Cologne attacks tell us nothing about Islam

A picture of some white flowers left on the steps of Cologne cathedral, with a message in German, "one does not hit women, even with flowers". Two people, perhaps a couple, are walking down the steps behind.On New Year’s Eve, an organised gang of hundreds of young men, described as being of Arab or North African appearance, descended on the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, and molested and robbed hundreds of women who were out to take part in the city’s NYE celebrations. At least two rapes were reported as well. It transpires that of the 31 arrested over the incident (and, it should be pointed out, some have been released for lack of evidence), 18 were asylum seekers from those two areas, but they also include Germans, Serbs and an American. The speculation and then confirmation that many or not most of the attackers were Arabs or North Africans and possibly asylum seekers has led to a flurry of demands for a tightening of Germany’s asylum laws as well as the return of asylum seekers who commit crimes (the chancellor is drafting laws which will do this, making it possible to deport those sentenced to less than three years, the current threshold), as well as calls to “face facts” about Arab and Muslim culture and Islam itself and the attitudes to women they encounter. Some have responded that sexual harassment and rape culture are already well-established in western societies, including Germany, and does not need to be imported by immigrants from anywhere.

As a Muslim I can say unequivocally that these attacks had nothing to do with Islam. Many of the attackers were reported to have been drunk, but robbery, rape and molesting women are all crimes in Islam, as they are in any other system of law. Furthermore, the attacks were particularly serious as they took place at a railway station, a place where you will find a lot of travellers, and Islam takes a particularly dim view of bandits who harass travellers. It’s possible that the attackers were of Muslim descent, but there’s nothing in Islam that gives anyone permission to form a gang and attack strangers in this manner. It’s well-known that extremist groups within Islam spuriously justify killing civilians in what they consider a ‘war’ situation (i.e. terrorism), but to put on an orgy of robbery and sexual molestation when you’re a refugee in another country which has made a point of accepting refugees when neighbouring countries have not, is simply treachery, not only to the host nation but also to other refugees. I remember Abdullah Hakim Quick talking back in the 90s about Muslim men who cheated the benefits system and justified it by saying things like “this is dar al-harb (the land of war), brother; these are the kuffar (unbelievers)” and he commented, “you’re like putting your hand out to the kuffar, that’s a war?”.

We have yet to hear about any motives for this attack. We do not know who organised it and why, yet every armchair ‘expert’ on Middle Eastern culture has come out of the woodwork to explain to us that this is the natural consequences of letting large numbers of people from countries where “women are property” into the country. The comments on some blogs are undisguised and that much more aggressive (as on this one), but there are also articles in mainstream newspapers, including liberal ones, who tell us to “face the facts” or “ask difficult questions” about whether there really is a connection between allowing large numbers of refugees from countries with less than ‘enlightened’ attitudes to women and an orgy of violence against women. For example, this was in Deborah Orr’s column in yesterday’s Guardian:

Sixth, it is beyond doubt that there are people living in Europe now who have been brought up in a culture where a woman would be publicly and viciously punished for allowing herself to be the victim of a sexual assault. It is utterly unrealistic to expect all those brought up in fundamentalist religious cultures – conservative Islam being the largest, but by no means the only such culture – to be able suddenly and completely to ditch all aspects of the pervasive environment they were brought up in.

In the printed version, Orr also claims that similar attacks also took place in Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden; these have been deleted from the online article. She suggests that the attitudes of Arab men such as that “only a worthless woman walks through the street alone” “only come to an understanding that this is not the case through consistent intellectual effort”, which she said requires leadership which is in “very short supply” among both secular and religious leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is secular leaders who have been the rulers in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and many other Arab countries for decades and they are no more tolerant of “free inquiry” than religious rulers such as in Saudi Arabia. They may sometimes talk about women’s rights, but they perpetrate violence against the populace, including women, whenever they get a whiff of dissent. Men have the power within the family, but nobody really has any rights.

It’s fairly well-known that street sexual harassment of women is a problem in many Middle Eastern countries, and is worse than in the west (even places like Italy), and has been for longer. It used to be said that dressing conservatively made a woman less of a target, but in recent years even covering the face has failed to put some of the harassers off. But we have large numbers of Muslims in the UK, and we have done since the 1960s, and I’ve never heard it said that areas of substantial Asian Muslim settlement have a worse problem for street sexual harassment than anywhere else. But this isn’t normal street sexual harassment, anyway (though I don’t doubt those involved ‘cut their teeth’ in common street harassment). It’s an organised attack, a phenomenon which echoes the sexual assaults which took place on women in public places during some of the Arab Spring demonstrations, particularly in Cairo, which were widely attributed to gangs backed by the state (commonly called at the time “the thugs”). Orr airily dismisses conspiracy theories such as that German men wore fake tan to perpetrate these attacks while pretending to be Arabs, but it’s quite possible that among the refugees, alongside the ISIS infiltrators and the minority of criminals that travel whenever a population moves, are Assad supporters — current or former mukhabarat and other Baathists, as well as Hezbollah and other allies — who have an interest in making sure Syrians affected by their war cannot flee, least of all to the west. I suspect that if ISIS were really behind this, the level of violence and the numbers of rapes would have been higher, and people would have been killed.

There is a logical fallacy being employed by those who claim the attacks are the product of Arab attitudes towards women: the assumption that because most of all those who commit a particular act are of a certain background, that all or most of that background are inclined to commit that act. We saw the same when groups of Asians were convicted of grooming and raping young girls in England: that as “they’re all Muslims”, that this must be because they’re Muslims or because of some attitudes all Muslims harbour, when in fact the proportion of the criminals to the number of Muslims was tiny. The fallacy only has currency when the group involved is a minority; the observation that all rapists are men does not result in jeopardy for men because men are not a minority (even the suggestion of all-female train carriages last year provoked scorn; the suggestions of curfews for men never get beyond suggestions). But the same suggestions about Muslims and terrorism and child grooming and rape, about black men and gun or knife crime, or about mentally ill people and random violent attacks, have serious repercussions for those groups however flawed or baseless the observations are. It can easily translate into prejudice, or actual discriminatory policy.

Attacks of the sort that happened on New Year’s Eve are new. Street harassment is not, but flash mob attacks for that purpose are. We don’t do that sort of thing here, but then, neither do Arabs in their own countries. This has a lot to do with why the police response was ineffective and why crass suggestions such as “keeping strange men at arm’s length” appeared in the days after. We do not yet know what motivations lay behind it or who actually organised it, so we cannot say that they were the product of “male sexual entitlement”, Muslim attitudes to women or anything else. (For this reason, the fact that attitudes towards women and sexual assault in the West are not as englightened as we think they are is not relevant to this incident either.) It could have been done for money or it could have had political motives. The organisers and participants, whether they be Assad’s men or ISIS or just common criminals, should be locked up and then thrown out; while I have always opposed expelling non-citizens with family connections here for a single criminal offence, I believe people who go to another country to commit crime or who offend within a very short time should be expelled. But this attack should not result in prejudices against Arabs or Muslims becoming policy. We can’t judge a religion that prohibits alcohol by the behaviour of some delinquent, drunken adherents, if they are indeed adherents at all. The key to understanding and responding to this lies in finding the organisers and learning what their motives were. We do not know anything until we know those things. Any reaction based on what we know now, such as closing the door to all Syrian refugees, is unjustified.

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