The beginning of 2016 in Europe saw the collision of two problems that have long been left to run their course undisturbed. Making allowances for human-rights abusers in order to avoid causing offense is, after all, nothing new here in Europe. Neither is our often well-meaning refusal to question the potential impact of welcoming record levels of migrants to our societies.
On New Year’s Eve, more than 500 women out celebrating in Germany felt the impact of this collision: They were raped, sexually assaulted, and robbed by gangs of largely migrant men and then blamed for it by the authorities. Mayor Henriette Reker, of Cologne, released a “code of conduct” for women’s behavior in public, which included keeping strangers “an arm’s length away” and staying away from groups of people. Her words could have easily been mistaken for that of the U.K.’s Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a pressure group with a long history of campaigning on behalf of convicted terrorists that published “precautionary advice” to prevent Muslims from “becoming targets of harassment,” stating that women “have to take personal precautions when they go outside.”
Mayor Reker’s comments have rightly sparked an outcry from many activists and women’s-rights groups. But her words form part of a much darker picture, one that ends with women off the streets.
Now, I am sure that Mayor Reker does not actually want women banished from public places. But her “guidelines” mirrored those of Islamists and many totalitarian regimes around the world that do want women banished. From violent groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda to the ostensibly nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir and Muslim Brotherhood, those who want the establishment of an Islamic caliphate governed by sharia law want every woman to remain inside the house as wife and mother, unless she is accompanied by a male guardian, or mahram. Islamist ideology teaches that men should be shielded from women in public spaces in order to protect both sexes from what is seen to be inevitable: uncontrollable sexual desire and social disorder. Enforced wearing of the hijab, gender segregation, and prescribed gender roles are therefore used to help avoid chaos and vice.
Those who challenge these codes are often held responsible for what ensues. Women who take to the streets in protest among men, for example, are blamed if this should lead to sexual violence. In Egypt, victims of sexual harassment have been repeatedly denounced and blamed for the actions of their attackers. During the Muslim Brotherhood’s time in power in 2013, one of its ministers, Reda al-Hefnawy, told me that there were “so many reasons” why the victim is at fault, including her attire and the time of the attack. According to al-Hefnawy, as reported in Daily News Egypt, “women should not mingle with men during protests,” and he asked how the Ministry of the Interior could be expected to protect “a lady who stands among a group of men.” Salah Abdel Salam, a member of one of the most prominent Salafist parties, al-Nour, echoed this mindset, declaring that “the woman bears the offence when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs.” A prominent member of another Salafist party, al-Asala, said something similar, claiming that women “sometimes cause rape upon themselves through putting themselves in a position which makes them subject to rape.”
In fact, women around the world face brutal punishment — often sexualized — for having been victims of sexual violence. In Saudi Arabia, victims of gang rape face hundreds of lashes. In India, gang rape has been used to punish women for the crimes of men.
All of this fits a pattern, whereby those in power use sexual violence as a political tool to control the movements of those whom they see as the true source of chaos in society: women. Blaming victims of sexual assault sends a clear message to women that they do not have a place in the public sphere and creates a culture of acceptability around the abusers’ actions by implying that the responsibility lies with the victim rather than the attacker.
Europe has fallen into this trap, not out of hatred for the victim, but out of fear of confronting the perpetrator, particularly when the latter belongs to a minority religion or culture. It took days for police to confront the mass attacks in Germany, and weeks for the left-wing media to do so. The Guardian, for example, a British newspaper that is often vocal about “rape culture” in Western institutions such as university campuses, took almost two weeks to publish any opinion pieces on the matter. The Swedish media were even worse, accusing those who pointed out that the majority of attackers had described by victims as Arab or North African of racism. In doing so, the European left-wing media has abandoned its usual take on sexual violence and its duty to report the facts in favor of manufacturing public opinion.
Denying the facts about Cologne does a huge disservice to cultural and ethnic minorities in Europe.
In the U.K., turning a blind eye to — and in some cases actively covering up — crimes against women, all in the name of protecting supposed cultural sensitivities, is completely normal. One of the most devastating cases was in Rotherham, where public officials deliberately covered up thousands of cases of brutal sexual violence and abuse against young girls because most of the perpetrators were of Pakistani origin, according to a subsequent independent inquiry in 2014.
It is not only women and girls who suffer victim-blaming in the name of not causing offense. Just over a year ago, large swathes of European media blamed the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists on their drawings, not on those who pulled the triggers. In the months that followed, the surviving top publisher and editor, Laurent Sourisseau, said that the publication would no longer draw cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
Denying the facts about Cologne does a huge disservice to cultural and ethnic minorities in Europe. It implies that all migrants and refugees are part of one homogeneous group — a gross generalization that has been jumped on by the far right. In fact, the far Right has benefited greatly from the confusion following the Cologne attacks, using it to stoke up fears about asylum seekers in general. Protests by groups such as HoGeSa and Pegida have taken center stage in Germany over the last month, and angry mobs have taken to the streets threatening to “clean up” Cologne.
In going to any lengths to avoid offending minorities, we become complicit in the broader, deliberate attacks on individual rights. The result is a genuine threat to hard-won freedoms in the West. Unless the sensible among us are honest about the issues facing Europe, we will leave a large void within the debate to be filled inevitably by those who want to strengthen rather than break down the divides among us.
— Emily Dyer is an associate fellow at The Henry Jackson Society in London. She tweets as @erdyer1.