It reminded us all of the beginning of the end of the Arab Spring. In 2011, the celebratory crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square began giving way to organized street gangs who targeted and raped women out in the open. Perhaps this was a bad omen for things to come in the region.
Germany’s welcoming euphoria at receiving 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015 may have just turned a similarly dark corner. More than 120 criminal complaints have been filed by women in Cologne who say they were subjected to public sexual assault or robbery, including at least two alleged street rapes, all in one night. The 400 men accused of being behind this mass attack formed coordinated rings around the women. They have been universally described as being of North African and Arab appearance. Police are examining Internet forums and chat groups on the working assumption that it is unlikely 400 men just met by accident.
Though this all occurred on New Year’s Eve, the absolute scandal is that we only found out about it five days later. Amid accusations that it deliberately covered the incident up in order not to spark panic, the public broadcaster ZDF was forced to issue an apology for failing to include the assaults in its main evening news broadcast. It appears that, as the authorities and the media were choosing between stirring up racial tension and these women’s rights, we were faced with a conspiracy of silence.
Eventually, this was bound to happen. Recent mass migration patterns across Europe have meant that misogyny has finally come head to head with anti-racism, multiculturalism is facing off against feminism, and progressive values are wrestling with cultural tolerance.
Yes, it is racist to suspect that all brown men who look like me are rapists. It is bigoted to presume that all Muslim men who share my faith advocate religiously justified rape. It is xenophobic to assume that all male refugees are sexual predators awaiting their chance to rape. But let me be absolutely clear: What will feed this racism, bigotry, and xenophobia even more is deliberately failing to report the facts as they stand. Doing so only encourages the populist right’s rallying cry against “the establishment.”
If liberals do not address such issues swiftly, with complete candor and courage, the far-right and anti-Muslim populist groups will get there first. They have been doing so for a while now.
The far-right street protest group Hogesa, or Hooligans Against Salafism, continues to cause consternation on the streets of Cologne, while the populist-right Pegida has already responded to the New Year’s Eve attacks by announcing a protest in Cologne on Jan. 9.
No, my fellow liberals, these issues cannot be brushed under the carpet or simply willed away. They are not going anywhere, anytime soon. So how can we address this sensibly, without bursting a blood vessel in our Right eye, or missing the blind spot in our Left?
Let’s start by looking at the evidence. Official figures in Germany suggest that, currently, refugees are no more likely to commit sexual crimes than other sections of the population. “Refugees commit just as few or as many crimes as groups of the local population,” says Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere. That’s good news. Bank it.
Street sexual violence is also—obviously—not exclusive to Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, among the worst offenders is Papua New Guinea, where two-thirds of women are subjected to some kind of physical or sexual violence, and rapists from “raskol” gangs are happy to pose for photos after their latest rape.
Having said that, what is infuriating and totally counterproductive is to deny that a specifically cultural problem around immigration patterns and European sexual norms has been steadily rising across the continent. To pretend this is not the case only further stigmatizes us brown Muslim men. That the problem requires attention is clear.
German police unions and women’s right groups have recently accused authorities of underplaying cases of rape at refugee shelters. “There is a lot of glossing over going on. But this doesn’t represent reality,” police union chief Rainer Wendt told Reuters. Henry Ove Berg, who was a police chief during Norway’s recent spike in rape cases, said, “people from some parts of the world have never seen a girl in a miniskirt, only in a burqa… when they get to Norway, something happens in their heads.” He added that “there was a link but not a very clear link” between the rape cases in Norway and immigrants. Hanne Kristin Rohde, former head of the violent crime section of the Oslo Police Department, was criticized in 2011 when she went public with data suggesting that immigrants committed a hugely disproportionate number of rapes. “This was a big problem… but it was difficult to talk about,” she remarked. There was “a clear statistical connection between sexual violence and male migrants.”
This is all controversial, but it must be said. Anecdotal attitudes point to the same conclusion. Abdu Osman Kelifa, an Eritrean asylum seeker to Norway, recently told The New York Times that in his home country, “if someone wants a lady, he can just take her and he will not be punished.” He confessed that it was still hard for him to accept that a woman could accuse her husband of rape.
Between denying the problem and using it to fuel bigoted far-right rhetoric, an approach grounded in data and a level head is vital. Any solution to this emerging issue must simultaneously seek to deny the far right the ammunition it desires while preserving—not reneging on—Europe’s hard-earned progressive social values.
With that in mind, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker’s comments after the mass attacks in her city were terribly unhelpful. When asked by a journalist how women could guard against such attacks, Reker shocked many around the world by suggesting that women should remain at “arm’s length” from strangers in the street and that she would soon be issuing a “code of conduct” for women “so that such things do not happen to them.”
Others have made the same error. Martin Thalhammer, the headmaster at Wilhelm-Diess-Gymnasium, a school in Pocking, Bavaria, sent a letter home to parents advising them that “Syrian citizens are mainly Muslims and speak Arabic. The refugees are marked by their own culture. Because our school is directly next to where they are staying, modest clothing should be adhered to, in order to avoid discrepancies. Revealing tops or blouses, short shorts or miniskirts could lead to misunderstandings.” With men accounting for about 70 percent of asylum seekers, some groups across Germany have demanded gender-segregated accommodation and safe zones for women.
No. European progressive and feminist groups have toiled over centuries to educate us all that rape victims are not responsible for the actions of the rapist. Victim-blaming and demanding that women change their behavior are the worst ways to respond to rape culture. They only sexualize the victim more.
The fetishization of the female body has not led to a decrease in cases of sexual violence in societies where women cover their entire bodies. If Taliban- and ISIS-held areas are anything to go by, violence against women only increases the more women are asked to conceal and segregate themselves. This would make sense, because accompanying such attitudes is the notion that women are sexual objects to be owned and controlled, and not human beings to be respected and loved. What is infuriating is that for centuries progressives have made these very arguments against white Christian fundamentalists in the West, yet—displaying an incredible cognitive dissonance—those progressives easily abandon that position when confronted with the problem in a minority community.
The case of Cologne tells us that we can no longer afford this Regressive-Left double standard. The only person to blame for rape is the rapist. Employment and education among migrant males will be a more conducive and far more consistent approach than asking European women to change how they dress or when they go out.
Norway has led the way here, offering voluntary nationwide classes that expand upon Norwegian social and sexual norms to newly arrived migrant men. The German border town of Passau in Bavaria, has already started a similar program for male refugees, while Danish politicians aim to approve the same measure after a string of attacks in Denmark. Among other measures, it is my view that such classes should be mandatory for new arrivals across the continent. These classes should form part of a citizenship, integration, and employment course, before residency permits are provided. In any case, they would help refugees come to grips with the strange new world they have just fled to, and can only make their job prospects better.
Former Israeli prime minster Golda Meir may have done and said many things people disagree with, but one of her stances is difficult to argue with. When there was an outbreak of nighttime assaults against women in Israel, a minister in the cabinet suggested a curfew to keep women in after dark. “But it’s the men who are attacking the women,” she retorted. “If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women.”
The alternative would be to lay the seeds of the very same cultural attitudes in Europe that many migrants have been fleeing from in counties like Syria and Afghanistan. That would be sheer madness.