By Dr Qari Asim
Imam, Makkah Mosque, Leeds
Recent Inquiries into Sexual Exploitation
The independent Coffey Report about Sexual Exploitation, published on 30 October 2014, was commissioned by Tony Lloyd, the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner, to see what has changed since the Rochdale grooming case in 2012 and what more needs to be done.
The Coffey Report, undertaken by Ann Coffey MP, says child sexual exploitation is ‘normal in parts of Greater Manchester’.
“This social norm has perhaps been fuelled by the increased sexualisation of children and young people and an explosion of explicit music videos and the normalisation of quasi-pornographic images. Sexting, selfies, Instagram and the like have given rise to new social norms and changed expectations of sexual entitlement and with it a confused understanding of what constitutes consent.”
The report calls for recognition of ‘real and ongoing problem’ of abuse as a priority public health issue.
Prior to Coffey report, Professor Alexis Jay’s recent report about sexual exploitation in Rotherham shook everyone and brought shame to our society. It was clear from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997 – 2013) issued on 26 August, 2014 that the victims had been let down by those who were meant to care for them and obvious signs of abuse were either missed or not fully investigated. Despite three reports between 2002 and 2006, which both the council and police were aware of, no action was taken to protect the victims. The report even stated that police officers deliberately did not take on cases as they did not want to increase their work load.
The British Pakistani community is deeply appalled and horrified to learn the scale of child sexual exploitation perpetrated by men of Pakistani origin in the streets of Rotherham, Derby, Rochdale and Oxford. The harrowing details and the grim saga of exploitation, perversion and torment look set to continue to dominate the public landscape for months and years to come.
The race and religion of the twisted criminals who engage in this abhorrent practice has been dragged into the debate by the media, even though none of the inquiries and reports to date have established a conclusive link between the faith and/or ethnicity of the perpetrators and their victims. Further research and studies must be done on this issue.
Anyone applying even a small amount of common sense would know that the race or religion of those involved has nothing to do with their actions. No faith, in particular Islam, would ever condone such abhorrent actions and the violation of the dignity of other human beings, in particular defenceless young girls. Muslims have therefore strongly and unreservedly condemned the sexual grooming and exploitation of young girls by men, regardless of the religious or ethnic background of the perpetrators.
Adult Asian Men-v-Young White Girls
One of the main themes pushed by certain media outlets and then exploited by the Far Right is one of predominantly Pakistani, Muslim men taking advantage of young white girls. However, the focus on the race and religion of the perverse criminals detracts from the real issue.
A closer inspection of the wide spectrum of individuals involved in such crimes shows that the perpetrators in fact come from all backgrounds and all sections of society.
The Islamic Perspective
It is befitting to remind ourselves that sexual exploitation is a crime against Allah. Islam promotes a strict moral code of conduct on men and forbids any sexual activity outside of marriage.
The Glorious Qur’an says:
“And come not near to unlawful sexual intercourse. Verily, it is a Fahishah [i.e. anything that transgresses its limits (a great sin)], and an evil way.” [Qur’an 17:32]
The obligation of safeguarding and protecting women from abuse and victimisation is exemplified in the following saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him):
“Take my advice with regard to women: Act kindly towards women” [Bukhari & Muslim].
The hadith refers to treating all “women” with respect, regardless of their faith, colour or age. In short, Islam obligates us to be active in ensuring the prevention and avoidance of any behaviour which can lead to inappropriate and unacceptable sexual exploitation and abuse of women.
Muslim / Pakistani Girls Exploited
It is naive to believe that Asian men only exploit ‘white girls’. For abusers, young vulnerable girls are a “commodity” and they do not differentiate on the grounds of colour or background. Research published by Muslim Women’s Network UK has revealed that Asian girls, in particular young Muslim girls, are being sexually exploited by Muslim men. It is the blackmail connected with shame and dishonour that is often used by the perpetrators to control victims.
In February 2014, a harrowing report highlighted how rife grooming was within ethnic communities. An inquiry heard that during a horrific sex attack lasting six hours, a teenage girl was groomed and raped by up to 30 Asian men – including a father and his schoolboy son.
It is claimed that sexual exploitation and grooming of young Asian girls by men of the same ethnic origin is happening under the noses of authorities. However, young Muslim women are highly unlikely to disclose the atrocities being committed against them because:
(i) Families, community leaders, schools and authorities are all too ready to dismiss the attacks or even cover them up; or
(ii) It is likely that the victims themselves will be blamed, i.e. told that their behaviour or lifestyle resulted in them being abused.
