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UK: How Braverman's comments on 'grooming gangs' will fuel Islamophobia

Muslim men in the country are repeatedly portrayed as predators or terrorists, helping to drive the government's racist policies
Home Secretary Suella Braverman during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings at Downing Street on 7 March, 2023 (Reuters)

As a Muslim woman, I’ve certainly been guilty of presuming that we are unique in how we experience gendered Islamophobia in the UK

The way misogyny, racism and Islamophobia intersect for Muslim women confines us to outdated and damaging boxes. It is exhausting to never be allowed to escape ideals of us as meek and oppressed, hyper-sexualised and threatening, all at once. 

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from recent comments by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, it’s that Muslim men experience a particularly pernicious strain of gendered Islamophobia too - one that portrays them as predators or terrorists, or a drain on the system. And it’s no coincidence that these stereotypes form the perfect scapegoat for a government looking to shift criticism away from its own successive policy failings.

Appearing on Sky News over the weekend, Braverman described grooming gangs as “overwhelmingly” consisting of “British Pakistani males”, and their victims as “white English girls”. 

Ignoring the legacy of heinous abuse enacted by high-profile individuals such as Jimmy Savile and figures within the Catholic church, Braverman instead repeated far-right notions of brown men as predatory and dangerous - notions that have haunted migrant communities for decades. 

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It is politically expedient for a government that relies on rightwing votes and sits upon years of successive failings to create a scapegoat out of Pakistani (read: Muslim) men. The truth is irrelevant in the quest to sow discord and to ensure the public is distracted from what more than a decade of austerity and hostile politics has done to the most vulnerable in our society. 

There is overwhelming evidence from the Home Office itself that “group-based child sexual exploitation offenders are most commonly white”, Braverman has doubled down on the notion that men with brown skin are the primary threat.

On Wednesday, twenty-one people, all white, have been convicted for their parts in the largest ever child sex abuse case investigated by West Midlands Police.

It is ironic that the home secretary, who presides over a police force found just last month to be institutionally racist and riddled with sexual offenders, insists that British Pakistani men “hold cultural values totally at odds with British values”.

Anti-woke agenda

Braverman’s comments carry weight, and in my opinion, this isn’t about the very serious issue of sexual abuse. Dig a little deeper past the headlines and you’ll see that the government - including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak himself - is using this as a cause to spearhead the same anti-woke, anti-“political correctness” agenda that has long defined the increasingly right-wing Tory party. 

Feed the flames of an existing far-right preoccupation with Muslim immigrants taking over, in which Muslim men are cast as sexual predators who systemically target white girls, and you have the perfect political environment for the Conservatives to push their policies - from the unethical plan to deport migrants to Rwanda, to banning those who enter the UK by boat from claiming asylum

No matter what Muslim men do, they cannot escape this association with violence and misogyny, which has been deliberately attached to them

If migrant communities have already been dehumanised to the extent that they are seen as nothing but a threat, ready to pounce on a vulnerable native population, then there is very little persuasion needed to support the government’s increasingly hostile, divisive and racist politics. 

Better still, if “political correctness” is made into a pernicious enemy that allows brown men to rape white women and get away with it, then it becomes even easier for rabidly racist views to become commonplace in the name of fighting said political correctness. 

The result is a specifically gendered Islamophobia that follows Muslim men wherever they go. This is nothing new, whether it’s the long-held tabloid obsession with grown men from Muslim countries posing as children to sneak into the country (propelled to the front of the agenda by a former home secretary), or assumptions that any practising Muslim man is a terrorist. 

No matter what Muslim men do, they cannot escape this association with violence and misogyny, which has been deliberately attached to them by a government intent on distracting from its own failings with a convenient scapegoat. 

Normalising violence

Such notions are even present in the things we watch on western television, according to a survey released last year, which found that 30 percent of Muslim male characters were portrayed as violent. 

Even rising to the highest political office is not enough to stunt such stereotypes: After posting a photo of his family praying on their first night in Bute House, newly elected Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf received a tirade of abuse on Twitter for the lack of women in the photo - a clear nudge to the presumption that all Muslim men are raging misogynists. 

But the danger goes deeper than mere accusations, negative articles or vitriol on social media. When Muslim men are routinely dehumanised and associated with threats and perversions, then violence towards them becomes normalised. 

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The man who drove a van into worshippers outside Finsbury Park Mosque during Ramadan in 2017 had reportedly become obsessed with media depictions of Muslim men grooming white girls, even leaving a note in the van describing Muslim men as rapists, “in-bred” and “feral”. 

Likewise, the attacker who firebombed a Dover migrant centre last year had shared anti-Muslim sentiments on his Facebook page, displaying a clear link between far-right ideology and acts of violence towards those who are visibly Muslim. 

It’s impossible to truly understand how nefarious the government’s criminalisation of Pakistani men - and by association, the entire Muslim community - is without considering the economic and social realities for most British Muslims. According to the Muslim Census survey, half of all Muslims in the country live in poverty, compared with 18 percent of the general public. 

Muslim communities are disproportionately impacted by financial instability. They are acutely disenfranchised and vulnerable to harsh state policies, which aim to scapegoat a community already placed in a position of precarity by a government committed to growing the chasm between the rich and poor.

Braverman’s comments are nothing short of incendiary, especially in light of recent incidents where two elderly men were set on fire while leaving mosques in Birmingham and London, putting anyone who is visibly Muslim on edge. Most worryingly, these comments are only an indicator of more dangerous things to come from a government intent on growing its popularity among the far-right.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nadeine Asbali is a British-Libyan writer and teacher based in London.
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