Jack Straw has always given the impression that he is someone who treads carefully. After thirty years’ service on the Labour front bench, it is hard to pigeonhole him in any particular camp or to pin any politically crucial reform on him. And yet, being one of Labour’s elder statesmen has clearly allowed him to speak more freely on controversial topics.
Mr Straw’s comments on last night’s Newsnight, suggesting that there is a ‘specific problem’ in the Pakistani community of targeting young white girls for sexual abuse has been unsurprisingly controversial. Coming after the sentencing of two men in Nottingham and in a Britain where the English Defence League has become increasingly active, even as support for the BNP plateaus, there is undoubtedly a risk of inflaming the passions, let alone making an unpleasant name for yourself.
Mr Straw has some form in his relationship with his Muslim constituents, although comments of this kind would have been unthinkable while Mr Straw was in the Cabinet. In 2006 he gave an interview to his local newspaper, revealing that he often asked women wearing the niqab to remove their veils in his constituency surgery. He later gave an apology of sorts, more for the implication that he was advocating banning face-covering Islamic dress than for holding those views.
Will Mr Straw feel the need to apologise again shortly? Well, for one thing, his leader certainly has less say in the matter. But the response has so far been somewhat divided. Those urging caution, including heads of charities and what I will lazily stereotype as quangos, are so far predominantly white. Some thoughtful Muslims, including the Ramadhan Foundation’s Director, Mohammed Shafiq, have been harsh on their co-religionists, while there will also be a strain – currently led by Keith Vaz MP, that decries this approach as unfair and perhaps racist.
Mr Straw should not be blind to the two dangers that are likely to arise from comments of this kind. Firstly, there is a risk of labeling the Pakistani community which will have grave consequences. British citizens from the Indian subcontinent already bear a heavy burden, stigmatised by their association with terrorism. A relatively disadvantaged group, their economic and social prospects are not likely to be helped by a perception that they lead chaotic or even immoral home lives.
The second danger contradicts the first and requires a disclaimer. Sociologists and well-meaning people will be keen to see that the full background to the problem of abuse is exposed, but in doing so it is hard to avoid giving the impressions that could lead to stigma. Nonetheless, with care and attention, I subscribe to the view that sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Mr Straw’s conclusion is that testosterone, curtailed by the social convention that a Pakistani man must have a Pakistani wife, can result in an unhealthy aggression. Another important avenue of research – for that is above all what this episode should result in – is the impact of the connection with modern-day Pakistan. Pakistan as a democracy and as a tolerant society has been in decline for some years and its education system is often poor, especially for young women. Yet these are the girls who are often brought to the UK as brides, perhaps without speaking English. It is common, we are led to believe, for matriarchal figures to take advantage of these deficiencies and for the family structure to fit around their traditionalist views. This is then extended over the children, who cannot help but be exposed to culturally liberal schools, and combined with contempt for Westerners.
But their are undoubtedly other factors. In the past year and a half, it seems that a ridiculous number of stories have emerged of paedophiles working in nurseries, or of abuse of young children by their parents and step-parents. Tragedies that would be central events in tragic novels now appear to be dotted around the periphery of our society.
I seek not to label, nor to act as if these cases are endemic, because they are clearly not. But what is frightening is not that they happen, but that there is so little information surrounding them and that fears are allowed to grow.