Last Friday, Muslim leaders across the country united in openly condemning instances of child grooming and trafficking gangs within their communities. Organised by the non-profit group Together Against Grooming (TAG) and supported by the Muslim Council of Britain, a sermon delivered in around 500 mosques highlighted both the “moral depravity” and Quranic condemnation of such acts, which have no place in the Islamic faith.
There is no doubt that the intentions of the lectures were amicable, particularly in light of recent cases involving grooming gangs in Oxford and Rochdale. Yet in attempting to disassociate the wider Muslim community from such deplorable acts, they may have instead found themselves contributing to the toxic narrative often espoused by anti-Islamic groups such as the English Defence League, who argue that paedophilia and abuse are inherent within the religion. Further, while the gesture may have been widely praised by the media, it will have achieved little in getting to the roots of the problem, or preventing further such cases.
That’s largely because the relationship between Islam and grooming gangs is spurious at best. Mosque leaders are correct in their assertion that these acts lack any scriptural basis, and more importantly, such methods of coercion - through the use of drugs and alcohol, are completely forbidden under any circumstance. Despite what some may think, it is also unlikely that the gang’s members were particularly concerned with the details of proper Islamic conduct either. Indeed as with most cases concerning sexual exploitation, to overpower and control vulnerable young girls was a far more central to their thinking than any form of perceived religious duty. So in this case, it makes little sense to characterise the actions of grooming gangs through Islam, particularly if those involved never actually displayed any form of religious motivation in the first place.
Alternatively, some may argue that while these men were far from pious, Muslim leaders have a civic duty to address these issues. In part, I agree; where mosques are integral parts of local communities, they should play an active part in addressing issues that affect wider society. But we shouldn’t simply place pressure onto mosques and imams, for in reality they can do little but continue stating the obvious: that such acts are abhorrent and impermissible. In fact, a more effective way of tackling the epidemic of grooming gangs lies in encouraging the quieter voices within Asian communities - residents, community groups and local business owners - to speak out. Victims of abuse often find themselves at the mercy of the perpetrators, who are empowered simply because those around them are more than willing to keep quiet and look the other way.
That’s not because members of these communities agree with the actions of the grooming gangs, or view the victims as worthless. In fact, their silence highlights a far more complex cultural issue - notably the cult of shame and honour that forms the basis of social organisation within many South Asian communities. Where the misdeeds of a son run the risk of making both his parents and close relatives outcasts by tarnishing their reputation, it is not hard to imagine why family members are reluctant to speak about it in private, never mind on a public stage.
Indeed, it is not just the young victims of abuse that these grooming gangs were exploiting, but also the sensitivities of their cultural heritage. Herein lies the problematic component of this issue; where many South Asian cultures have both a taboo on discussing matters to do with sexuality and narrowly defined codes of honour, issues concerning child grooming cannot be effectively addressed by religious leaders. They must instead be tackled by actively reforming values and relationships within these traditional communities - a considerable feat for anyone.
While denouncing grooming and child abuse is an important topic, it is unlikely that last week’s sermons will have gotten to the heart of the problem. And while I agree that a disproportionate number of South Asian men have been found guilty of grooming, the somewhat apologetic nature of the sermons will have done more to associate Islam with such acts - further justifying the rhetoric and abuse used by anti-Islamic groups. More importantly, it does little for the victims, reducing their psychological traumas to a simplistic equation in which they are labeled as ‘proof’ of the evils of Islam.
The truth is that beyond the names of the perpetrators, Islam has little to do with these crimes. The real problem instead lies with cultural taboos and a hesitance by traditional communities to engage with such sensitive topics, which is readily exploited by criminal groups. The result of this continued silence is more victims of abuse and further hostility toward the majority of law abiding Muslims.