Amrit Wilson challenges the dominant narratives about Rotherham and child sexual exploitation – and asks who is really responsible for the way the far right have been able to exploit the issue.
Rotherham is a town whose very name has become synonymous with the horrific cases of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) which have occurred there in recent years. The media narrative around these cases - appalling crimes committed by a tiny minority of the population - is so powerful that it has been extremely difficult to challenge or even question. However as Islamophobia escalates to an unprecedented level with Boris Johnson's comments emboldening the far right and racists and poisonous tropes of Muslims as terrorists and sexual predators sweep the country, it becomes particularly important to do so.
Once a thriving town built round coal mines and steel, Rotherham today is a bleak place. The coal mines are closed and the steel industry is in decline. Unemployment is high. However, as many people emphasise, until six or seven years ago, racial violence had never been an issue. The comparatively small Pakistani community had lived cheek by jowl with white people. As playwright Emteaz Hussain puts it, “we were a working class community struggling to make ends meet, everyone lived in close proximity, and we naturally found a way of getting on.”
In 2011, The Times published a series of articles by Andrew Norfolk, which brought the first reports of the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham. They led to the setting up of a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in late 2012 and eventually an independent investigation by Professor Alexis Jay, commissioned by Rotherham Council, into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Rochdale. The report published in August 2014 concluded that between 1997 and 2013, at least 1400 children had been subjected to serious sexual exploitation, predominantly by men of Pakistani origin.
Abrar Javid, a project manager with the NHS who lives in Rotherham, remembers those days: “When the Jay report came out in 2014 it hit us like a bombshell. The scale of the abuse as well as the way it was presented by the media, the racialisation of perpetrators as Pakistani men and victims as white girls….These horrific crimes had been committed by criminals but suddenly we were all being targeted – being told there was something intrinsically wrong with us and our culture – blamed almost as though we were harbouring these men… the community was in shock.”
Casting blame on a community
The Jay report noted that the South Yorkshire police had “regard[ed] many child victims with contempt and fail[ed] to act on their abuse as a crime”. As for the Council workers, when questioned as to why they had not acted even where a number of these children were in local authority care or known to the child protection agencies, several of them had ascribed their reluctance to their nervousness about being thought racist.
Jay reported this at face value despite the fact that council staff routinely had to work with and enforce policies which many see as deeply racist – the hostile environment policy for example.
The Jay report was followed by two further reports. The first, led by Louise Casey, found Rotherham Council “not fit for purpose and …failing in its duties to protect vulnerable children and young people from harm”. However, it unequivocally blamed the “Pakistani Heritage Community”, declaring in the second sentence of its foreword that “Children were sexually exploited by men who came largely from the Pakistani Heritage Community. Not enough was done to acknowledge this…”. Casey’s report claimed also that this “suppression of these uncomfortable issues…has prevented discussion and effective action and... perversely, has allowed the far right to try and exploit the situation. However, in actual fact by far the biggest (in terms of police expenditure) far right demo took place a month after the Jay report and in response to the widespread publicity it generated, on 13th September 2014. Between 2012 and 2017, protests by far right groups such as the EDL and Britain First, in South Yorkshire, have cost £4m.
The second and most recent report was an independent review into South Yorkshire police's handling of CSE in the summer of 2015 by Professor John Drew, commissioned by South Yorkshire Police and Police Commissioner. It revealed that in the period January 2014-2016, 67.5% of perpetrators of child sexual exploitation in Yorkshire were of White/European origin and 19.1% of Asian origin. These figures make one wonder whether in all the accusations which have been flying around, the girls (and boys) who have been abused are being betrayed once again, with that hefty 67.5% of perpetrators being simply ignored? Drew himself commented in the report, “'the view that child sexual exploitation was about red light areas, and was about gangs of men principally of Pakistani heritage, led not only the force but also probably the whole partnership to look for signs of exploitation in the wrong places. One superintendent, describing the exploitation challenge today in his area, characterised the local problem of revolving around ‘white European males, in their mid-40s, making extensive use of the internet for initial grooming…’”
The Drew survey, however, was swept under the carpet. It was the Jay and Casey reports which have continued to make the headlines.
