"Asian gangs, schoolgirls and a sinister taboo" read the Daily Mail headline in November 2010, "Muslim gang jailed for kidnapping and raping two girls as part of their Eid celebrations" states another of its salacious headlines in April this year, while the typically more demure Telegraph ran with "Asian grooming gangs, the uncomfortable issue".
These headlines all refer to recent cases involving sexually predatory gangs, the most recent of which, is the case of a group of men in Rochdale found guilty of sexually abusing 47 vulnerable girls. The case has caused controversy as some pundits claim the police failed to prosecute the men through fear they'd be branded racist. Former MP Ann Cryer believes such fears meant that both the police and social services failed to act to protect the girls and Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation urged the police and the councils "not to be frightened to address this issue, there is a strong lesson that you cannot ignore race or be over sensitive."
The case has thrust the issue of race back into the spotlight just as the MET is being investigated for mounting complaints about racism and as increasingly strident voices claim political correctness is impeding an assessment of the role race plays in such crimes. Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggests as much as she writes she's been "warned not to write" about such cases, for fear of encouraging racism. "The rapists are all probably in one sense 'good' Muslims, praying and fasting in the daytime, then prowling and preying at night", she lambasted, ignoring as one commentator pointed out that "the defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim". Practising Muslims certainly aren't supposed to rape children.
Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz claims that the issue has nothing to do with race or being Asian. He cautioned of the dangers in singling out the Asian community and has advised caution in using race-related terminology.
The focus on isolating race as an explanatory variable in cases of sex-grooming ignores all other factors and essentialises the identity of the culprits - it ignores why Asian men are over-represented in socio-economically poorer areas where street-grooming occurs and why white girls are over-represented among vulnerable groups in such areas.
What's more, plenty of sex-gangs are not Asian. Crime researchers Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley warned: "If on-street grooming continues to be reduced to the big Asian networks alone, a whole host of other offenders will get overlooked."
The sex slave trade in this country is sadly alive and well and is not primarily Asian driven, and paedophiles are not overwhelmingly of Asian ethnic backgrounds, suggesting any abhorrent link some may seek to make between race and inherent sexually predatory behaviour is not born out by the facts.
Such a link is also reminiscent of racist terminology used to refer to black gangs in the 1980s, particularly Jack Straw's comment in January last year 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..." His comment both singled the men out as 'foreign' by referring to them as "in a western society", rather than products of a society they were born and raised in, and reduced their behaviour to physically urges, completely ignoring the dimension of power inherent to rape, which is primarily a crime of violence, not sex.
Some have referred to culturally specific terminology in order to claim that the view of some women as worthless and thus open to abuse is restricted to certain communities. This ignores power inequities based on gender manifest at every level of society and expressed through different social and cultural idioms. Different terminology expresses a shared disdain for women, inflected with culturally specific justifications: "sluts" "hoes" "gora" "skank" "cheap" "easy" - sexism is not an 'Asian' issue, though it does of course affect Asians as it does everyone else - it is sadly omnipresent, cross-culturally.
Those seeking to locate these crimes within some inherent Asian characteristic need to explain the vast majority of law abiding Asian men, the diversity of Asian cultures, not culture and the fact the Chief prosecutor who re-opened the case is himself an Asian Muslim, Nazir Afzal.
The treatment of this case is not about political correctness, it is about not stigmatising an entire community based on a mis-identification of the explanatory variable in the crimes of this group of men, who happen to be Asian.
Both the police and the judge appear to believe the race of the victims and abusers was "coincidental", so the real question is why as a society, we are seeking to attribute a racial dimension to it and what that says about our unspoken racist assumptions concerning Asian men.
Academic Vron Ware recounts that the black male has been historically constructed as the antithesis of white femininity, sexually predatory upon white innocence and beauty - we'd be naive not to notice the same rhetoric being played out now with Asian/Muslim males...
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