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Press: When things cannot be said

12 January 2011

by Andrew Brown

THE murder of Salman Taseer may be one of the most significant religious stories of the year (News, 7 January). The act itself is shocking enough — to kill a man for opposing the death penalty for blasphemy argues derangement. But the aftermath is just as worrying: the idea of a lone, lunatic gunman makes no sense in a context where the suspect is garlanded with flowers after the murder, and no one dares speak a word of condemnation.

Declan Walsh, in The Observer, had a mar­vellous and chilling lead to his story: “Aasia Bibi isn’t at home. Children play at the blue gate of her modest home in Itanwali, a sleepy Punjabi village. Bibi, the woman at the heart of Pakistan’s blasphemy furore — which triggered the murder of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer last week — is in jail, des­perately praying that she won’t be executed. Her neighbours are hoping she will be.

“‘Why hasn’t she been killed yet?’ said Maafia Bibi, a 20-year-old woman standing at the gate of the house next door. Her eyes glitter behind a scarf that covered her face. ‘You journalists keep coming here asking questions but the issue is resolved. Why has she not been hanged?’”

Nor did the story improve. “Discrimination is nothing new to Pakistan’s Christian minority; vicious attacks in small Punjabi towns have heightened the sense of isolation. But since the death of Taseer — their most prominent defender — they feel more im­perilled than ever.

“At a Lahore safe house, a family described how the blasphemy law had ruined their lives. Yusuf Masih and his wife Suria have been on bail since last July, when a local mullah had them charged with blasphemy. Their crime was to have put scrap plastic sheeting on the roof of their outdoor toilet, to keep out the rain. Unknown to them, the sheet contained a religious verse. ‘We had no idea,’ says Masih, a stubble-chinned cook who cannot read or write.”

Walsh did, however, use one extremely odd phrase in his piece: “froth-mouthed mullahs”. I don’t think that rabbis would ever be described in those tones in The Guardian, or even Chris­tians, unless perhaps they were American.

FROTH-mouthed or not, the worry about Islamophobia this week mostly came around The Times’s splash that Muslim, or at least Pakistani-descended, gangs preyed on white teenage girls in the Midlands. It looked as if The Times had got hold of a pretty solid story, which none the less was going to give a great deal of pleasure to the BNP.

By examining the convictions in cases where gangs of young men systematically debauched and exploited young teenage girls, they found that, since 1997, in a swath of the Midlands, “in total, 56 people, with an average age of 28, were found guilty of crimes including rape, child abduction, indecent assault, and sex with a child. Three of the 56 were white, 53 were Asian. Of those, 50 were Muslim and a majority were members of the British Pakistani community.”

The spin the paper put on it was that “a conspiracy of silence” had prevented these facts from being known. This set the tone for much of the subsequent coverage, which was not about what may actually be happening on the ground, but what people in London were going to say about it, and who would be comforted and who upset.

I thought the most balanced response was Andrew Gilligan’s, in The Daily Telegraph. “There could, of course, hardly be a more emotive story than this. Sexual abuse! White girls! Pakistani men! Politically correct estab­lish­ment letting it all happen! No wonder the BNP has been licking its lips (though, un­fortun­ately for them, the only two white Blackburn people re­cently convicted of this crime, in Nov­em­ber 2008, turned out to be members of the party).

“Yet just be­cause the BNP ex­ploits an issue does not mean there is nothing in it. The question really should be: is it simply a local prob­lem in those towns?

“Sadly for the racists, the figures just do not support any attempt to paint British Muslims and Asians as sex pre­d-ators on a national scale. Asians are, in fact, under-repres­ented among sex offenders. As at June 2009, there were 7021 British men in prison for sex crimes, of whom only 234 were Asian. That is 3.3 per cent, rather less than the proportion of Asians in the popula­tion.”

NATURALLY, the most un­balanced response was from Melanie Phillips, but even she, by the end, was blaming society: “Some Muslim sexual predators may now be behind bars. Others, according to the police, may still be very much at large. But it is multicultural, reverse-racist, sickeningly hypo­critical Britain which is actually in the dock.”

Except of course, that Ms Phillips would never claim that we are all guilty: her whole schtick for the Mail is that you are all guilty — whoever you are.

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