EDL march in Newcastle 2010. Photo: Lionheart Photography EDL march in Newcastle 2010. Photo: Lionheart Photography

New far right movements claim that Muslim men are a threat to white girls but this old racist trick should not fool us, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

As we see the rise of the far right Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) on the streets, there is a notion going around that it is at least partly the fault of the Left. This is because, the argument goes, people are genuinely concerned about real issues of terrorism, ‘fundamentalist’ religion and paedophilia. The Left ignores these issues because it is too politically correct and too frightened of giving offence, so even people who are otherwise left wing have nowhere to express those concerns other than among the fascists.

Thus, for example, the Guardian report of the DFLA’s march on 13th October 2018 quoted from one marcher, a self-identified Tommy Robinson supporter, who claimed ”I detest some of the people I’m walking with…I’m a lefty, but I believe we should have a voice against the people who want to hurt everyone and cause harm.” Recent revelations that twenty mostly British Pakistani men were sent to prison earlier this year for raping and abusing young girls in Huddersfield will undoubtedly give this argument more prominence.

The DFLA certainly believe that demonising Muslim men as rapists as well as terrorists is an effective tactic to build their movement. DFLA marches have featured placards claiming that child rape is an ‘epidemic’ that ‘comes from Asia’ and calling Labour a ‘rapist party.’ The slogans for their march on 13th October were against ‘rape gangs and groomers’ as well as ‘returning jihadists and ‘thousands of AWOL migrants’. On the day, it was led by a banner calling for ‘Justice for Women and Children’, carried, in an attempt to underline the message that they’re not racists but simply people with reasonable concerns, by five women including two wearing the hijab.

This agitation around ‘rape gangs’ and paedophilia deploys the idea that Asian Muslim men are particularly, and in disproportionate numbers, grooming white girls for sexual exploitation.[1] This was popularised by a Times ‘exposé’ of Asian grooming gangs in towns in the north and north-west in January 2011, in the wake of a number of trials of groups of men for child sexual exploitation. As Andrew Gilligan commented in The Telegraph at the time, the story hit a number of highly-emotive buttons: ‘Sexual abuse! White girls! Pakistani men! Politically-correct establishment letting it happen!’ and it has been picked up and repeated both in the mainstream media and by politicians who should know better. It has also been used by ‘counter-extremism’ organisations like the Quilliam Foundation, which defended Sarah Champion MP in 2017 when she claimed that grooming was a specific problem of Pakistani men, and which claims that grooming gangs are 84% Asian.

Since the Quilliam Foundation came out with this statistic in December 2017 it has been much repeated, but analysis of the study’s methods show that its conclusions are dubious at best. In particular, the study demonstrably underestimated – by more than six times – the number of white men convicted of child sexual exploitation offences, and implied a racial motive for the selection of victims which was actually absent from the cases they looked at.

Indeed, in one case the judge commented explicitly in sentencing that the groomers ‘selected their victims not because of their race but because they were young, impressionable and vulnerable.’ A recent analysis of Quilliam’s study found that so poor were their methods that, contrary to their claims, ‘the authors provide no evidence that most offenders are of Pakistani origin. The authors provide no evidence that most offenders are Muslim. The authors provide no evidence that the majority of victims are white.’[2]

Contrary to the picture presented by The Times, the Quilliam Foundation and others, the vast majority of sex offenders in the UK are white men. White men are also the main perpetrators of offences which could be classed as grooming in gangs.

Combining the findings of two large-scale government studies, carried out as a result of concern about grooming, gives a breakdown (where the race of the perpetrators is recorded, which is for just under half of the instances in the studies) of 43% white men and 33% Asian. This 33% is still higher than the proportion of Asians in the general population of the UK (7%), but as Ella Cockbain comments in her analyses of these studies, this still doesn’t mean that Asian men are disproportionately likely to commit these crimes. At least one, and possibly both, of the government studies took data only from specific geographical areas. If these areas were those with higher than average Asian populations (as they may well have been, given the panic about grooming in specific northern towns), then the percentage of Asian men in the general population covered in the studies may well have been much higher than 7%. It is also possible that the ethnicity of the perpetrators was more likely to be recorded if they were Asian than if they were white.

It is also important to recognise that grooming in this context is not an objectively-defined crime. Even the two government reports defined it differently; one looking at ‘localised grooming’ and the other at ‘child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.’ This means that it can be, and there is some evidence that it is being, created as a crime associated with a specific racial background. Cases of child sexual exploitation involving Asian defendants will receive far greater publicity than those involving white men. This can then create an assumption that means that cases involving Asian men are more likely to be classed as ‘grooming gang offences’, whereas white men exhibiting the same behaviour are recorded as a subtly different type of child sexual exploiter.

Once a crime is perceived as having a specific racial profile, it is therefore likely to become self-fulfilling prophecy. This is after all apparently the case with terrorism, where it appears that it is only terrorism to be motivated by political beliefs to drive a car deliberately at pedestrians if you’re Muslim. When a driver in Cricklewood in September 2018 shouted Islamophobic abuse at a crowd of mosque-goers and then drove his car into them, it was described by police as ‘not terror-related.’ It is difficult to imagine them coming to this conclusion had the driver been Muslim and the pedestrians white.

The ideas that grooming is a specifically Asian crime, that Islam leads to paedophilia, or that there is an epidemic of sex crime because of British Asians are all clearly false. They have power because they refer back to the notion of ethnicminority men preying on white women which is as old as racism itself. The men who lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 for apparently wolf-whistling at a white woman were driven by the same ideology as those carrying ‘Muslims are paedos’ placards today. So were those writing articles in Der Stürmer in the 1930s about Jewish men attacking good German women.

Harking back to this idea is particularly effective because it is so emotive, and because it can also be given a progressive, feminist spin, which can both disorientate opposition and give the far right the unlikely mantle of champions of women’s rights. It was used in this way with depressing effectiveness in Germany in 2016, where the Right were able to use a spate of crimes at the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, attributed (with, it turns out, very little justification) to refugees, to turn popular opinion away from support for people fleeing the conflict in Syria.[3]

In the Cologne case, as with the grooming gang issue, the far right was able to position itself as the champion of ordinary people’s reasonable concerns, unlike the Left, which were portrayed as only interested in pandering to out of touch, politically-correct liberals. Thus, the Quilliam Foundation for example argues that the Left has been silent on grooming because they are too afraid of offending Muslim opinion by speaking the truth.

The fact that some on the left are now making the same arguments as the Quilliam Foundation demonstrates the potential this issue has to disorientate and disrupt anti-fascist struggle. It is therefore important to understand that the grooming gangs issue, like the issues of sexual assault on adult women used in the Cologne case, is employed as a tactic by the far right. It doesn’t represent a reality that they are actually concerned about the rights of women and children. Tommy Robinson has not suddenly become a feminist.

There is in fact plenty of evidence that far right commitment to women’s rights, dignity and safety may not be 100% sincere. A female speaker at an FLA demonstration in Birmingham in March 2018, for example, claimed that violent misogyny was central to Islam, but then went on to dismiss #MeToo as being about harmless compliments and ‘saucy comments.’ Tommy Robinson supporters’ commitment to feminism did not prevent them from hurling misogynist abuse at a female protestor at one of his appearances at the Old Bailey.

Far right supporters also have good reason to know that paedophilia is very definitely not a specifically Muslim crime, as former EDL activist Peter Gillett was jailed for 18 years in October 2018 for child sex abuse. This followed the imprisonment in 2017 of Leigh McMillan, a senior EDL member, for child sex crimes, and the earlier revelation that EDL ‘hero’ Richard Price has a conviction for making indecent images of children.

