Saturday, 12 May 2012

Fu Manchu in Rochdale

I automatically think of dogs whenever the word "grooming" is used, but I guess I'll just have to get used to the general adoption of the term to describe predatory sexual exploitation. Originally the word tended to be limited to cases involving paedophile rings, which then broadened with the advent of online one-to-one grooming. Today, the term seems to cover pretty much any sort of premeditated sexual abuse where the perpetrator is not a total stranger to the victim, and has even hopped over into the domain of terrorism to describe the psychological preparation of suicide bombers.

While the word has been over-used, what it has not lost (in this context) is the sense of sly manipulation, of evil men preying on an innocence that they all too obviously despise. Grooming has become the "white slavery" des nos jours. This earlier phrase had two notable incarnations that caught the public imagination. The first was the orientalist fascination with harems and sex slaves, which coincided with the mid-Victorian revelation of industrial prostitution (in 1875, campaigners succeeded in raising the age of consent from 12 to 13). The second was the arrival on the international scene of the inscrutable Chinaman as the all-purpose baddie, which coincided with the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. The distance from Fu Manchu, luring white girls to their doom via his Limehouse opium den, to a group of Muslim cabbies hanging round a takeaway in Rochdale, preying on vulnerable white girls in care, is not as far as you might think.

Under the beige canopy of "grooming", the press coverage of the case has been a seething pit of prejudice. Consider the following choice excerpt from Tom Chivers in the Telegraph:
First, it is idiotic for people to pretend there is no connection to race, or culture, or religion, or something. If these crimes are more common among Asian men then there must be a reason. Racists might like to believe that it is a genetic one. Of course, that is a possible explanation (again: it's an empirical question, and one we should address honestly), but those of us who are not racists will demand evidence to support it, and as far as I am aware there is none, so we can ignore it
The "or something" at the end of the first sentence is hilarious, though I don't think the humour is intended. I will not be the idiot who claims there is no connection to something.

Chivers proceeds to build one straw man after another. Racists generally avoid reference to genetics because there is no relationship between a genome and the social groupings described as races. Two Africans can have greater genetic diversity between them than either has relative to a Norwegian. Racists insist that race has an independent existence, so it cannot be disproved, much as believers in flying saucers do. There is no Pakistani gene (the country is not ethnically homogeneous), and no one has suggested that the cabbies are all closely related (one is an Afghan), carrying a family gene that increases their propensity to rape. But, as Tom says, we can ignore this idea (which he has now planted firmly in your mind). Straw man number 2, come on down ...
The more serious suggestion is that there is something in the religious or cultural background of British Pakistani men which is behind the problem. It's not the only remaining possibility – it could, for instance, be economic – but that seems unlikely, given that British Asians do not make up 46 per cent of unemployed or poor people in this country. Also, trying to blame child abuse on economic circumstances is bizarre, as though these men are doing it because they can't afford cinema tickets. Again, it's a possible explanation, but there is no evidence for it, so we can ignore it unless and until there is. We're left, then, with culture and religion.
This is an example of a man made from only the finest straw, hand reaped by an artisan with a silver-gilt sickle. Having floated the idea that there may be a religious or cultural cause, Chivers immediately wheels in the on-the-other-hand suggestion that the "problem" may be rooted in economics, which he immediately demolishes with a flourish ("cinema tickets"). Who exactly is trying to blame child abuse on economic circumstances? The consequence of this knockout blow is that the last man standing is the first, unchallenged accusation.

The next paragraph starts not with supporting evidence but a further assertion: "Secretive, closed-shop religions and cultures, laden with sexual taboos and rigid hierarchies, seem to have more problems with sexual abuse". The giveaway is the use of "closed shop", a cultural practice long-beloved of the enemy within. Chivers then goes on to cite the examples of sexual abuse in Ireland and among New York's orthodox Jews. Quite how this illuminates the Rochdale case is not clear.
Does Islam "encourage" this behaviour? What does that mean? Do imams go around telling people that they should try and molest as many schoolchildren as they can? Obviously not, just as no one encouraged parish priests in Ireland to take advantage of their young flock. But clearly there is something which enabled it.
You've probably spotted the pattern now: "Is it 'cos they is black/Muslim/Irish/Jewish? Obviously not, but just hold that thought". Chivers does not come to any conclusion as to what the particular cause of this crime was, probably because there is no simple causal explanation. The whole piece is merely an excuse to rehearse a series of odious smears. His sign-off is the usual riff: "What it does mean is that we need to drop any lingering postmodernist nonsense about cultural and moral relativism". Again, I'm not aware of anyone suggesting that this crime be excused as a tradition that whitey just don't get.

