Ethnicity does not seem to play a significant role in rates of child sex abuse despite recent high-profile cases involving men of Pakistani origins; instead, what is unusual about their behaviour is the tendency to form grooming gangs, writes Dr Azeem Ibrahim.
Shocking grooming scandals involving Pakistani men have created another tense moment in the history of race relations in the UK, And there really is a deep problem here – it is not just about the most recent convictions of seven men in Rotherham. Soon after the news of that case, the National Crime Agency has announced that a further 420 individuals of a similar background are under investigation for gang sexual grooming. So why is it that such scandals keep emerging, and will they continue to emerge?
Before we go any further, we must clarify that the sexual exploitation of children is very far from an Asian or Pakistani exclusive phenomenon. Child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in British society, and though statistics on the ethnicity of perpetrators are incomplete, from the information available it appears that easily the largest group are white men – and roughly at rates to be expected given their representation in the general population: the proportion is thought to hover at around 85 per cent.
What does seem to be more specific to abuses cases involving Asian and Pakistani men in particular is the gang aspect of it. These men band together and cooperate to exploit girls, and most often specifically white girls, in a systematic fashion, in large numbers – both of perpetrators and of victims – and over long periods of time. So whereas ethnicity does not seem to correlate to the likelihood of individuals having paedophile inclinations, ethnicity does seem to play a significant role in how those inclinations are pursued.
The overwhelming majority of grooming gang members in these scandals work in the night economy: taxi drivers, carry-out workers, delivery drivers, etc. These are jobs in which ethnic minorities, especially Asians, are disproportionately represented; they are jobs which give these men plenty of access to vulnerable young girls, and jobs which allow for cooperation and gang-like behaviour among them.
On top of the economic conditions which enable such behaviours, there are cultural conditions which encourage them. Working-class immigrant communities from Asian backgrounds continue to retain pervasive misogynistic attitudes towards women in general, and special disdain for what they see as more independently minded white women in particular. Any expression of sexuality especially by young women or girls is taken to mark one as a “slut”, to whom normal respect for individual autonomy or ethical concern for their well-being and safety will not be afforded.
Now such attitudes are not unique to working-class Asian and Pakistani communities, but they are more aggravated in such communities for historic cultural reasons. On top of that, the social and economic conditions of immigrant communities are more likely to promote gang-like social interactions between men, which in turn enforce toxic tendencies in their understanding of masculinity and of gender relations.
The final and decisive factor why such grooming gangs have become a fairly specific Asian problem, however, rather than one shared with other similar communities with similar social attitudes and incidence of crime, is the response of the wider society, of the state and of the legal system to the worries about such behaviours emerging from this specific community. Whereas concerns about grooming would have been more robustly dealt with much earlier when emerging in other communities, in Britain the authorities and social services have historically had a certain degree of reticence in tackling abuses involving the Asian community for fear that action on these issues might reveal some kind of entrenched institutional racism, or just blatant racist attitudes in those officials tasked with pursuing the issues.
This reticence of the broader society and of the state to tackle these issues seriously and early has allowed them to fester and grow into a real problem affecting thousands of lives, gain a distinctive ethnic dimension, and produce deep long-term harm to social cohesion and stability – these grooming scandals have since become a cause celebre for the far-right, after all.
And this reticence to address these issues has much in common with our reticence to tackle radical Islamist preachers in the late ’80s and ’90s, both as far as the “fear of racism” is concerned, and as far as they have served to radicalise the far-right and tear our communities, our society and our gentle, liberal ideals to shreds.
Though most of these scandals seem to be coming from de-industrialised towns in the north of England, there are wider lessons to be learnt across Britain, including in Scotland. The conditions here may be different, but we must never allow crime, let alone the abuse of children, fester for fear of offending minority pride – not as a society, and certainly not at the level of public administration and law enforcement.
Pakistani men have not been grooming young girls because of their parental heritage. They have been targeting young girls for exploitation because we have let them – more so than any other group. Those guilty of these heinous crimes are now being brought to justice. But the damage to so many young girls and women is already done. We should not forget that we share responsibility for that damage through our misguided attitudes towards race and our warped view of children who show any kind of sexual inclinations.
For their part, the victims of these abuses have set up support networks for themselves where they help each other navigate the world past their ordeals and hopefully begin some process of healing. That process of healing is something we must all take responsibility for as a society, and we must do our best to foster it and aid it along its long and difficult path. And, through this process, perhaps we may heal too the wounds these scandals have inflicted on the fragile fabric that holds our diverse society together.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is executive chairman of The Scotland Institute, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College and author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism