How a British scribe's study of Islam helped explain Pakistani immigrant gangs' sex crimes

I haven't spent substantial time in London in several years, and, frankly, I generally feel little pull to revisit.

But I would have liked being there earlier this week to attend a talk by a leading British investigative journalist on how his knowledge of religion -- Islam in particular -- helped in his reporting a crime story that officials were loathe to explore too closely for fear they'd be accused of religious or racial bias.

I'm referring to a talk by Andrew Norfolk of The Times, the Murdoch-owned weekday daily,  organized by Lapido Media, the online arm of the London-based Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism.

Norfolk was interviewed by Lapido for a piece published in advance of his talk. During the interview, he spoke about how his knowledge of South Asian Islamic culture in Great Britain enabled him to uncover what Lapido called "the grooming of teenage white girls by gangs of Asian men -- and the blind eye turned by the local council and police force."

 (At the Monday night event, Lapido also launched what it called -- incorrectly -- the "first guide in the world to religious literacy for media professionals." I say incorrectly because on this side of the pond journalists have long been able to profit from the similar work of the Religion News Association, to which I belong. Not that Lapido's effort, Religious Literacy: An Introductionisn't a welcome contribution. I mean, our own tmatt wrote the last chapter.)

Norfolk's work on the gangs story led to his being named 2014 Journalist of the Year by the British Journalism Awards, the organization that doles out such accolades in the U.K.

Here's the top of Lapido's advance story.

ANDREW Norfolk remembers the time when mentioning religion at work was so taboo that ‘it was as if you had burped at a party’.
That was in a regional newsroom in the 1990s. But, however that ‘knee-jerk liberal, secular groupthink’ developed, ‘9/11 was the moment when -- if you’d ever thought it was permissible to get by without understanding religion -- that just didn’t work anymore.’
Nonetheless, religion today is not something about which people are so much embarrassed as ignorant, and increasingly so -- ‘even of Christianity’, he argues.
‘To be a journalist in this country, you need to understand politics, not just the difference between Conservative, Labour and Lib-Dem; you need to understand within each of those parties the divergence of belief, and how that impacts on what policies they want to enact.
But regarding religion, ‘we’re still a million miles from that, from understanding how millions of people in this country live and are motivated to act. You cannot do that without understanding all the nuances and all the grey areas, all the blacks and all the whites, where those beliefs come from and why.’

Strictly speaking, Norfolk isn't a religion writer. As noted above, he's an investigative reporter. But The Times -- realizing it had no staffer qualified to knowledgeably cover Britain's large South Asian Muslim community -- told him to take six months to learn all he could about the community prior to writing about it.

He spent time in Pakistan and read the Quran. He also read, he said, more than a hundred books explaining the ins and outs of Islam, in terms of culture and doctrine.

"This process," the Lapido article said, "would lead to his producing early on some long-form investigative pieces that uncovered extremist teaching in some Deobandi mosques."

(Deobandi is a South Asian, Sunni Islam revivalist movement brought to Britain by immigrants from the region. In a 2007 piece written by Norfolk, he said the movement controlled almost half of Britain's mosques. He labeled the movement "a hardline Islamic sect whose leading preacher loathes Western values and has called on Muslims to 'shed blood' for Allah." He also noted that the Taliban in Afghanistan grew out of the Deobandi movement.)

Here's a chunk more from the Lapido piece, focusing on the criminal action actions of some South Asian-led gangs.

Initially there was no connection between that and Islam. ‘That investigation started because I'd grown increasingly uneasy about an unacknowledged pattern of sex offending involving groups of (largely Pakistani heritage) men and young teenage girls. Religion, initially, had nothing to do with it.
‘Only as I continued to work on the story and was trying to understand why and how this crime model had put down such strong roots in certain communities, I came to believe that in addition to cultural issues there were certain aspects of Islamic thinking, plus a distorted sort-of street Islam perspective, which played a role in making such group crimes more likely, and potentially more acceptable, within a criminal subculture of the Pakistani Muslim community as opposed to, e.g., the British Sikh or Hindu communities.’
Norfolk has faced accusations of racism and Islamophobia, including from other journalists. He replies: ‘You don’t help the future by ignoring hard truths.’
Referring to his reporting on the grooming of white girls by Asian men he adds: ‘We reclaimed that story from the racists.

There's more interesting material in the Lapido piece, and I suggest you read it all. Once again, here's the operative link.

The Times, of course, deserves praise for inviting Norfolk to take a half-year to prepare himself for covering Britain's growing South Asian community. (South Asians are commonly referred to in the U.K. Simply as "Asians." The term is technically correct, of course. However, it strikes me as overly broad, and perhaps even demeaning to Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other immigrant groups who are culturally, and religiously, quite distinct from South Asians.)

So what are some of the lessons here?

GetReligion regulars should have no problem answering the above question. You don't need me to reiterate. But let me take a stab at it anyway in case some GetReligion irregulars have stumbled upon this post (and you're all more than welcome here).

So here goes:

Religious beliefs underpin cultural expressions. This is particularly true when considering group attitudes toward sex and gender issues. Religion specialists already inclined by personality to parse the profound differences that divide human cultures are often among the most sensitive of journalists -- as my experience on the beat has shown me.

Hence, they're well-positioned to ask the right questions and, perhaps more importantly, more fully understand the answers when doing the tough reporting done so skillfully by Norfolk.

Are you paying attention, Dean Baquet?

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