Chivers quotes David Aaronovitch to the effect that these Muslim/Asian communities are beset with misogyny (unlike Eton, presumably). Aaronovitch long ago painted himself into a corner over his support for the invasion of Iraq. The result is his continued attacks on Islam as a matter of desperate principle, though proving that religious nutters with beards are dickheads does not retrospectively make weapons of mass-destruction any more concrete. The point is that misogyny is no more a cause of rape than misanthropy. Rape is about power, not an irritation with gobby women. Aaronovitch should have a chat with the Abu Ghraib prison warders.

Chivers then proceeds to bang on about female circumcision and honour killings. No, I couldn't see the relevance either. This proves to be merely the build-up to an attack on the real enemy: "It would be stupidly blinkered of liberals and the Left to turn a blind eye to these disgusting and illiberal practices, solely because they are being carried out by an ethnic minority". So, let me get this straight: the Rochdale case is the fault of lefties who deny the reality of female circumcision? The Telegraph (now in the form of Alison Pearson) appears to have decided that the real villain is political correctness. It should hardly need reiterating that PC is a right-wing straw man.

What abuse needs to prosper is opportunity (vulnerable girls in care) and the willingness to exercise petty power (a place where a bag of chips is a medium of currency). These guys didn't rape because they considered it their duty as muslims, nor did they consider it a time-honoured cultural practice of Pakistan. They did it because they could. No one (literally no one) is attempting to justify what they did or mitigate it in any way. To judge from the fulminating Telegraph (and others among the usual suspects), you'd imagine the opposite were true.

The core of Chiver's argument is the disproportionate representation of Asian (specifically Pakistani) men among those suspected or convicted of on-street grooming. He quotes the Guardian in support of this. The article in question makes clear that this estimate is statistically unreliable, being based on a study of "potential offenders" by CEOP, the police child exploitation agency, which recorded ethnicity for only 1/3 of the data (so there may be a degree of selection bias), plus an analysis of 5 specific crimes (too small a sample).

I'm not suggesting that this apparent disproportionality isn't real, though the exact figures are probably some way short of the scary 46% that Chivers quotes. It should be obvious that organised sexual abuse tends to come to light less often when perpetrators and victims are part of the same community, and where the latter are subject to peer pressure and a genuine fear of estrangement (this is where the otherwise gratuitous references to Irish children's homes and New York's orthodox Jewish community are relevant). Conversely, abuse across community lines is more likely to be spotted, reported and prosecuted. This is what we might call the Fu Manchu principle.

The other structural point to note is that prostitution and the trafficking of young girls are well-established in Pakistan (and not just an upper-class vice), despite the fact that it is an Islamic state. This obviously isn't an excuse for the behaviour of certain Pakistani men, but it is an explanation as to why a minority of them may be used to having access to sex on demand, and that sex provided by "out group" women.

The bottom line is that we cannot draw general conclusions about Pakistanis or Muslims on the basis of the Rochdale case, any more than institutional abuse by Irish priests allows us to draw conclusions about the Irish or Catholics as a whole. Nor does the abuse within the orthodox Jewish community of New York shed much light on the settler programme of the West Bank. Every commentator who has fretted over what Rochdale tells us about Pakistanis or Islam is trading in guilt by association. What is really notable is the lesser attention paid to the girls. They were undervalued and despised by their abusers, and now they are largely ignored by those who claim a concern about their case.

In 1885, W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, bought a 13 year old virgin for £5 in order to prove the prevalence of child prostitution in London and to drum up support for an Act to raise the age of consent to 16. The Act was passed but Stead ended up being sent to jail for his impertinence. The girl, Eliza Armstrong, was returned to her parents, but beyond that we know nothing.

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