Anwar Akhtar FRSA, director of The Samosa, responds to the issues raised by the conviction of nine men as part of a child sexual exploitation gang targeting vulnerable girls in Rochdale.
My heart sank as the gruesome details of the recent rape trail in Rochdale emerged. The area is home territory, having been born and grown up a short distance but another world away in terms of culture and economic opportunities in South Manchester. I was horrified by these acts of violence, but also angry, as a British Pakistani working in a media project supporting human rights and economic development work in Pakistan.
For a few years now, I have been hearing anecdotal concerns from friends including teachers and youth workers about gang culture, misogyny and thuggery developing amongst some young British Pakistani men in the North West, Yorkshire and the Midlands.
Where has this come from? In part it’s segregation, isolation and economic marginalisation of some men, who feel completely excluded from society, from routes to success and belonging, both economic and social. It is no co-incidence this is happening in an area where the economy and job prospects have been decimated: the old mill towns and manufacturing heartlands. White communities there also have problems with increasing numbers of people feeling totally alienated.
This requires us not just to address the motivations of those men in Rochdale but also to address wider issues around social exclusion.
A colleague Charlie Baker from Manchester based architecture and regeneration practice URBED wrote an excellent piece a couple of years ago about segregation in Britain; a particular form of segregation has developed in some parts of the British Pakistani community. Baker identifies patterns of migration, municipal housing and local political fiefdoms, now compounded by a feeling that Muslim communities are being targeted and ostracised by the media and the establishment. Islamaphobia if you like. This disproportionately affects British Pakistanis who make up almost half of the British Muslim community.
Am not making any excuses for these men. I could easily do an article filled with expletives to describe what I think of them. But part of our response to such events must be to seek to prevent this kind of thing happening again; this requires a deeper and wider recognition – including amongst the British Pakistani community – of the problem of marginalisation amongst a small minority of young men, but not only young men. Also deeply shocking are the high suicide levels and self-harm rates among young British Pakistani girls and the continuation of forced marriages. These issues need much more discussion within the British Pakistani community.
I do not accept the view that we should not raise these issues in case the vociferous, energetic anti-Muslim lobby make hay out of it. We need to and I have confidence that our country will see off the racists in the English Defence League or their more articulate media sympathisers, just like the arguments were won against the Black Shirts, the NF and BNP from Cable St in 1936 to Southall in 1979.
The British Pakistani community includes people who are marginalised and socially excluded and amongst them a tiny number of young men have bought into a thug, gang, criminal sub-culture and lifestyle. Most of it is just pathetic adolescent posturing combined with alienation and ignorance, but it is something we need to recognise and challenge, including abusive attitudes to women, such as boys using phrases such as ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’, common amongst some youth in the UK.
The success stories from the British Pakistani community can do much more. Our professional classes are concentrated in mainly silent professions. Medicine, law, business, property, sciences, the city, trading, retail and so on. We are only just developing second and third generation networks of philanthropy and civic leadership.
Whilst organisations such as Islamic Relief and many individuals do great work and give a lot of money both in UK and to Pakistan, we have not joined up philanthropy with social enterprise, and grass roots community work in the UK. There remains a leadership vacuum in other areas, from arts and media to international relations and NGOs, where few British-born Pakistanis work. This leads to a community isolated and without a voice.
But are the actions of these men in any way linked to Islam as some commentators and the racists in the EDL argue? No, they are not. Their actions have nothing to do with the faith practised so devoutly by my family to whom Islam is the most precious thing in their lives; the faith that for so many is what family and community is built on.
I am uncomfortable with attempts to link this incident – and it is sadly not the only one – to violence against women and girls we see in Pakistan today which and which I have written about. My work in Pakistan involves working with women’s rights campaigners and the Human Rights Commission Pakistan. This is different from the thuggery and ignorance that leads to acid attacks on women and the prejudice against women taught in many (not all) madrassas in Pakistan. The Rochdale tragedy feels to me much more Western in many ways.
In the UK we have increasingly allowed sex to be commodified; from pimps openly active on London’s streets, to the sexualisation of young girls in the media, lap dancing clubs in town centres and so on. This is also the culture those men in Rochdale are part of. Sex trafficking is mainly conducted by Eastern European criminal networks linked with some Chinese gangs and paedophilia prosecutions in UK are mainly of white men. It is unfair to stigmatise one community or culture for what happened.
Having said this, there are questions to be asked about the misogyny of a small number of Muslims preachers in the UK, their deeply conservative and at times hostile attitudes to women, If Muslim women are second class citizens to them, what does that make non-Muslim, poor, easily exploitable, vulnerable young women?
Although I come from a different political tradition to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, I support her recent comments on this matter. I respect her commitment to the welfare of the British Pakistani community and the work she does to support human rights in Pakistan. She was right to show leadership on this issue.
Likewise, youth workers, teachers and others should never fear talking to young people – of any race or religion – about equality or about our shared space and culture in this country that does not discriminate on gender. We should support grass roots activists and women’s groups in communities on these issues and also must avoid top-down state lead intrusions such as the recent Prevent programme, which only alienate people further.
Pakistani culture is varied and complex and is not just represented by conservative religious orthodoxy (and I speak as somebody that comes from a conservative orthodox religious family). There is no excuse to shy away from difficult issues.
Anwar Akhtar is director of The Samosa, a culture and politics site with a focus on Britain and South Asia. He is also associate of Urbed, a Manchester-based regeneration practice. He was previously director of Richmix