Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary, claims that some Pakistani men see young white women as prime targets for sexual grooming. Is he right, asks Andrew Gilligan
If you want an example of the official “conspiracy of silence” that has allegedly allowed hundreds of vulnerable white girls in some towns to be abused by Asian men, the case of Ajmal Mohammed, a 43-year-old from Blackburn, might seem to be it. In 2004, Mohammed, an amateur cricketer in the Ribblesdale league, took a schoolgirl to a Manchester hotel room and got her drunk – to celebrate, he said, her 14th birthday. The child ran away. Police were called, but he denied having sex with her and they issued him with a “child abduction warning letter”. He was never prosecuted.
Two years later, Mohammed took another 14-year-old to a hotel room, this time in Blackpool – and this time he raped her. When the police came for him, they found the numbers of six other vulnerable youngsters on his mobile phone.
In industrial towns across the North and the Midlands, over the past three years, at least 51 people have been convicted in trials involving groups of men who have picked up young girls for sexual exploitation. Forty-eight of the offenders were Asian; the vast majority of the victims were white. Last week, in Derby, nine men, eight of them Asian, were sentenced for their parts in a gang that groomed, sexually exploited and in some cases raped 27 local children, 22 of them white.
The issue exploded on to the national agenda on Friday after Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary who is also MP for Blackburn, said that in his town, some Pakistani men saw white girls as “easy meat”. There was, he said, “a specific problem of Pakistani-heritage men who target vulnerable young white girls, and we need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and about the problems that are leading to a number of Pakistani-heritage men thinking it’s OK to target white girls in this way”.
Many other figures involved in this field have fought shy. Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, initially described the evidence as merely “anecdotal”. A Channel 4 documentary on the subject in 2004 was pulled at the request of police. Few experts were willing to talk openly yesterday.
Yet as early as 2006, Blackburn’s local paper, the Lancashire Telegraph, launched a “Keep Them Safe” campaign to make the authorities tackle what it called “sexual grooming and abduction […] which predominantly involves Asian men”. In article after article, the paper charted locals’ frustration at officialdom’s reluctance to get involved: in 2007, it reported, the parents of some victims even threatened to sue the police for their failure to act. The editor, Kevin Young, said: “This is an extremely sensitive subject, and the Telegraph gave it a lot of consideration before launching its campaign.”
In response, in 2008, Lancashire police and Blackburn social services set up Operation Engage. By March last year, it had offered protection to some 385 girls and young women. Similar operations have sprung up in Preston and other nearby towns. Some schools in East Lancashire now offer their female pupils lessons in “how to spot a sexual groomer”.
There could, of course, hardly be a more emotive story than this. Sexual abuse! White girls! Pakistani men! Politically-correct establishment letting it all happen! No wonder the BNP has been licking its lips (though, unfortunately for them, the only two white Blackburn people recently convicted of this crime, in November 2008, turned out to be members of the party).
Yet just because the BNP exploits an issue, does not mean there is nothing in it. The questions really should be: is it simply a local problem in those towns? What, if any, wider weaknesses does it expose in Britain’s Muslim communities? And what, if any, wider weaknesses does it expose in Britain’s governing class?
Sadly for the racists, the figures just do not support any attempt to paint British Muslims and Asians as sex predators on a national scale. Asians are, in fact, under-represented among sex offenders. As at June 2009, there were 7,021 British men in prison for sex crimes, of whom only 234 were Asian. That is 3.3 per cent, rather less than the proportion of Asians in the population. And a 2008 study by Malcolm Cowburn of Sheffield Hallam University found that jailed sex criminals from ethnic minorities were less likely to have abused children than white sex offenders.
Haras Rafique, of the Centri counter-extremism think tank, says: “There is a problem, a massive problem, but I don’t think it’s confined to Pakistani communities. It only appears to be a bigger problem with immigrants because immigrants are more visible.”
And not just because of their skin colour. Asians do not commit more sex crimes, but they do, perhaps, commit different sorts of sex crimes. White child abusers are more likely to find and groom their victims in private, on the internet. The evidence suggests that Asian abusers are more likely to find and groom their victims in public, on the street.
Straw says young men “fizzing and popping with testosterone” are taking up with white children because “Pakistani-heritage girls are off limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan”. Rafique says the former Home Secretary is living in the 1970s: “These guys are just as happy to groom Asian girls if they can get them,” he says. “It’s just that the parents of Asian girls tend to keep a closer eye on them.” Quite a lot of those convicted are also in their 30s.
One other feature in the abuse must be the view, held by a substantial minority of British Muslims, that the Western lifestyle is immoral or degenerate. Only two weeks ago, the East London Mosque, the largest mosque in Britain’s largest Muslim community, held an event condemning “child-rearing in the Western context” as a “social ill”.
This mosque, and many others, has also hosted events condemning music, immodest dress and the wearing of perfume. A young Muslim man brought up on that sort of diet is less likely to treat a white girl in a short skirt with respect.
But the East London Mosque, and many other such havens of hatred and extremism, was, at least until recently, treated by the white political establishment as a respectable, mainstream institution. And that brings us to the sense of denial by some white liberals, and their refusal to hold Muslims to the standards they expect in others.
Last year, this newspaper told how more than £100,000 of public money was paid to two schools with connections to the racist, extremist group Hizb ut Tahrir – the Muslim equivalent of the BNP. The headmistress of one described English as “the most dangerous subject a school can teach”. If the BNP had been given public money to run schools, it would have been stopped. But the then schools secretary, Ed Balls, defended the payments.
Many other parts of the British state, from Ofsted to the Charity Commission, have been less than willing to confront prima facie evidence of extremism and intolerance, often to the frustration of Muslims themselves. Even last week, one Guardian columnist dismissed the Muslim grooming claims as “part of the ignoble tradition of racialising criminality in this country”.
Even though sex crimes committed by Pakistanis may be no more prevalent than those committed by people of any other race, that still leaves the question of whether those crimes are being less effectively tackled by the authorities. Some might argue that the relative lack of Asian sex offenders in prison reflects the authorities’ relative unwillingness to pursue Asian sex offenders.
Criminologists say that that is probably not the explanation. But as with any offenders of any race, people commit crime more if they think they can get away with it. And in the eyes of many people in East Lancashire, there was, at least until recently, a willingness to let Pakistani offenders get away with it, for fear of being accused of racism. The danger, of course, is that that stokes the very bigotry it seeks to avoid.
The lesson from Blackburn, however, is that if the problem is brought out into the open, it can be addressed. Since the local paper’s campaign, and the establishment of Operation Engage, there have been 63 charges, a number of convictions and, apparently, a deterrent effect: according to Engage’s co-ordinator, 80 per cent of the cases they now deal with (albeit on a broader front than merely street grooming) do not involve Pakistanis.
Last night, in the inevitable political row, some of the usual suspects accused Straw of “stereotyping a whole community”. But this subject does not have to become a racial melodrama; it is, principally, a crime. We can tackle it – but first we have to start talking about it.