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The rapist refugee as Germany’s boogeyman

The German far right is repackaging xenophobia as outrage over women’s rights

February 5, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Feb. 1, a German teenager admitted fabricating the story that she was kidnapped and gang raped by men of Arab or North African appearance in early January. Prosecutors said the 13-year-old confessed lying about the rape claim three days later when experts questioned her. She reportedly made it up to hide an incident at school from her parents.

Her allegations came less than two weeks after nearly 100 women in Cologne, Germany, reported mass sexual assaults by gangs of Middle Eastern men during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Stories of the Cologne assaults garnered international attention and aggravated German paranoia against refugees. It also triggered protests by Russian-German community and far-right groups.

Unsurprisingly, the teen’s retraction of her rape allegation received less media attention than the initial story. The construction of the refugee as rapist adds crime to an otherwise abstract dislike of the foreign “other.” It also whets a sense of German nationhood, its urgency predicated on protecting white German women from encroaching hordes of brown men. Taken together, the exclusion of foreigners, once a worrisome iteration of burgeoning racism, is now repackaged as a feminist necessity.

Anti-immigration sentiments in Germany had been rising long before the New Year’s Eve incidents. The far-right Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) is one of the staunchest opponents to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. The Dresden-based group began holding rallies across Germany in late 2014.

As with other right-wing groups across Europe, PEGIDA wants to restrict immigration and impose a duty on those already in Germany. PEGIDA’s use of the quaint German term Abenland, meaning occident, underscores its imagined war against the orient represented by the influx of refugees and migrants arriving in Germany. Its easy binaries of a gender equal West at war with inherently misogynistic Muslims — the latest iteration of the hackneyed clash of civilizations rhetoric — is attractive to white middle-class Germans who already see foreigners as a threat to their national identity.

A week before the Cologne incident, PEGIDA held a massive rally in Dresden with 22,000 participants demanding stricter immigration laws. “I say to all who go to such demonstrations: Don’t follow those who call for your participation,” Merkel said in her New Year’s Eve address exhorting Germans to reject PEGIDA, “because all too often there is prejudice, cold, yes, even hatred in their hearts.” It was Merkel’s last stand in favor of welcoming Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the bestiality and persecution of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. 

The fight against misogyny in Germany is being transformed into the exclusion and possible expulsion of desperate war refugees.

Reports of mass sexual assaults in Cologne changed all that. Within hours PEGIDA supporters took to the streets. “We ran to the police. But we saw the police were so understaffed,” one of the victims said a few days after the incident. “They couldn't take care of us and we as women suffered the price.”

A week later, before any investigation was complete or any further information on the perpetrators made available, Merkel proposed restrictions on asylum seekers and refugees. “When crimes are committed, and people place themselves outside the law,” she said, justifying her administration’s capitulation, “there must be consequences.”

In a society already eager to indict those who look different, unverified allegations were instantly transformed into actualities. And the proclivity of being a rapist was thus attached to all foreign men. In hundreds of news reports on the Cologne incident, almost no further information exists on the perpetrators identity beyond their appearance. That alone is enough to cast all Arab and North African men as moral aliens, incapable of abiding by the law.

The elevation of racism seeks to alter the feminist conception of gender equality as a struggle against all-male dominance to that of white women, with the help of white male allies, pushing against the inherent misogyny of brown men threatening to take over Europe. In fact, not all rape cases in Europe are allotted such moral outrage. In 2011, French prosecutors probing the case of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn refused to bring charges even after they admitted there was evidence that he had sexually assaulted Nafissatou Diallo, a Black housekeeper at a New York hotel where he was staying. The obvious prosecutorial apathy in Diallo’s case did not rise to an indictment on all French men or an emblematic failure to protect French women. Strauss’ actions, as those of most white men, were seen as aberrations from the norm while the allegations of mass sexual assaults in Cologne were quickly defined as the norm for brown men.

The German teenager’s retraction this week of the rape allegation is already falling off the news cycle. But the construction of the refugee as rapist will expand and endure as a political tool for a European far-right eager to exclude foreign others and opportunistic politicians couching its misgivings about the immigration crisis in the language of feminism. The frames of political rhetoric create unfortunate choices everywhere, but in Germany the fight against misogyny is now being transformed into the exclusion and possible expulsion of desperate war refugees.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

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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