London, Sept 15 — A man recently came to visit the member of Parliament for Rotherham, Yorkshire, and he had a question. Now in his late 50s, he had arrived from Pakistan three decades earlier. After a lifetime of hard work, he could not understand why his boys did not display the same Muslim values he had, why they did not show respect or want to work as hard as he did.
“I tried really hard to bring them up right,” the man told the M.P., “and I don’t know what has gone wrong.”
What has gone wrong in Rotherham, and what is wrong with its Pakistani community, are questions much asked in recent weeks: How could this small, run-down town in northern England have been the center of sexual abuse of children on such an epic and horrifying scale?
According to the official report published in August, there were an estimated 1,400 victims. And they were, in the main, poor and vulnerable white girls, while the great majority of perpetrators were men, mainly young men, from the town’s Pakistani community. Shaun Wright, the police commissioner who was responsible for children’s services in Rotherham, appeared before Parliament after his refusal to resign over the scandal. The scandal has cost both the chief executive and the leader of the council their jobs, and four Labour Party town councilors have been suspended.
A popular explanation for what Home Secretary Theresa May has described as “a complete dereliction of duty” by Rotherham’s public officials is that the Labour-controlled council was, for reasons of political expediency and ideology, unwilling to confront the fact that the abusers were of Pakistani heritage. Proper investigation, it is said, was obstructed by political correctness — or, in the words of a former local M.P., a culture of “not wanting to rock the multicultural boat.”
This, however, is only a partial explanation, and a partisan one. It fails to account for how a community once lionized as “more British than the British” — pious, unassuming and striving — is now condemned for harboring child abusers in its midst.
Pakistanis first came in significant numbers to Rotherham in the late 1950s and early ’60s, in the wave of immigration that brought men from the Indian subcontinent to Britain, largely to do work that the indigenous white working class no longer wanted. My father was part of this first wave. He worked on the production line of the Vauxhall car factory in Luton, an unlovely town north of London. In Rotherham, many Pakistani men ended up doing dirty, dusty work in the steel foundry.
The new immigrants were from rural villages, typically in Kashmir, the northern province bordering India; they were socially conservative and hard-working. When I was growing up in the ’80s, the stereotype of Pakistanis was that we were industrious and docile.
The Pakistani community in Rotherham, and elsewhere in Britain, has not followed the usual immigrant narrative arc of intermarriage and integration. The custom of first-cousin marriages to spouses from back home in Pakistan meant that the patriarchal village mentality was continually refreshed.
Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Britain’s Pakistani community often seems frozen in time; it has progressed little and remains strikingly impoverished. The unemployment rate for the least educated young Muslims is close to 40 percent, and more than two-thirds of Pakistani households are below the poverty line.
My early years in Luton were lived inside a Pakistani bubble. Everyone my family knew was Pakistani, and most of my fellow students at school were Pakistani. I can’t recall a white person ever visiting our home.
Rotherham has the third-most-segregated Muslim population in England: The majority of the Pakistani community, 82 percent, lives in just three of the town’s council electoral wards. Voter turnout can be as low as 30 percent, so seats can be won or lost by a handful of votes — a situation that easily leads to patronage and clientelism.
Rotherham is solidly Labour; the last Conservative M.P. lost his seat a month after Adolf Hitler was elected the chancellor of Germany. The Labour politicians who governed Rotherham in the last decade came into politics during the anti-racism movement of the ’70s and ’80s. Their political instinct — and self-interest — was not to confront or alienate their Pakistani voters. Far easier to ally themselves with socially conservative community leaders, who themselves held power by staying on the right side of the community.
These dynamics help explain why so few spoke out about the culture that produced the crimes — a culture of misogyny, which Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative politician who was raised near Rotherham, criticized in 2012, saying that it permits some Pakistani men to consider young white women “fair game.” It would be a brave leader, Pakistani or otherwise, who would tell the Pakistani community that it needed to address such issues, or that the road to progress required Pakistani parents to relax their strictures and allow their sons and daughters to marry out.
If working-class British Pakistanis had been better represented in the groups that failed them — the political class, the police, the media and the child protection agencies — it is arguable that there would have been a less squeamish attitude toward the shibboleths of multiculturalism. British Pakistanis may be held back by racism and poverty, but by cleaving so firmly to outmoded prejudices and fearing so much of the mainstream culture that swirls around them, they segregate themselves.
I owe much to the fact that my family moved from a Pakistani monoculture in Luton to a neighborhood that was largely white, where I learned to challenge many of the attitudes and expectations my parents had instilled. An enlightening breeze of modernity needs to blow through those pockets of England that remain forever Pakistan.
The grim fact of child sex abuse is that it is not limited to any country, community or creed — witness the cases of leading white television stars who have been convicted of the crime in Britain, and the experience of the Catholic Church in Ireland and America. Most Pakistani men, in Rotherham or elsewhere, do not, of course, turn to criminality or become child abusers. But Rotherham’s abusers found that their ethnicity protected them because they belonged to a community few wished to challenge.
What may seem like a story about race and religion, however, is as much one about power, class and gender. The Pakistanis who raped and pimped got away with it because they targeted a community even more marginal and vulnerable than theirs, a community with little voice and less muscle: white working-class girls.
In the rush to denounce multiculturalism, it would be wise to consider not only what gave the perpetrators the license to abuse, but also to reflect on what led to the victims being so undervalued that their cries were ignored.
Sarfraz Manzoor is the author of the memoir “Greetings From Bury Park.”