It is possible that an abuser of an Asian background would avoid preying on an Asian girl because of the fear that somehow his family and relatives may find out about the abuse and he and/or his friends will be exposed.
Honour v Dishonour
Some people argue that the British Pakistani community would rather protect the so-called honour of their family and community by not encouraging victims of sexual exploitation to report the crimes against them. Similarly, if they are aware of the perpetrators of such heinous crimes, they protect the honour of the family of the offender by not reporting him to the relevant authorities. Such actions, in effect lead to granting the offender with a “licence” to carry on committing such sins, and failing to protect other girls, as well as failing to provide the victims the counselling and help they need. The silence of those who know of such gangs of men, who are exploiting young women across the country, is helping those gangs to continue operating with impunity and further fueling sexual violence against girls and women.
It does not mean that people have to become spies and whistle-blowers, rather ‘good-neighbours’ in order to protect their own families and communities.
Sometimes, there is denial within the British Pakistani community to avoid facing hard-hitting, horrifying social issues and people try to be dismissive of such actions. This issue must not be swept under the carpet.
It is ironic that some Muslims have developed a sense of honour that is far removed from the fundamental teachings of Islam. The most honourable in the sight of Allah is the most righteous irrespective of sex, tribe or colour. The Noble Qur’an states:
“O mankind… indeed the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.”
Standing up for Justice
It is appropriate to remind the British Pakistani community of its obligation to stand out firmly for justice in all matters. The Glorious Qur’an states:
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: For God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do.” [4:135]
One of the ways to demonstrate that British Muslims are standing up for justice, a sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), is to work with owners of businesses through which children and vulnerable young people have been known to come to the attention of potential perpetrators such as taxi offices, takeaways and similar establishments.
It is abysmal and despicable if members of the British Pakistani community were or are aware that some individuals or gangs were or are exploiting children and young girls and they fail to report them to the relevant agencies or authorities.
Protecting the Vulnerable
Street grooming is an issue more of power and opportunism verses vulnerability, as opposed to Muslim or Asian men verses white girls or Asian men verses Asian women. In any event, there has been a failure at all levels to protect the vulnerable young girls and inspire young men of this society to have a moral compass. The victims do not come from any one particular culture or community, and neither do the perpetrators.
Various individuals have pointed the finger at Islam as a religion, or the cultural values of Muslims of Pakistani backgrounds, as being to blame. Even Imams have been blamed for allegedly fuelling a culture which promotes the idea that English girls are “fair game”. The blame game will undoubtedly carry on as there will always be people who exploit such horrific, terrible, sensitive and tragic incidents for “political” gain.
However, one key question that should be raised amongst the Muslim community is how we can protect young vulnerable women, irrespective of their faith, colour and background and how we can prevent men joining sex gangs.
Changing the Mindset
The Muslim community must show leadership and be proactive in this issue. Having heard accounts on the suffering of the victims and the impact on their families, doing nothing is not an option. Islam can be part of the solution to change people’s perception of the appropriate treatment of the vulnerable in society, and at the time provide spiritual and mental strength to deal with their traumatic ordeal.
There needs to be a more honest and open dialogue within our community regarding the status of women in our society. The Coffey Report said teenage boys in our society should be educated on how to treat and respect girls.
Muslims, in particular, must give women the status that has been granted to them by Islam. There needs be a psychological shift in the way women are perceived and treated within Pakistani culture. They cannot be seen as objects of honour or shame. Change must start at a grass roots level i.e. within the home. If we are to change the mentality of the next generation, then our children must see a level playing field on the domestic front from the outset. The notion that the prime purpose of mothers and sisters is to serve their male relatives must be contested. It is encouraging to see that progress is being made in this regard amongst British Pakistanis; however there is still a great deal more to be done.
However, this change in attitude is not only an issue for British Pakistani community. Coffey’s report, published in October 2014, maintains that one of the key issues that victims have been failed is because of the attitudes of those who have responsibility to protect young and vulnerable. “Police, social workers, prosecutors and juries made up of ordinary people, all carry attitudes around with them. This could go some way to explain why in the past six years in Greater Manchester there have only been about 1,000 convictions out of 13,000 reported cases of serious sexual offences against under 16-year–olds.”
The Coffey Report’s central recommendation is that young people themselves must be part of the solution if we are to be successful in preventing child grooming becoming more prevalent.
We need to send out a clear message that abuse or abusers within any of our communities will not be tolerated. We have a responsibility to stand up and protect the vulnerable in our society. That is what our Prophet did and told us to do.