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Andrew Brown: Disturbed background, disturbing story

01 September 2017


Contentious: a woman wearing a niqab walking through central London

Contentious: a woman wearing a niqab walking through central London

THE TIMES’s front-page Bank Holiday Monday splash was huge: “A white Christian child was taken from her family and forced to live with niqab-wearing foster carer in a home where she was allegedly encouraged to learn Arabic.

”The five-year-old girl, a native English speaker, has spent the past six months in the care of two Muslim households in London. The foster placements were made, against the wishes of the girl’s family, by the scandal-ridden borough of Tower Hamlets.”

The thing that gave this report credibility was that the author was Andrew Norfolk, the man who first cracked the Rotherham child-abuse scandal.

I think what gave it legs, though, was the immediate, visceral response among many white readers that something here was terribly wrong. It was practically a restaging of the legend of little St Hugh of Lincoln in modern dress.

That is simple tribalism: we don’t want Our children looked after by Them. As such, it appears to be a universal phenomenon: what unites the human race is that we’re all divided by the same impulses. But it does make it incredibly difficult to report these things responsibly.

In all of these stories, it is axiomatic that we don’t know all the facts, and we certainly haven’t had both sides of this story. The details supplied are upsetting, and some, at least, are sourced to “a social worker’s report” rather than to the blood family: “In confidential local authority reports seen by The Times, a social-services supervisor describes the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to the foster carer’s home because ‘they don’t speak English’.

“The reports state that the supervisor heard the girl, who at times was ‘very distressed’, claiming that the foster carer removed her necklace, which had a Christian cross, and also suggested that she should learn Arabic.

“More recently, the girl is said to have told her mother that ‘Christmas and Easter are stupid’, and that ‘European women are stupid and alcoholic.’”

Note the shift here between the sourced reports: the supervisor heard the girl saying “They don’t speak English,” something that is most unlikely to be literally true — in later iterations of the story it emerged that the foster parents spoke to her — and the source for those last allegations: “is said”.

By whom is not revealed, although it is reasonable to suspect that it is some of her relatives.

Much of the story, then, is based on second-hand reports of what a five-year-old girl from what must be a very disturbed background may have said. That’s not any guarantee of literal truth.

Although the circumstances are very different, I was reminded of a Washington Post story from last week, of a wholly innocent couple released after serving 11 years in prison on charges of satanic ritual abuse at a day-care centre they ran, for which, of course, there was no credible evidence at all: just the reports of four- and five-year-old children questioned under stressful circum­stances.


OTHER notable features of the story included the relatives’ way of establishing the child’s white English nature: “This is a five-year-old white girl. She was born in this country, speaks English as her first language, loves football, holds a British passport and was christened in a church” — in that order. (If any churchperson who has had contact with the case would like to get in touch with me, feel free.)

I can’t, however, get away from the non-verbal detail that both the foster mothers wore some kind of face covering — a niqab, or a burka — in public. I think that that choice alone should disqualify someone from being a foster carer, although I may be wrong. What I am certain of is that any corresponding marks of Christian fundamentalism would not be overlooked by social-services depart­ments.

Of course, by the time the story reached the Daily Mail, all pretence at objectivity was gone: the Mail’s version was illustrated by a stock picture of an Arab couple with a child between them. Keen-eyed readers soon pointed out that the towers in the background were those of Dubai, not London, and that the mother’s niqab had been Photoshopped on.


MORE interesting was a wonderful Guardian long read which was the memoir of an Iranian Christian, Dina Nayeri, on growing up in the hope of the Rapture under the persecutions of the Khomeini regime, and then of slowly losing the belief after the family escaped to the United States, where the Rapture no longer meant an escape from the same horrors. It is full of subtle, forgiving nostalgia, and some delightful titbits.

I had not realised that Jared Kushner was now regarded as a possible Antichrist among people who mean the term literally.


FROM Japan comes news of a different escape: at a recent funeral-trade show, a robot Buddhist priest was exhibited, who will perform the necessary rites more cheaply even than a humanist.

Ideally, of course, the robot would be powered by electricity generated from turbines festooned with prayer flags.

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