents. It goes way beyond casual chauvinism to something far worse. In the two years I have been an MP, I’ve had to throw people out of my surgery because of their violent views on women.

I have been asked to write letters of support for rapists and, in one case, for a man who had attacked a woman with a hammer. Research by Professor Roger Penn of Lancaster University shows that a good proportion of young white women in Rochdale have been subjected to verbal abuse by young Asian men.

It sickens me that law-abiding Asians in our town might be stigmatised because of the actions of a minority of warped individuals. But I believe that neither the police and social services nor community leaders can afford to duck this issue any longer. If even Asian councillors were writing letters of support for people now found guilty of horrific sex crimes, it is clear we have a culture of denial.

Since I spoke to the media, other MPs have told me privately that they agree with what I said. Asian campaigners who have spoken out against predatory Pakistani men say that white people have thanked them for saying what they could not say themselves. This is a sorry state of affairs.

It is time we abandoned the shibboleths that leave the political classes isolated from the realities debated on buses, in pubs and on the factory floor. Compare this position to the inspiring bravery shown by the young girls who stood up to evil predators in a court in Liverpool. They were doubly let down, because their background led some within the police and social services to think it was a lifestyle choice that had driven them into the arms of abusers. Vulnerable people need help and support, so we must have the courage to face up to these problems.

As I write, I hear the English Defence League is planning another march in Rochdale. Such racist thugs will not be welcomed in our town and neither will the BNP. But we will not resist them simply by denial. We need to take this debate out into the open and make sure it is led by reasonable voices that want to build a strong and cohesive community – not by siren calls of hatred from those who want to divide it.

Race is a distraction

Myriam Francois-Cerrah

“We need to talk about race,” pleaded one guest on Question Time – and the Rochdale case has certainly thrust the issue back into the spotlight. Yet the focus across a wide range of media on race as an explanation for sex grooming misses why Asian men are over-represented in poorer areas where street grooming occurs and why white girls are over-represented among vulnerable groups in such areas. About 95 per cent of the men on Greater Manchester Police’s sex offenders register are white. Most sex gangs are not Asian. The criminologists Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley warn: “If on-street grooming continues to be reduced to the big Asian networks alone, a whole host of other offenders will get overlooked.” Asians are not over-represented in the sex-slave trade or among paedophiles.

What’s more, to link sexually predatory behaviour with race is reminiscent of the racist terminology that was used to refer to black gangs in the 1980s. Take Jack Straw’s comment in January 2011 relating to a separate case in Derby: “These young men are in a western society – in any event, they act like any other young men, they’re fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that.” Straw both singled out the men as “foreign” and reduced their behaviour to physical urges, ignoring the dimension of power inherent in rape, which is primarily a crime of violence, not sex.

Confusing matters further has been the tendency of some writers, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, to conflate race with religion. “The rapists are all probably in one sense ‘good’ Muslims, praying and fasting
in the daytime, then prowling and preying at night,” she wrote in the Independent on 9 May.

This overlooked how, as Cockbain and Brayley pointed out, “the defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim”. Practising Muslims certainly aren’t supposed to rape children.

Other writers, such as David Aaronovitch, have presented the common view of some women as worthless and thus open to abuse as somehow inherent to Islam. Aaronovitch wrote in the Times on 10 May that grooming is the “cousin of honour killing”. Surely if this were the case the main victims would be Muslim girls.

Furthermore, such assertions ignore the inequities of power based on gender at every level of society, and expressed through a wide range of social and cultural idioms. The terminology expresses a shared disdain for women, even if it is inflected with culturally specific justifications – “slut”, “ho”, “skank”. Sexism is not an “Asian/Muslim problem”, though it does affect Asians and Muslims, too.

The focus on the race or religion of the perpetrator conveniently obscures the failures by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and social workers in bringing these men in Rochdale to trial sooner. What’s more, it makes us look past our own rape culture, in which victims’ claims are dismissed and where one in three rape allegations involves alcohol. The methods used by the Rochdale criminals are common to many white British sex offenders.

Those who seek to locate these crimes within some inherently Asian or Muslim characteristic fail to acknowledge that the vast majority of such men are law-abiding. They also choose to overlook the sheer diversity of Asian cultures – and that the chief prosecutor who reopened the case, Nazir Afzal, is an Asian Muslim.

To express these concerns is not a mark of political correctness; it is about avoiding the stigmatisation of an entire community based on the crimes of a group of men who happen to be Asian. The more important question is why some people have been so keen to attribute a racial dimension to this crime and what that says about our assumptions of Asian men.

Historically, it was black men who were viewed as the antithesis of white femininity, or as sexually predatory on white innocence and beauty. We would be naive not to notice how the same rhetoric is playing out now about men who are Asian and Muslim.