Do you remember Alan Kurdi, the poor, drowned three-year-old whose photograph provoked a wave of sympathy for migrants almost exactly a year ago? Social media lit up with outrage — something must be done! — as millions shared the picture back and forth. A Facebook share is a pretty easy way of caring, but even so it was uplifting: we in the West mind about all children, not just our own. Our fellow feeling extends to fellows worldwide.
So where then is the great Facebook uprising over the news that there’s been not a single successful prosecution in this country for female genital mutilation (FGM) though it’s been illegal since 1985? It’s happening here on an impressive scale: some 6,000 new cases have been reported by NHS staff in the past year alone — tens of thousands more go undiscovered. FGM isn’t for the faint-hearted; it’s serious child abuse: young girls, aged anywhere between a few days and 15 years, are held down and cut up with razors. Sometimes they lose dangerous amounts of blood, develop septicaemia and become infertile. Because they won’t testify against their parents, these girls need us to be especially vigilant on their behalf. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born writer, suggests a system of compulsory checks at the beginning of each school year. Very sensible. So why no social media campaign?
The answer isn’t that we don’t care, I don’t think. It’s that our concern for the victims of FGM is, for the most part, trumped by our extreme reluctance to criticise another culture. In the case of drowned migrant children, we can attack our own government — a happy and popular pastime. To share the story about FGM in the UK means taking issue not just with evil Tories, but with the Somali diaspora in London. Is this racist? The question forms and hangs over us. We stay silent.
A similar silence fell over the usually opinionated middle classes during the Rotherham scandal in which thousands of white girls were groomed, tortured and raped by men from the British-Pakistani community. Where was the great fuss on Facebook about that? The same people who mind so much, and so visibly, about migrant children, barely turned a hair.
For those of us conditioned by the 1990s — especially those of us who live affluent London lives dependent on immigrants for childcare, housework, building work — it’s almost impossible psychologically to hold another culture to account. We’re children of the Blair era, uncomfortable with talk of acculturation or assimilation. We believe in our bones that all cultures and creeds are equal, and that if bad things happen in any given community, it’s just because there are bad individuals everywhere, spread evenly across every ethnic or religious group.
But this quite obviously isn’t right, and it isn’t fair. It’s not fair to the girls who’ll be dragged off for FGM or to the thousands who’ll grow up in immigrant communities assuming they must obey their husbands at all times. (A Pew study of 2013 found 90 per cent of north Africans subscribed to this handy philosophy.) It’s especially unfair to any British-born children of immigrants who are brought up to believe that this country, and its native people, are somehow despicable. For instance: the ongoing child abuse in the Midlands is not the fault of a few bad apples — there’s clearly something terribly wrong with the way the Pakistani community there sees white girls.
After 12 British Pakistanis from Bradford were jailed for gang-raping a 13-year-old, their elected councillor, Zafar Ali, responded by saying that many in the Pakistani community still believe ‘it takes two to tango’ and this child ‘played her part’.
For a decade I lived below a British Bangla-deshi family — a young mother, her much older husband and two boys , seven and nine, — in a block of council flats in central London. The mother was my age and we got on very well though she spoke almost no English. She taught me to make vegetable rolls and I helped her boys with their homework. They were excellent neighbours. Their culture, however, was wrong-headed and damaging.
Every week a group of Bangladeshi women would come over and they’d bitch about British life. It was outrageous, they all agreed, that at their C of E state primary, the children had to say grace before lunch. The boys listened and agreed and stored up grievances against the country that housed, fed and educated them. Eventually, the father banned his boys from my flat on the grounds (they said) that it was not appropriate to mix with white Christians. Then he left the whole family to set up with another, much younger wife he’d brought over from Bangladesh.
In the EU, the unemployment rate among the children of immigrants is almost 50 per cent higher than for the children of natives, says a 2015 OECD report. The EU guidance on the matter suggests that this is the result of racism. But it really can’t help you in the workplace if your mother, father, aunties have all taught you to despise the society you live in. Diversity is healthy — but separate, closed communities are not. Clan-based ethics are most definitely not.
We think: who are we to criticise other communities? We paint our own western, Christian culture as a greedy and exploitative and imagine we don’t have the right to judge. Well, we do and we must. Tom Holland, writing in the New Statesman, explains why: ‘Today, even as belief in God fades across the west, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.’
We believe, in this country, that we should love our neighbour whoever our neighbour is. This, surely, is what we should require of every other culture, faith, and community in Britain.