Last week nine men were found guilty of luring a number of mid-teen girls by plying them with drink and pretended affection until they found themselves by degrees recruited for a sex ring which the men operated in and near Rochdale.  The men were Asian, and nominally Muslim, as were their ‘clients’ for sexual services.  The girls were white, and, the early coverage emphasised, vulnerable, through limited parentage and supervision and support, and all thus known to social services; and through their being on the streets at hours when more strictly parented Asian girls were safe at home.  Threats kept the girls in line as they were passed through increasing numbers of hands, and the whole matter took several months to come to light.

Discussion of the case turned quickly to the communities and ethnicities of the perpetrators of the crime and their victims.  The judge made a comment that the perpetrators would not have treated young females from their own community in the same way.  Some respected people from the police service and from charities dealing with young people pointed out that this was not an isolated case and that numbers of additional cases of groups of older Asian men grooming young white girls who were then passed around for sex had occurred or were under investigation.  The central cultural issues behind such practice, it was said, needed to be looked at foursquare, despite the fact that the British National Party were making an anti-Islamic campaign out of the case by demonstrating outside the court.

Of course this is first and foremost a matter of sustained and deep individual and collective criminality.  Those who recruited the girls did so through deliberate deception, feigning affection for those whose home circumstances gave them a desperate emotional vulnerability.  They then exploited the feelings that they had created, and when that failed resorted to threats of violence.  Their many more numerous ‘clients’ could hardly be unaware of what they were participating in, and yet either had no feelings towards the victims, despite their age, or callously ignored or overrode them.

How could this happen?  What sustained this behaviour? Well, we have the example of the holocaust to remind us know it isn’t exclusively Muslims, or even those of religions in general, that behave in a way that allows them to commodify people or deny their humanity entirely: it certainly didn’t prevent the widespread sexual abuse of altar boys and school pupils within the Roman Catholic church, nor the trafficking of women from eastern Europe to the sexual markets of the west – trafficking of whites by whites, for whites.  But we can say that religion has a special place in systematically promoting perception of social distance, of the in-group and the out-group, of the self and the other, of those deserving of sympathy and help and those deserving of misfortune.  In particular the notion that a religion requires various beliefs and/or practices to be observed in order that an adherent shall have the rights to some kind of paradisiacal afterlife can be thought of as the ultimate form of social exclusion, since in the minds of the believers, it lasts for ever.  Even if half believed and half not believed, it is hard to believe that no social taint rubs off such doctrines onto the unbeliever, the excluded, undermining their social worth, the extent to which they deserve compassion, in the believer’s eyes.   Such beliefs are unpleasant enough when they crop up in families where the theories of difference and otherness at least have to meet the experiential test of everyday life.  They can develop to full force in the relatively self-contained single community neighbourhoods of inner cities.  Separate can develop into something far less healthy than unequal.

Which brings us to the US Army, and a far more chilling story.   An elective course run by a LT. Col. Dooley for U.S. military officers since 2004, suspended only within the last month in response to a student protest after some 800 students had been exposed to it, is reported to have called for “a direct ideological and philosophical confrontation with Islam” which would not be bound by the Geneva Conventions.  It would have included taking war to civilians through tactics like deliberate starvation and the destruction of the Muslim holy cities.

The story is chilling because it shows the US Army as sufficiently separate to maintain a subculture with such objectives, and because the subculture isn’t that exotic when set against the actions of US soldiers in the field: collectively at Abu Ghraib, and individually in incidents where soldiers have run amok shooting Muslims.  Over the last few years a version of the “final solution” for the Moslem world has also spread around amongst some Americans (and for all I know others) called “the glass solution” (referring to the effect of heat from nuclear weapons on sand deserts).  Such positions tap into and mould popular beliefs.  At another level entirely, but with a similar taint of anti-Islamic ideology, the idea that Barack Obama may have been a Moslem was allowed to circulate, in the belief no doubt that were it to become accepted, it would be a political knock-out blow.  We might say that the collapse of the Soviet Union created an ideology gap in the justification of the US military machine, and one reading of 9/11 allowed it to be filled, just below the surface, in ideological positions about Islam as a global enemy that of course are equally able to counter-exploitation by those wishing to stir up feelings against the West.  Thankfully above the surface the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey described Dooley’s course as “objectionable” and “counter to American appreciation for religious freedom and cultural awareness.”

The question both for the West and for Islamic societies is how to keep a clear collective head, a dispassionate sense of justice, and a long view: how to be able to examine and coolly debate the flaws and injustices in each of our cultures, and perhaps even face the potentially perverse consequences of the sacred texts which support them, without letting every incident become sorted by mirror ideologies into the justification for conflict, at least in our popular cultures.  It already feels as if this modest aim is becoming more difficult.