Paul Vallely: Add a few irrelevant facts, stir and let prejudice do the rest

To focus on the wrong aspect of the Rochdale child-grooming cases would do a disservice to other vulnerable children
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The Independent Online

Spot the odd one out. Jewish politician urged not to insult atheist party leader. Man from all-boys school sends intimate texts to attractive redhead. Straight black man wants same-sex marriage. Pakistani Muslims jailed for sexual assaults on white girls. The first three are ridiculously loaded and leading headlines. The last was a real one.

You may need some assistance here. Labour's leader Ed Miliband has been advised not to burn his bridges with Nick Clegg in case a Lib-Lab pact is needed after the next election. Our old Etonian Prime Minister has been texting "lots of love" to Rupert Murdoch's henchwoman Rebekah Brooks. Barack Obama has come out in support of gay marriage.

Nobody nowadays would dream of calling Miliband a "Jewish politician" in that way. So why are the 11 men convicted of sex offences in Rochdale described as "Pakistani Muslims"?

It's all about resonance and gentle insinuation. It doesn't have to go anywhere near downright innuendo. Introduce a few extraneous facts and you'll find prejudices or mere presuppositions will do the rest. That is why the British National Party played the Muslim call to prayer in the background to its video on on-street grooming. Viewers got the message long before the "Our Children are Not Halal Meat" posters hove into view.

Politicians and commentators have got themselves in a terrible muddle over the Rochdale grooming case. They know most groomers are white. But they cannot decide whether gang-grooming of children is a particular problem among the Pakistani community. And, if so, is it a race issue, a religious one or simply one of opportunism by criminals who target the most accessible victims they can find?

The truth is that the figures are impossible to decipher. You can easily find a collection of cases which seem to suggest this is a peculiarly Asian problem, just as hyperactive news editors some years back were able to find a succession of dangerous dogs to stampede the Government into introducing an act of parliament of the same name. That's how moral panics work.

But different statistics muddle Asians, British Pakistanis, Indian subcontinent migrants and Muslims together, making comparisons tricky. You get the same problem with offences: rape, indecent assault, sex with a child, abduction and kidnap are all recorded in different ways by different groups. The data is poorly recorded, inconsistent and incomplete.

Yet there can be no doubt that there is a significant problem inside the Pakistani community. For years community elders denied that, assuming the accusations were another racist slight. But a younger generation – born, educated and inculturated here – is now speaking out. And where police and prosecutors trod carefully for fear of being called racist, there are younger individuals such as Nazir Afzal, the chief crown prosecutor in Manchester, who brought the Rochdale predators to trial.

There are several ways of describing what happened in Rochdale. Let's start with the least contentious. A group of men, working in the after-dark economy in takeaways and taxis, saw the opportunity to woo, bribe, trick and coerce underage girls into relationships that ended in sexual exploitation of a fairly brutal kind. The victims were girls, aged between 13 and 15, in care or from dysfunctional families, who were on the streets unsupervised late at night.

There were undoubtedly cultural determinants for both predators and prey. The men had developed the close-knit bonds of common interest characteristic of a community that feels under siege from the racism commonplace still in our society. They lived, in effect double lives. The socially conservative culture of family, business and mosque ruled by day.

But by night they encountered a Western lifestyle whose public face was one of liberated scantily-clad sexuality and binge-drinking to the point of insensibility.

The underage girls were creatures of that Western worldview who gave the appearance of being sexually available. They were easy victims. Had the men targeted Pakistani girls, a relative would soon have come to break their legs. Don't shit where you sit, as a rough Northern proverb has it.

That may be all the judge had in mind when he said that the men were able to treat the abused girls with such disrespect because "they were not part of your community or religion". By this reading the issue is as much about class as race. Or power – this was essentially about the strong preying on the weak.

But perhaps there was something more. There is a sense, too, of a culture that promotes the superiority of men over women. Misogyny is not a problem confined to Kashmiri tradition, as a visit to any white working-class estate would reveal.

Some suggest that religion is a factor here, which is why the word Muslims insinuates itself into so many headlines where faith is irrelevant. Many on the Islamophobic left and right alike seize on this notion with alacrity – the MP Lousie Mensch was talking the other night about the rapists as Islamic extremists as though they were ideologues from al-Qa'ida.

Far more likely is that some Pakistanis take a dim view of the behaviour of such girls, not because they are white, but because they are debasing themselves through promiscuity and drunkenness. Such an idea may be out of line with contemporary British values, if we can call them that, but it hardly amounts to a supremacist religious worldview. To say that Islam is the problem is a bit like blaming Christianity for the shortcomings of George Osborne or Rupert Murdoch.

The British Pakistani community must look to its own bad behaviour. If the rest of us focus on that unduly we may miss the thousands of other offenders. For the sake of these vulnerable under-age children that must not be allowed to happen.