Get the family connections right

No one is going to deny that cases like the Heywood and Rochdale sex exploitation one are painful, emotionally as well as in every other way. But that is all the more reason to understand them properly. David Aaronovitch (Times, May 10) himself makes the (psychological) connection with honour killings or forced marriages, and indeed with backward or rural cultures. He thereby spikes his own case for bidding us to accept the link with Muslim migrants – other than as a temporary problem. So far as it goes, Aaronovitch, Mohammed Shafiq, and the trial judge are correct to say the problem of street grooming is one of Asian communities in particular, but that very fact is an accident of history rather than a characteristic of Asians or Islam as such.

Aaronovitch also acknowledges that Britain (and he could well have said Europe) has experienced similar attitudes to those of certain Asian communities in the past. Indeed,  social anthropologists such as Campbell and Pitt-Rivers have documented family honour in all its forms persisting in village communities in southern Europe as well as elsewhere during the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a deeply disturbing fact that the very modern urban and suburban culture which carries so many diseases with it and is so unsettling for ordinary living, appears to carry a cure for that emotional plague that was capable of turning family life into a desperate struggle for power and prestige between the minature states which are families or clans in such conditions. Very often women are the principal casualties just because child bearing (and therefore the status of marriage) is crucial in that struggle. Modernity does not really cure the emotional plague, however, but transfers it to both modern states with their power plays and to material possessions which modernity produces en masse. Thus modernity makes men more likely to be the principal casualties. May we expect that given a protracted stay in British towns and cities of the twenty-first century the Asian communities will begin to copy the natives?

It is no accident that I have not needed to mention religion in this, and social anthropology gives it only a secondary role in analysis of family honour and related conduct. The harsh truth is we do not know when, or how, family honour first grew up (perhaps when humans began farming – hunter-gatherers seem to live rather differently). But we can be sure that it makes the world’s religions youthful innovations by comparison. The prophet Mohammed indeed devoted his life to seeking peace and reconciliation between Arabia’s feuding tribes, but he could not stop rivalry for status/honour amongst families in Arabia or anywhere else. It is modernity alone with its contempt for female modesty that could do that. Religion simply carried on playing happy families whether that fitted to reality or not.

One other thought comes to mind with this. Many of those great writers and artists who created the ‘classics’ we were wont to prize, including Homer and Shakespeare, wrote much about honour in all its forms – domestic as well as martial – simply because it played a major part in the worlds they portrayed, and long before the Victorians or Muslim migrants were heard of. Just why did all those products of classical education over the centuries apparently pay so little attention to what these writers actually have to say to us?

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