FGM, forced marriage, and child sex abuse are criminal acts in the UK. But as they proliferate, the state needs additional investigative and judicial tools to prosecute and convict perpetrators.
Recently, as an Indian guest of a wonderful British-Pakistani friend, I went to a London event where Riz Ahmed and Mohsin Hamid discussed “Migration and Magic”.
Riz Ahmed drew a parallel between America’s Italian sub-culture and the UK’s South Asian sub-culture (both roughly 5% of population, as he said). He highlighted the richness of the works of Coppola, Scorsese et al in their depiction of their Italian-American community, and the work of Mohsin Hamid et al in their depiction of their Brit-Asian one.
Riz’s excellent analogy between Italian-Americans and Brit-Asians made me delve deeper into the Italian-American experience.
Once upon a time, in Italophobic America
Italophobia was a thing, according to John Paul Russo of the University of Miami, Florida, though Collins Dictionary lists it only as an example under the ‘Italo-‘ prefix.
Historian Thomas Repetto records that in New York City alone, the number of Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian-Americans soared between 1880 and 1910 to 5,00,000 or one-tenth of the city’s population. The majority of these immigrants ‘were law-abiding, but as with most large groups of people, some were criminals who formed neighbourhood gangs, often preying on those in their own communities.’
Many resident Anglo Saxons were not comfortable with this. The parallels with UK immigrant communities today are obvious.
‘Italophobia’ was a horrifying reality. It had a strong racial component: darker, southern Italians, including Sicilians, were not considered by the Anglo Saxons as ‘really’ white people.
According to author Ed Falco , in 1891, ‘After nine Italians were tried and found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief … a mob dragged them from the jail, along with two other Italians … and lynched them all … Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said the lynching was “a rather good thing”. John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. He said that Italians were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
The other horrifying reality: Cosa Nostra – ‘Our Thing’
Which horror preceeded which, and to what extent, is of course open to debate.
As we all know, ‘Cosa Nostra’ was the insiders’ name for the Mafia. The Mafia’s American story took off with 1920’s prohibition. As History.com notes – ‘…Italian-American gangs (along with other ethnic gangs) entered the booming bootleg liquor business and transformed themselves into sophisticated criminal enterprises … During this time, the Sicilian Mafia in Italy, which had flourished since at least the mid-19th century, was under attack from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Some Sicilian Mafiosi escaped to the United States …. The Mafia in the U.S. and Sicily were separate entities, although the Americans adopted some Italian traditions, including omerta, an all-important code of conduct and secrecy that forbid any cooperation with government authorities.’
Then too a certain quasi-tradition already evolved and operational abroad transplanted its branches to a country taking in immigrants– and adapted to survive and proliferate in local conditions. Bringing with it the good (e.g. Italian food! In UK, Indian food!) and the bad. The recent UK equivalents of the latter include practices imported from immigrant countries like child marriage, forced marriage (both rampant in India and generally on the sub-continent) FGM (rampant in many African countries and some Muslim communities), and the Islamist practice of treating ‘Kaffir’ females as fair game for sexual slavery/conversion (rampant in Pakistan – even though the existing minorities there are minuscule, and continue to dwindle apace.)
Then too, a major impediment of discovering and prosecuting crimes was a ‘tradition’ of silence, mutual self-protection and worst, the imposition of this ‘tradition’ by threats of violence, torture and death.
Ominously, the repeal of prohibition in 1933 did not eliminate the Mafia. History.com notes ‘the Mafia moved beyond bootlegging and into a range of underworld activities, from illegal gambling to loan-sharking to prostitution rings … into labor unions and legitimate businesses, including … the New York garment industry, and raked in enormous profits through kickbacks and protection shakedowns. Instrumental to the Mafia’s ever-spreading success was its ability to bribe corrupt public officials and business leaders, along with witnesses and juries in court cases.’ Almost certainly its ‘ability to bribe’ (and perhaps more importantly corrupt and coerce) was greatly enhanced by its ability to make threats and the take lives of officials who didn’t comply – and their families. This ability stems partly from the peculiar strengths of criminal quasi-‘traditions’ further expanded upon elsewhere in this article.
The Mafia chapter of American history makes it clear that platitudes about ‘don’t divide the world between us and them’ are useless – worse than useless – when dealing with a community or sub-community (which is what the Mafia and its allies constituted) that is defined by an ‘us’ preying murderously upon a more peaceful ‘them’ (which, as noted before, included the majority of peaceful Italian-Americans.)
The ‘our’ thing of the Cosa Nostra was exclusionary, anti-multicultural: and murderously resisted convergence with any more inclusive, liberal notion of ‘us’.
Racial profiling? Or criminal ‘tradition’ profiling?
One of the most dangerous aspects of such an underworld is the ease with which its self-serving, self-contained, self-referential shell can remain hidden from its prey– everyone else.
This was doubtless one of the reasons ‘some government leaders, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, voiced skepticism about the existence of a national Italian-American organized crime network and suggested instead that crime gangs operated strictly on a local level. As a result, law enforcement agencies made few inroads in stopping the Mafia’s rise during this period.’ Part of this ignorance of a clear-and-present – and rapidly proliferating – danger, it would be fair to assume, was due to an incapacity to grasp that the law-and-order infrastructure America had evolved thus far was not calibrated to tackle a conspiratorial, self-preserving ‘tradition’ of crime of the scale, scope and ferocity of the Italian Mafia. There are clear – and by now proven – parallels here with the delayed recognition of UK’s quasi ‘tradition’ of crimes (FGM, forced marriage, child grooming etc.)