“The Jay report was the 9/11 of Rotherham”
As Abrar Javid puts it, “The Jay report was the 9/11 of Rotherham. After it came out there was a deafening silence from both the Council and the police. That silence was filled by the far right. They set the narrative. They came into Rotherham with the slogan ‘Justice for the 1400’”.
This slogan was a demand projected through racist tropes of Muslim men raping and abusing ‘our’ girls, so the demand for justice became a demand for vengeance.
In fact, many in the Pakistani community were also seeking justice for the girls. In August 2014, Muhbeen Hussain from the organisation British Muslim Youth led a rally demanding justice for the 1400 and calling for resignations and prosecutions. "We are not here to deny anything” he said on that occasion. “The report clearly shows a large number of those individuals were Pakistani Muslim men. But we don't support the sentiment that it is a Pakistani or a Muslim problem. It is clear what these individuals did but they are not part of our community - the only community they are a part of is the criminal community... there is nowhere in the Islamic faith that supports these actions.”
The marches by the EDL and Britain First continued. There were 14 in as many months. The police refused to stop any of the demonstrations from entering the town centre despite being urged to do so by Muslim organisations and spokespeople. No charges of violent disorder were brought against people on these marches despite attacks on the Mosques and Muslim businesses, as Muhbeen Hussain sets out in this article for the Independent. The presence of the far-right clearly resulted in the radicalising of white youth in Rotherham. The number of hate crimes escalated with Muslim women being specifically targeted. “Muslim women were spat at! Abused!” says Zlakha Ahmed of Apna Haq, an organisation which supports Black and Minority Ethnic women and girls facing violence. “Children were bullied at school. The police said they could do nothing. They said Muslim women should just stay at home - they refused to protect us!”
Moral panic, abuse and silencing
As for Asian girls, as Zlakha points out, “they had been mentioned in the reports as victims of grooming - and we know this to be the case from our own work in Apna Haq - but they have been totally ignored”. In fact, Islamophobia and the polarisation it has led to has inevitably silenced discussion of the systemic gender violence which exists in the Pakistani community as in all other communities.
Islamophobic violence on the pretext of justice for white girls has been the order of the day and the far right has been so emboldened that even Nazir Afzal, the Chief Crown Prosecutor whose work led to the jailing of nine members of a Rochdale sex grooming gang in 2012, was subjected to a campaign of threats and intimidation with thousands of emails calling for him to be sacked and deported, an EDL demonstration outside his home and Nick Griffin door-stepping him outside his office . Afzal finally had to ask for police protection.
The backdrop to far right activity, as Shakoor Adalat from the Rotherham Muslim Community Forum says, was the moral panic which gripped institutions affecting not only the police but social services, profoundly affecting the whole Pakistani community. For many this was reminiscent of the 1980s when, as Liz Fekete (Director of the Institute of Race Relations) writes, “the media and the fascists were creating the spectre of the ‘black mugger’” and the Metropolitan police added to the moral panic by isolating "assault or threat of violence upon a person, especially with intent to rob" from all other forms of street crime and then providing the ethnicity of the perpetrators. Today, as Fekete notes, the Ministry of Justice figures on convictions of sex offences as a whole (8 per cent of which were committed by Asians) have been broken down to isolate and emphasise the specific offence of ‘on-street grooming’ of which they made up a far higher percentage of perpetrators.
The murder of Muhsin Ahmed
Despite the insidious Islamophobia of so many of Rotherham's institutions and the violent attacks, bomb threats and demonstrations of the far right, there was no major Muslim protest till the summer of 2015. Then, on 10 August that year, Muhsin Ahmed, an 81 year old man on his way to the Mosque for morning prayers, was brutally attacked. He died eleven days later – three years ago this week.
Within days of Ahmed’s death Britain First were allowed to hold another demonstration in Rotherham. “At that point”, says Abrar Javid, “we felt that if we didn’t come out it would break the backbone of the community. Muhbeen Hussain got in touch with the police and told them we were coming out in solidarity. The police told him they would show ‘zero tolerance – take what you want from that’. We did come out - the Rotherham Council of Mosques came out in peace in a joint demonstration by the Pakistani and Yemeni communities and white anti-fascists.”
