Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Germany’s bad answer to the Cologne attacks

Europe should steer clear of anti-refugee sentiment and take sexual assault seriously

In Cologne’s city center, scores of women were sexually assaulted and mugged as crowds gathered to ring in the new year. Thirty-one suspects have since been identified by police, at least 18 of whom are asylum seekers, and a draft announcement from Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union, to be released Sunday, stated that the attacks “demand a strong response from the authorities.”

The response, the party contends, should take a specific shape. According to the draft proposal, refugees convicted of a crime would immediately lose their claim to asylum, it would be easier for police to take allegedly suspicious individuals into custody, dragnet spying would expand, and more surveillance cameras would be installed.

Its predictable statement reveals the ill-thought debate around the Cologne attacks, which has little to do with protecting women and more to do with scapegoating the Middle Eastern or North African “other” entering Germany. The response should instead focus on tackling the patriarchal context from which such violations against women’s bodies systematically spring, as well as caring for victims.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are directing energies to expand social control and harden asylum policies — a very rare moment of mainstream political activation around sexual assault. Meanwhile, right-wing voices — not known for their concern for rape victims — are gurgling with putrid anti-refugee sentiment in Germany and beyond.  

Andreas Scheuer, the secretary-general of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (the Christian Democrats’ sister party), tweeted, “It is unbearable that in major German cities, women are sexually assaulted and robbed in the street by young migrants” — as if attacks by old Germans were somehow more bearable. For U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump, the attacks provided racist fodder for his Twitter refrains.

It bears mentioning, however obvious, that to stigmatize all refugees on the basis of the actions of a few is pernicious. It’s an extrapolation that is the very definition of racism. One million refugees entered Germany last year, in Europe’s largest movement of refugees since World War II, and to suggest that this entire group is a threat to women in Germany reproduces the worst stereotype of the invading, barbarous moor — a centuries-old trope that has long fostered discrimination without providing any traceable safety for the women it purports to protect.

This week German magazine Focus ran a cover story on the attacks with a darkly metonymic image: A white naked woman stands alluringly in monochrome, her pale skin stamped — literally besmirched — with handprints of black paint. But it was the German magazine, not a random refugee, who stripped the woman of her clothes. Germans’ responses the terrible events of New Year’s Eve should not collapse into racist machinations as archaic as the tale of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

We should be suspicious of any people keen to point out the links between Islam and misogyny if they are not equally concerned with the prevailing violent misogynies in the cultural West.

Treating rape as a problem imported from the Middle East and North Africa that can be deported along with refugees grossly ignores and normalizes an already ubiquitous rape culture. Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung warned this week of an “imported macho culture” arriving on German soil with the refugees. The insinuation that Europe does not already have a well-worn macho culture or macho cultures of its own is nothing short of an offense to feminism. Most assaults, after all, take place in German homes: Marital rape was still legal in Germany until 1997.

This is not to say the attacks on New Year’s Eve are not deadly serious. A large number of contemporaneous assaults demand an investigation into whether and how each attack is connected; if there is a connection rooted in certain cultural or societal mores, it should not be dismissed. Currently, details about the attacks remain scarce. We know that at least 18 asylum seekers are suspects and that victims described the perpetrators as looking North African or Arabic — which are broad strokes. And needless to say, most people in Germany of that description are not seeking asylum.

In opposing the right’s racism, we must be able to countenance that a group of refugees could be responsible for the assaults and that these individuals should not be defended. We engage in our own subtle racism if, in defending the rights of refugees in general, we collapse them all into a homogeneous category, because all racism is predicated on treated an entire group of people as an undifferentiated mass. The key is to take these assaults seriously on their own terms and as part of a generalized scourge of sexual harassment and assault, which is not fought by picking out specific ethnic groups. What’s more, we should be suspicious of any people so keen to point out the links between Islamic culture and misogyny if they are not equally concerned with the prevailing violent misogynies in the cultural West.

The key challenge, according Spiegel columnist Sascha Lobo, is differentiation. “To be civilized means to meet nine people in a row with black hair who all turn out to be assholes and then to meet a tenth black-haired person and not punch that one in the face,” he wrote. Thankfully, a number of groups are championing that approach. Kristina Erichsen-Kruse of Weisser Ring, a support organization for victims of crime (not only sexual assault), said, “We worry that after these events, refugees will be unjustly in focus. These generalizations shouldn’t happen.”

On Saturday, numerous organizations are calling for a protest under the banner “No to sexual violence, no to racism” and explicitly rallying against right-wing nationalist political parties such as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). Maja Wegener of Terre de Femmes, a women’s rights nonprofit, told us that “sexism and sexual assaults existed before New Year’s Eve, especially at events like Oktoberfest and other festivals. But there’s no public debate.”

Some European nations have taken a specific approach to educate newly arrived male refugees. Norway offers new classes in which sexual norms and related laws are taught to men more accustomed to conservative values. They teach that types of violence perhaps considered honorable in certain spaces are illegal and disrespectful in Norway. Similar classes are being proposed in Denmark. It is, prima facie, preferable to educate in an effort toward integration, as opposed to scapegoating and rejecting. It would be far better still if these anti-rape, respect for women classes were standardized across Europe, offered not just to new and feared brown-skinned arrivals. Men everywhere are in desperate need of such lessons. 

Natasha Lennard is a New York–based writer covering civil liberties, dissent, non-electoral politics and international affairs. 

Lukas Hermsmeier is an independent journalist from Berlin based in New York. He reports from the U.S. for German publications such as Die Welt, Der Tagesspiegel and Der Freitag. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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