As every month reveals (Telford etc), this recognition is still considerably lagging behind reality.
By the 1960’s the Mafia was a major player in American life and crime, and it became clear that the present provisions of law and police powers were insufficent to stem its proliferation.
The RICO Act
In 1970, the American Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, ‘targeting organized crime and white collar crime … Geared toward ongoing organized criminal activities, the underlying tenet of RICO is to prove and prohibit a pattern of crimes conducted through an “enterprise,” which the statute defines as “any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity.’
RICO gave the police and judiciary special powers to tackle organized crime, perhaps most famously, extraordinary wire-tapping powers. The range of offences it covered included any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, and extortion.
It is the humble opinion of this author that the lack of a financial motive is irrelevant. If there is a conspiracy to commit crimes, repeatedly, and if there is a conspiracy to protect those involved in such a conspiracy from the law, then it is organised crime, and needs to be dealt as such.
Suggestion to Sajid Javid: a RICO style ‘POTCA’ to deal with UK quasi-‘traditions’ of-crime
I for one hooted and cheered when I heard UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid anounce: “I will not let cultural or political sensitivities get in the way of understanding … and doing something about [the scandal of child grooming gangs] … I’ve instructed my officials to look into this unflinchingly … And where the evidence suggests that there are certain cultural factors driving this, I will not hesitate to act. Just as there is damage in insensitive words or actions, these cases have shown the cost of being over-sensitive … This is how the seeds of destructive populism are sown.” He went on to add that he would use the Home Secretary’s powers to strip British citizenship from dual-citizens involved in “gang-based child sexual exploitation” and other serious crimes. According to him, Brexit would help in making all this possible (which may or may not be relevant to the importance of his statement).
He has also made clear he will crack down on FGM and forced marriage and would tackle the reality that abusers were being handed visas.
But perhaps he – and the government – need another set of laws for these problems.
This writer humbly submits that there are important parallels between the COSA NOSTRA-related quasi-‘traditions’ within the Italian-American community and the ‘OUR THING’ type of quasi-‘traditions’ within the Brit-Asian community around practices such as FGM, forced marriage, child marriage, child-grooming. That’s why they should be classified as acts of organized crime (which they are), and targetted by a set of laws partly modelled on RICO – perhaps a Prevention Of-‘Tradition’-of-Crime Act (POCCA), created for UK conditions today.
Ideally, such an act could also be used to prevent say child abuse by gangs of Christian clergy and immigration on false pretences through arranged marriages, etc. In fact there have been arguments to use RICO against the Catholic Church in America for covering up child abuse, but none has as yet been successfully brought to bear.
Some examples of how a POTCA (Prevention Of-‘Tradition’-of-Crime Act) might be used:
• Its added police powers could be used to monitor suspected FGM ‘surgeons’ or ‘clinics’. And pursue social units – families, clans etc … repeatedly practicing the atrocity.
• Similarly with ‘match-makers’ who had a pattern of conspiring in cases of child marriages or forced marriages.
• RICO ‘proved especially valuable in the pursuit of organized crime networks’ senior leaders who, being far removed from the individual criminal acts perpetrated by low- level members, were previously out of prosecutors’ reach’ (britannica.com). A POCCA modern UK adaptation could similarly pursue ‘religious’ and ‘traditional’ leaders who incite their followers to commit criminal acts.
• Child grooming gangs clearly fall under the category of ‘organized crime’ – in this case, for motives worse than financial.
Did anti-mafia RICO demonise Italians?
This author would argue that, apart from the special powers of investigation required for breaking up criminal conspiracies that POTCA (Prevention Of-‘Tradition’-of-Crime Act) would provide, it would also enable a broad attack on quasi-traditions-of-crimes that would have the vigour, purposefulness, and unashamed special law-and-order powers that RICO did.
Because it would be following a precedent proven to have worked in the free world (or should I say the ‘relatively free world’ – a description few people would dispute), it would be easier for Mr Javid to defend it from the knee-jerk cries of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘racism’ so prevalent today. It would give him a comprehensible, respectable branding around which to concentrate resources and minds to take urgently needed, long overdue action.
And it would do the opposite of ‘demonising’ Brit-Asians, I would argue. As Sajid Javid said: the cost of doing nothing is to sow the seeds of destructive populism. Just as RICO ultimately helped bring the Italian community into the mainstream by isolating and targetting that subsection of Italian-Americans who were engaged in criminal quasi- ’traditions’, so will a similar approach facilitate assimilation of the Brit-Asian communities into a modern, liberal (I use the word ‘liberal’ in the classical sense) society.
Of course many of those who won laurels in fighting COSA NOSTRA etc were Italian- Americans themselves. Many of them welcomed the special protection and powers that made it easier for them to fight this war against a criminal quasi-’tradition’ within their minority culture.
Mentioning them brings to mind those splendid Brit-Asians fighting against the contemporary COSA NOSTRA’s in their own communities: people like Nazir Afzal, Gita Sahgal and Maajid Nawaaz – and Sajid Javid! (Though the wonderful Sarah Champion, I’m sure they’d all agree, could be made ‘honorary Brit-Asian’ and her name included in this list!)
Vivek Tandon has in the past (don’t ask how distant) written journalistic pieces and reviews for Indian publications such as The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express, DNA etc.
He is a published novelist and poet residing in Mumbai.