Communities in Rotherham remained divided but have now settled into an “uneasy equilibrium” after the publication of the Jay report five years ago was quickly followed by repeated far-right marches and a racist murder in the town, the founder of an anti-hate crime charity has said.
Fiyaz Mughal, from the organisation Tell MAMA which records anti-Muslim attacks, said the publication of Professor Alexis Jay’s inquiry in August 2014 which found there had been at least 1,400 victims of child sexual exploitation in the town - largely at the hands of men from the Pakistani community - initially caused “enormous divides”.
“There is now an uneasy equilibrium that has been reached in Rotherham, it is neither positive or negative,” he said. “It is a place where people have said let it lie and we will get on with our lives. It could go either way.”
He said the situation is less intense than it was in the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication.
“Five years ago after the issues came to light there was a great deal of angst and apprehension with the local British Muslim communities in Rotherham,” he said.
“There was already a sense of separation and a sense communities weren’t really joining and mixing and were living to some degree quite separate lives. There were already divides but this issue caused enormous divides.
“But it also started a debate within the community about what was happening. There was a lot of resistance to saying this was a major problem.”
The town had already been previously been targeted by far-right groups prior to the publication of the Jay report but after it came out a series of marches were held by groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First.
In August 2015, 81-year-old grandfather Mushin Ahmed was beaten to death in a racially-motivated attack as he walked to early morning prayers at a mosque in Rotherham. One of his two killers Dale Jones attacked Mr Ahmed after calling him a “groomer” shortly after racially abusing an Asian taxi driver. The subsequent murder trial heard Jones had targeted Mr Ahmed “for no better reason than he was Asian”.
One month later, clashes between Britain First and Unite Against Fascism at counter-demonstrations in Rotherham town centre resulted in charges being brought against both groups.
Ten Asian men were subsequently found not guilty of violent disorder after saying they had acted in self-defence following a trial after two others pleaded guilty at the start of the trial. Four Britain First members were jailed for violent disorder, with three other defendants found not guilty at a second trial.
Mr Mughal said the controversial decision to bring charges against the Asian men in the context of Mr Ahmed’s murder added to a sense among many people in Rotherham’s Muslim community that they were being “targeted”.
“There were a lot of extreme groups using the issue of child grooming. After the murder of Mushin Ahmed, many people felt extremely fearful. After that and the Rotherham 12 case, the view was ‘we feel unsafe’.”
Mr Mughal said despite the details of the Jay report and the multiple criminal trials of grooming gang members which followed, it was actually a television drama that changed the perceptions of many in Rotherham’s Asian community towards the issue.
The BBC’s hard-hitting three-part drama Three Girls was based on real-life events in Rochdale and was watched by more than eight million viewers when shown in May 2017.
Mr Mughal said: “Three Girls made a huge difference. It was the first time for many they could feel and see and emphasise through listening to the victims in the dramatisation and seeing the parents in those situations and thinking that could be us.”
He also praised victims of CSE from Rotherham who have come forward to tell their stories in recent years.
“Campaigners like Sammy Woodhouse have made a huge difference. She has rejected any far-right groups trying to use her story and people like Sammy have been listened to.”
But Mr Mughal said many politicians remain wary of addressing the issue of CSE in Rotherham because of the continuing controversy around the subject - a situation he says is unhealthy for all sides.
“There is a malaise in community relations in Rotherham. Like any trauma, if you don’t deal with it, then something bad might happen down the line.
“Sometimes political leaders have to be controversial, that is what politics is about. If they don’t do it, then extreme groups will.”
He said despite the challenges of the past five years, the Jay report exposing the extent and nature of child sexual exploitation in the town has been positive for Rotherham through bringing the truth to light, leading to prosecution of perpetrators and resulting in authorities improving how they handle the issue.
“From five years ago to today, we are in a safer place for young people. Thank God for the Jay report. Yes there are problems but we are in a safer place.”