There are, of course, no reports of DFLA calls for action against the EDL for child sexual exploitation. Nor have DFLA supporters been vocal about well-documented, extensive child sexual abuse carried out by white men. The actions of far right activists around specific cases of sexual abuse also demonstrate that they are interested in using the issue for political gain rather than in helping the victims. Britain First, for example, claim that two of their leaders were imprisoned for championing a young female rape victim against her Muslim rapists. In fact, their activities in leafleting people going into the trial and harassing people they thought were connected to the defendants (but weren’t) not only amounted to religiously-motivated harassment, but could have put the trial in jeopardy. Far from being a case of standing up for the victims of politically-correct liberal toleration of rape, it was ‘ill-advised meddling, fuelled by racial hatred, resulting in the harassment of innocent people that could potentially have endangered the rape trial itself.’

Given the reality of groups like the DFLA’s commitment to justice for women and children, it is unlikely that many otherwise reasonable people who wandered into their orbit because they were worried about child sexual abuse would stay for very long without having their eyes opened about with whom they were really consorting. The spurious respectability that the far right gains from its adoption of sexual exploitation issues is important much more because it works on the media, rather than because it works directly on many ordinary people. The route of transmission, as we saw with Cologne and with the grooming gangs issue, goes from the far right, to articles in the press asking if there is a really a Muslim sex problem, to the creation of a distorted reality where it is widely accepted that there is a specific issue with particular communities, to racist attacks on those communities.

This highlights the other important function that these ideas play for the far right, in giving people who are already disposed to be racist a justification for their racism. They provide what many would perceive as a socially-approved reason for them to see Muslims as a dehumanised ‘Other’, against whom it is legitimate for groups to campaign and for the state to discriminate. For a few, it provides ultimately a justification for murder. The partner of terrorist Darren Osborne, who killed one man when he drove his car into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park mosque in 2017, said that in the weeks leading up to the murder, ‘he has become obsessed with Muslims, accusing them all of being rapists and being part of paedophile gangs.’

This leaves the question of how the Left should respond to these tactics from the far right. It is of course not true that the Left is indifferent to sexual exploitation. We have been at the forefront of campaigning against all forms of sexual abuse. We should be clear, however, that we would never be able to prove that to the satisfaction of the DFLA and those who, openly or tacitly, support them. The dismissal of #MeToo campaigning as whining about compliments shows us that. To conclude that the Left has not been active enough on the issues singled out by the far right is to accept that the far right’s arguments are put honestly, from a real concern about those issues. Clearly, that is not the case.

The dismissal of the Left as ‘the PC brigade’ is an essential part of far right strategy because it enables them to position themselves as the only champions of working people against the Establishment. They understand, just as we understand, that the Left can win people away from far right ideas, so it is necessary for them to denigrate us. They would do this whatever we did and whatever we said. We should no more change our practice and our priorities in response to their rhetoric than we should tear up our copies of Gramsci because they call us cultural Marxists.

We don’t take their accusations that we are apologists for terrorism seriously. We note the increasing instances of far right supporters committing terrorist offences, whilst we continue to campaign against imperialist wars and Islamophobia. Similarly, the only appropriate response to the DFLA rhetoric on sexual exploitation is to continue with the sort of feminist campaigning work which is anathema to them but which recognises the structural reasons for sexual exploitation and violence without resorting to racist, incorrect assumptions. The DFLA’s mobilisation around the issue of grooming gangs is a trap, inviting us to concede a false premise that there really is a specific issue with Muslim men and sexual exploitation. No one would be more delighted than Tommy Robinson if we were to fall into it.


[1] Ella Cockbain, ‘Grooming and the “Asian sex gang predator”: the construction of a racial crime threat’, Race and Class 54 (4), (2013), pp. 22-32, p.23

[2] J Spooner and J Stubbs, ‘Grooming Gangs: Quilliam and the myth of the 84 percent’

[3] Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines. Racism and the rise of the right, (Verso, London 2018), p.88-90

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.