The polarized debate about the West’s treatment of refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions in the Middle East has taken a nasty new turn with reports of a massive wave of sexual assaults on women in Germany on New Year’s Eve. While details are murky, it appears the terrifying attacks, in which women near the Cologne train station were surrounded, groped and robbed, were perpetrated by a mob of men of North African and Middle Eastern background, including recent migrants.
To some, this validates dire warnings about an invasion of the West by dangerous foreigners and even Donald Trump’s call to close our borders to Muslims. Others see the outcry as religious and racial bigotry.
The attacks in Cologne, and reports of similar sexual violence in European cities, shock the conscience. Further stoking passions, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker advised women to adopt a “code of conduct” for protection. While safety tips are not “victim-blaming” and some of the mayor’s advice was sensible — for instance, to alert the police if assaulted — the “code” included the absurd suggestion to keep at arm’s length from strangers. Indeed, a female “code of conduct” to ward off sexual assault sounded like a slippery slope to the burqa.
No less disturbing was the response of some progressives, so intent on not blaming the “oppressed” as to turn into politically correct caricatures. The online magazine Vice ran a piece by two German feminists asserting that migrants are not the problem because “Germany’s rape culture is deeply rooted in our collective psyche.” Their examples include being hugged by drunken strangers or deliberately splashed with beer at Oktoberfests. But there’s a world of difference between overly familiar tipplers at revelries where both women and men let down their inhibitions, and a hostile mob that treats women as prey.
In the left-wing British paper The Guardian, columnist Gaby Hinsliff suggested that deprived young migrant men may have been striking out in resentment at young women they see as privileged. Others suggested that we should blame all men instead of all migrants or Muslims. And financial commentator Frances Coppola speculated that the attacks were somehow engineered by anti-immigration forces.
Granted, the right has had its share of bizarre responses, exemplified by the Twitter hashtag #rapefugees. Centrist Christina Hoff Sommers, whose critiques of modern feminism have made her popular with many conservatives, drew some right-wing ire merely by tweeting that “to blame all Muslim immigrants or refugees is to be like gender warriors who blame all men.”
Some right-wing commentators, including National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, have claimed that the sexual assaults are a deliberate strategy of conquest — a “rape jihad” — comparable to the sexual enslavement of women by the Islamic State and sanctioned by the Quran.
There is zero evidence that the Cologne assailants were motivated by religious zealotry. However, it is a fact that in many societies with extreme patriarchal traditions, women in public places — particularly if they are “immodestly” dressed — are seen as fair game for sexual attacks. Religion and culture both play roles. There is no question that some migrants bring those attitudes with them.
Rejection of ethnic and religious bigotry is a hard-won Western value — as is gender equality. But if the West is to preserve the culture that makes those values possible, immigration must be combined with effective policies that require immigrants to respect the legal and moral codes of their new homes.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.