A race row has erupted in Britain after a gang of mostly Pakistani men were convicted in a high-profile "sexual grooming" case.
Last week, eight men of Pakistani origin and one from Afghanistan were found guilty of sexually exploiting underage girls in the northern English town of Rochdale.
Some of the girls were as young as 13 years of age.
In handing out sentences of between four and 19 years for the offenses, presiding Judge Gerald Clifton sparked a fiery debate when he said that one of the underlying factors behind why the girls were abused "was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion."
Somewhat surprisingly, the judge's comments were backed up by the chair of Britain's Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, who said it would be "fatuous" to deny that racial and cultural elements had not played a role in the crimes.
Speaking to the BBC
, Phillips also said that because the men were from "closed communities" it may have helped them abuse the girls without fear of being reported to the authorities.
"I worry that, in those communities there were people who knew what was going on and didn't say anything, either because they're frightened or they're so separated from the rest of the communities that they think, 'oh, that's just how white people let their children carry on, we don't need to do anything,'" he said.
Phillips' comments were condemned
by many, including leading parliament member Keith Vaz, who chairs Britain's Home Affairs Committee. He admitted that the offenses were "appalling" but said they should not be used to "stigmatize a whole community."
However, the equality chief did receive support
from some conservative commentators.
“If you want to look at what happens when you have no sense of common identity, look at Rochdale and events in Rochdale, where you have groups that are absolutely and mutually uncomprehending," controversial historian David Starkey
told "The Daily Telegraph."
“Those men were acting within their own cultural norms. Nobody ever explained to them that the history of women in Britain was once rather similar to that in Pakistan and it had changed.”
Regional Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal admitted that "cultural baggage" may have played a role in the sex crimes.
"What some communities believe is there is a right of self-determination for men but not women," he told the right-wing "Daily Mail" newspaper
. "Women are seen as lesser beings."
Nonetheless, Afzal stressed that the racial aspects of the case should not be overplayed.
"By focusing on race, you are diverting from the reality, which is men," he said. "Most of them were taxi drivers but no one is talking about this as an issue for the taxi drivers’ community."
Nine more Asian men have since been arrested in Rochdale in a follow-up inquiry.