Questions: What to make of the appalling events on New Year’s Eve in Cologne? How to report it? How to write about it?
Answers: They were shocking, and if action is not taken to prevent it in the future then the state is not doing its primary duty of protecting its citizens. Report it factually. Write about it with clarity, with sensitivity, but without fear.
The key phrase in the story of up to 1,000 drunk and aggressive men in Cologne city centre, a large number of whom were sexually attacking dozens of women in a co-ordinated manner, is that according to the police chief “the crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the North African or Arab world.”
And there we hit a problem. Is where the criminals come from an issue in the crime? I would argue in this case it is. This is not because of race, but because of the possibility that the background culture is germane to the discussion.
As in most countries, the vast majority of sex crimes in Germany are committed by men who know their victims. The perpetrators come from all backgrounds. However, the events of New Year’s Eve are different. Large gangs of men surrounded women in a modern European city centre, tore at their clothes, grabbed their breasts, put their hands inside the women’s clothing. And worse.
To notice that, according to the police, the vast majority of perpetrators were from one culture, and the victims from another, and then not to discuss this would be a guaranteed way of ensuring it happens again. And again. The overly politically correct who prefer not to mention this blindingly obvious factor believe they are on the side of the angels whereas in fact they are the ones who in the long run let everyone down. Their timidity, or perhaps hypocrisy and betrayal of their liberal values, gets more women attacked.
Just as many people in the West do not understand Arabic culture in all its richness, so many in the Middle East do not understand the West’s sexual freedoms and the social mores which go with them. There’s a tendency among some, especially the less educated, to believe that Western women are loose, or worse, behaving like whores in their lifestyle choices. Think of the misogynist older Western males who still argue that women are ‘asking for it’ if they wear ‘provocative’ clothing and then magnify that level of prejudice.
Add to this ignorance a degree of sexual tension and frustration due to housing shortages, religion, and family structure, and you have a bitter cocktail which when unleashed can result in scenes such as those in Cologne. It is still unknown if any of the suspects were among the waves of refugees and migrants who arrived in Germany last year. Either way it is not the entire issue. The issue is that as well as the usual individuals we have always had committing sexual offences, Germany now appears to have a minority, within a minority, whose prejudices are so common that they can band together and commit the offences en masse. This is what the German minister meant when he described the events as a “completely new dimension of crime”.
The brave young Egyptian women of Tahrir Sq in Cairo experienced such horrors and worse during the misnamed ‘Arab Spring’ when hundreds were sexually assaulted during the demonstrations. After the first few hundred attacks the few that still dared to protest for their political rights had to have their sexual rights defended by groups of decent young men who stood guard around them.
This was all dutifully reported without much soul searching by Western media outlets. So why have they found it difficult, when a similar situation has arisen in a European city, to discuss why it has happened? Why did the news of that night take four to five days to emerge? It is safe to say that alleged make-up of the attackers is why.
An Indian women on Reddit put it succinctly in a forum discussion – “As an Indian woman who now lives in this region, I finally feel home. Police incompetence ✓ Sexual harassment ✓ Victim shaming ✓ News suppression ✓ Hollow political responses ✓”.
I have traveled widely in the Arab world and admire it. I like its food, language, people, I like how the wider family unit is still the societal model and that the elderly are cared for. But there are many aspects of it I dislike including, on interpretive religious grounds, the covering up of women so they cannot be seen. I admire things about my own culture. I like our freedoms, and yes, our flawed reach for equality, but I don’t like the widespread propensity towards violence and drunken behavior in public places in our towns and cities up and down the country each weekend.
To criticize aspects of another culture is not necessarily to be racist. I am not fond of the parts of the culture from which springs the Klu Klax Klan. I’ve never found the culture of Nazi dominated Germany an attractive period of history.
I am on safe ground here, the Klan are white, I am white, they are right-wing, I am not – I can criticize them without much comeback. As soon as we introduce the idea that a person from one culture is criticizing one from another, and specifically a white person criticizing the culture of a person of colour, it seems to get more difficult. It should not.
For clarity: Dozens of German women were sexually assaulted. The attackers are said to be from North Africa and Arab countries. In whose interest is it to pretend that this is not a specific problem which requires discussing? It is not in the interest of community cohesion, nor of promoting the value of our freedoms, and it is not in the interests of women.