It is more than six years since the then Archbishop of Canterbury gave what history will surely understand to be one of the most destructive speeches in modern Britain. The contents of Rowan Williams's 2008 speech talked of allowing a place for competing religious demands, including sharia law, in a multi-faith society. The next day he clarified matters. In an interview with the BBC, he said there would "inevitably" be a place for sharia law in Britain and that (more importantly) the idea of there being "one law for all" in a country such as Britain seemed to him "dangerous."
This week Britain had another of her periodic reminders of what failing to apply one law for all actually means. We know it can mean not stopping families from Pakistan taking their underage daughters abroad to marry a man they have never met before. And we have seen the silence of communities and the failure of police to investigate murders when they have been deemed to have been performed within a community in the name of "honor." Customs such as these, were they performed by any other group in society, would be prosecuted with the full force of the law. But in recent years, they have presented a parallel form of morality. They come about not because they are genuinely attractive, competitive moral norms but because of a loss of confidence in our own traditions and laws, and a resulting moral relativism in which nobody wants to make moral judgements. The most grotesque extreme to which this has led us has been on display again this week in the North of England, in Rotherham (population ca. 258,000).
This is a subject which really does have to be treated with the utmost care and needs to start with a disclaimer. It is obvious that child abusers can come from any background, religion or race. It is an evil that is not confined to any one group. However in recent years in Britain there has been a development which fits into a specific category and which can be identified and stopped as unique. This is the pattern of Muslim men, generally of Pakistani descent, found to have sought out white, underage non-Muslim girls to abuse. Often these girls have been in care homes or other distressed circumstances. The stories generally revolve around large gangs of men -- a group -- assaulting a girl. The girls -- often as young as 11 -- are frequently plied with drugs, or hooked on them by their abusers to make the abuse easier. The stories are horrific.
In the English town of Rotherham (population ca. 258,000), at least 1,400 children were sexually abused by a gang of Muslim men of Pakistani descent. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Britain, however, has spent more than a decade trying to turn a blind eye to this trend. The reasons for doing that are important to consider.
The first reason -- although not the main one -- is that it did not help that the racist British National Party picked up this the issue of "Asian grooming gangs" in the early 2000s. The party's early leap onto that issue raised alarm bells with many people who feared it was just some form of race-baiting by known racists. Instead of being investigated cooly and calmly by the appropriate authorities as it should have been, one result was that many mainstream figures who might have raised the alarm worried about doing so.
In Rotherham, as with previous cases -- including the Oxfordshire "Operation Bullfinch" case, in which nine men were convicted of beating, raping, urinating on and trafficking in at least six girls -- the same pattern emerged, making denial that the problem existed more difficult. The Bullfinch trial led to prosecutions at the Old Bailey last year -- the perpetrators were identifiably and consistently of Muslim religion or descent and tended to be of Pakistani origin. Some of the men, notably in the Oxfordshire case, came from North Africa. But the primary, indeed overwhelming, identity of the abusers in Rotherham is that they are of Pakistani descent.
This fact seems to have been the other major reason why society failed to deal with years of systematic and flagrant abuse. The revelations which came out of the official report into child sex abuse in Rotherham (published earlier this week) revealed that at least 1,400 girls had been abused just in that area during a fifteen year period. The victims were overwhelmingly of one community. The men who had abused them were Muslim and from the local Pakistani community. As with previous such cases, the report found that the reason this abuse had not been stopped earlier was to a great extent due to the fear by the police, council officers, child-protection officers and others that they would be accused of "racism" and "Islamophobia". The report makes for exceptionally painful reading.
The officials have, of course, made their pro-forma apologies. There has been much talk of "lessons learnt" and apologies for 'a failure in service." The underlying problem, however, has barely been touched. That problem is this:
It has become increasingly plain in recent years that there are areas of our country in which different rules apply. When the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, said that there were areas of Britain which were effectively "no-go areas" for non-Muslims, he was ridiculed and dismissed as a scare-monger by much of the media and the political class.
Earlier this year, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Tom Winsor, was condemned in the same way and by the same forces when he said that there were areas of the country which constituted no-go areas for the police, and inside which minority communities administered their own forms of justice.
In Rotherham and many other places this analysis -- far from being untrue -- rings true with a dreadful clarity. There were local norms which the wider country might not recognize, but which were certainly recognized in Rotherham and elsewhere in Britain. Here were places where religion and ethnicity, and the fear of accusations of "racism" and "Islamophobia," trump everything -- including women's rights and, it is now clear, even children's rights.
This parallel set of "laws" was not instituted officially of course. The Rotherham report simply shows that these new, unofficial laws of behaviour were instituted informally. Thousands of members of the local Muslim Pakistani community must have understood them to have existed. And thousands of non-Muslim, white British, Sikh British and other groups must have understood them to exist as well. The officials of Rotherham certainly understood them to exist.
And there you have it. A perfect test case for Rowan Williams having his way. This new version of Common Law was established by precedent, just like the form of law in which Britain led the world. This new precedent was established informally. Everybody forgot that the idea of protecting everyone by the same rules was the only standard a civilized country should apply. Absent it and we now know what we get. "One law for all" was not a "dangerous" idea. It is the only system that makes it possible to protect everyone, whatever his race or religion. It was the leadership of this country that led us into this mess. And it is the leadership of this country that must now lead us out of it.