The fascists were allowed to go right through the town centre. Then, “when the police channelled the anti-fascist march down a road that had a pub on it frequented by far-right protesters, a clash between the two groups occurred after racist abuse was hurled”, Muhbeen Hussain wrote in the Independent. There was fury about how the police handled the situation. “The police were very heavy handed with the Muslim youth”, says Javid, “kettling them… It was as though the police were out to penalise the Muslim community - that is how it felt.’
Twelve Asian men, including Abrar Javid, were arrested and charged with violent disorder. The Rotherham 12, as they came to be known (in an echo of the historic Bradford 12 who had fought for the right to self defences back in 1981), were (like the Bradford 12) all eventually acquitted by an all white jury in a massive indictment of the South Yorkshire police. As one of the defendants put it later, “there are similarities with what the police did to the Orgreave miners, and how they herded them to a particular spot … I had a bin thrown at me, punches thrown at me and I had literally done nothing. Now you imagine five weeks later, at six or seven in the morning, police officers, ten of them, coming to your house. Your children are scared, you’re scared, you’re treated as some common criminal.”
Seven of the far-right marchers were arrested and five were eventually given custodial sentences for racially aggravated violent disorder. Perhaps it was this, says Shakoor Adalat, that led to a rapid decrease in far-right marches since then.
Things started to quieten down. As Emteaz Hussein puts it, “the kids were playing with each other but we were not left in peace. There is always external interference.”
Then, in August 2017, an attack came from Sarah Champion, Rotherham’s own MP. It was all the more shocking because, unlike the right-wing Labour Council, Champion had won the trust of the Pakistani community. Champion chose to write an article in the Sun newspaper on 10 August 2017, on the anniversary of the attack on Muhsin Ahmed. Entitled British Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls… and it’s time we faced up to it, the piece “called out” Pakistani men for sexually grooming and raping “white pubescent girls”.
So what brought Champion’s change of heart? In Champion's own words, it was because “For too long we have ignored the race of these abusers ... These people are predators and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage”. One may well wonder why, given her concern for women's rights, did she choose to write in a paper well-known for its misogyny? Or, as Shakoor Adalat asks, “Was she worried about those so-called ‘disenfranchised labour voters’? Or was it just pressure from the local right-wing Labour party?”
The hurt and betrayal felt by many in the Pakistani community was so great that they approached JUST Yorkshire, a secular human rights and equality organisation, to collate people's feelings so they could let their MP know the impact of her article. JUST Yorkshire published its survey, entitled Temperature Check - understanding and assessing the impact of Rotherham MP, Sarah Champion’s comments in the Sun Newspaper on 10 August 2017, in March 2018, and duly sent a copy under embargo to Champion. The report asked for an apology from her and for a “grass-roots led inquiry... a Citizen’s Jury that will critically analyse the impact of the CSE scandal on Race Relations and the civil liberties of people in Rotherham from 2012-17 and in this context the role and functions of the State”. JUST Yorkshire received no response from Champion. Instead there were more attacks from the media and those involved with JUST Yorkshire have had vicious threats - including death threats - from the far right with their names and photographs posted in far right videos.
The title of a Daily Mail article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown on 29 July this year symbolises the attempts to shut down the debate: “If you call Rotherham MP Sarah Champion racist after she spoke out against British-Pakistani grooming gangs then you are complicit in the attack on young girls”. This underlines the silencing of the community, both male and female, and particularly of Muslim voices, on this issue.
As Shakoor Adalat says: “We are being asked to forget that children are being sexually abused in a wide range of institutions - Churches, public schools , the BBC, the Football Association. One in four people across the country have been abused as children - so CSE is far bigger than Rotherham, it is endemic... The girls in Rotherham were poor and vulnerable children. The state is reluctant to provide resources to help them. Islamophobia is just a smokescreen to hide the lack of investment which would change their situation.”
This article was originally published in Open Democracy.