The news that nine men have been found guilty of child sex abuse in Rochdale has created widespread revulsion. The disclosure in Liverpool Crown Court that the men plied their victims with drink and drugs so they could 'pass them around' and use them for sex was vile. One of the girls 'groomed' was as young as 13.
The case involved Asian perpetrators - and white victims. The far-right British National Party (BNP) is gloating that Nick Griffin, its leader, is now 'vindicated' on his past comments about 'Muslim paedophile gangs'. Meanwhile, the head of the Rochdale-based Ramadhan Foundation, Mohammed Shafiq, has accused Pakistani community leaders of 'burying their heads in the sand' on the issue of street grooming. However (and confusingly for the outside observer) the police insist the grooming was not 'racially motivated'.
Let us be clear: sex with underage minors is a crime. A crime is a crime, whether it is committed by a white, black or Asian person. It remains a crime if done by a Muslim or Christian, a Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist. To every right-thinking member of society, street grooming of under-age vulnerable girls is despicable. There is no justification for it whatsoever, nor should shame from any one sector of a community be used as a cloak to allow this sort of behaviour to continue.
We must expose abuse and make sure the authorities react. But pointing fingers to certain communities without comprehensive concrete research could be a distraction. Scapegoating may even deflect the society from the main issue (sexual abuse) and send us into an over-focus on only one small part of an overall problem - leading to further social division. 'Racialising' crime over claims about Muslim men grooming white girls could hide legitimate worries about a system that fails victims of abuse. An entire community should not be blamed for the crimes of its individuals; in 2009, eight white men were found guilty in Scotland of a catalogue of charges relating to child abuse. We must address the issue firmly and objectively. Community and civil society groups, youth centres, religious institutions along with relevant statutory agencies, including the police, children's services and the third sector must come on board to tackle this in a holistic way.
'At the moment, our nationwide figures on on-street grooming are still patchy and incomplete', according to the authors of Comment is Free (CiF) in the Guardian on 8 May 2012. They believe that white offenders make up the majority of lone street groomers; but when it comes to group on-street groomers Asian youth of Pakistani origin are disproportionately high. 'Nonetheless, it is crucial to remember that these cases do not paint a full picture of this crime...We need a better, more efficient system of data collection and collation. What's more, these data need to be comparable and consistent across the country and across different agencies involved', they suggest.
Expressions like 'conspiracy of silence', 'political correctness' and 'fear of appearing racist' are not helpful. Some communities may have a disproportionate presence in certain crimes, but that does not necessarily give the full picture surrounding those crimes. Nor should this allow politicians and media to vilify those communities; the result could be handing over ammunitions to hate groups like the BNP and the English Defence League (EDL), who in their very black-and-white discourse blame Muslims for many awful things in our country.
Islam is the religion of some of the criminals recently convicted. However, even extra-marital sex is totally unacceptable in our faith. A story at the time of Islam's Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is highly relevant to understanding Islam's position on the recent grooming saga:
A man came to the Prophet and asked his permission to have sex (outside marriage) with other women.
The Prophet asked: "Would you like it if other men commit such acts with your mother, sister, wife or daughter?"
The man said: "No"
The Prophet then said: "Well, then why do you want to commit such vile acts which you hate for your own womenfolk?"
The Prophet then prayed for the protection of this man's soul from such evil.
These men convicted in Rochdale may have been nominally Muslim, but they were clearly not practising the true essence of their faith. Many so-called 'Muslim criminals' (as identified by the media) are in fact people who might drink, take drugs or engage in other practices we consider 'haram' (forbidden). Individuals who commit abuse are abusers, full stop.
It is vital all of us - including those in the community (any community) where group-level abuse has taken place - take the matter seriously. Community members must wake up to why this is happening in their midst. And they must find ways to eradicate it, through better awareness (education), religious sermons, improved neighbourhood watch, youth work, parenting courses and so on. At the same time, it is also vital that wider society and the state itself employ all in their armoury to prevent problems arising and bring offenders to justice. We need strong deterrent in the form of punishment in order to deter future sex offenders.
Children, whether young or teenage, are our treasure and trust. Our life centres around our children: they are our future. We need to safeguard them from social ills and protect them from harm. We must not hide from our duty as parents, and as a society, to our youngest and most vulnerable people.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow Muhammad Abdul Bari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.