Wednesday 28 September 2016

Cologne has shown us the clash of civilisations is a critical issue

It's time we started defending our women, our LGBT people and our hard-won Western freedoms and idealst

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

MASS ATTACKS: People protest against violence against women at the cathedral in Cologne yesterday after more than 150 women were subjected to sexual assaults in the city on New Year’s Eve, by what was described as organised groups of up to 1,000 men of North African or Arab appearance Photo:AFP/Getty
MASS ATTACKS: People protest against violence against women at the cathedral in Cologne yesterday after more than 150 women were subjected to sexual assaults in the city on New Year’s Eve, by what was described as organised groups of up to 1,000 men of North African or Arab appearance Photo:AFP/Getty

This time last year, Ana Pak, an Iranian secular feminist who works in Paris with refugees arriving from the Middle East, went to the Place de la Republique with some friends. They were there in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders to show support for the journalists who had been killed.

  • Go To

Ana reported: "Two of my friends had banners with typical feminist slogans, like 'No to the veil' and 'No extremism', but the French people that were already there asked them to remove them because they could cause offence."

The assumption being that the Muslim population of France is, unlike every other religious faith worldwide, somehow homogeneous, with not a single individual who holds a differing opinion or a sincere belief in free speech.

Last week in Cologne, Germany, there were more women in a public square, causing offence. On New Year's Eve, over 150 women (the number who have so far filed criminal complaints) were sexually assaulted, some raped, others robbed, by what was described as organised groups of up to 1,000 men of North African or Arab appearance.

It was a mass sexual attack on women, in public, in a European city, in 2015, going into 2016. Confident, lovely young women, out to enjoy the festivities, but unbeknownst to themselves, their very presence was an offence to others. If you are a man who has been reared on patriarchal superiority, and told that women who do not conform to your demands to cover and cower are inviting sexual assault, then the sight of a woman beyond your control is most infuriating. She must be taught a lesson.

One of the many victims, Katya, later told a German newspaper: "I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and beat them, the guys did not stop. I think I was touched around 100 times in the 200 metres. Fortunately, I wore a jacket and trousers. A skirt would probably have been torn away from me".

On the morning of January 1, the Cologne police department issued a statement saying that the atmosphere the previous evening had been "relaxed". There was nothing about the attacks in the national media. Even the German public broadcaster, ZDF, didn't carry the story until last Tuesday when Cologne's city hall and police held a crisis meeting on the attacks.

Reports were also coming in from other cities of similar sexual attacks, which seemingly have long been a problem in refugee camps.

The response? A code of conduct was needed for women. No, you didn't read that wrong. I didn't mistakenly put "wo" in front of the word "men". Men were not going to be told that attacking women isn't tolerated in Germany (lest, God forbid, someone take offence). The mayor of Cologne, Henriette Rieker, advised that women "keep a certain distance of more than an arm's length" from strangers who may, obviously, be tempted to assault or rape them purely because of their annoying female proximity. And so, the blame game has started. The ultra-right anti-immigrant lobby were only delighted to label every single one of the million-plus refugees who have streamed into Germany this year as rapists-in-waiting.

The regressive left cultural relativist crowd then mocked those "racists, who only show their concern for women when it's accompanied by an opportunity to bash Muslims". Both groups conveniently forgot, in their eagerness to support their own agendas, the individuals involved in all this: the women who were attacked and the men who attacked them. All women, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, black, white or whatever, have the right to walk the streets free from assault. All men, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, black, white or whatever, have no right to assault women, no matter what type of culture they come from.

Violence against women is still very much a problem in Europe. A major report last year found that one-in-three women has reported some form of physical or sexual abuse from the age of 15. Human rights groups work very hard to combat this violence; to educate, to care, to eliminate violence against women. In the same way, increased secularism, liberalism and progressive democracy has led - not to all of us going to hell in a handcart, as some would attest - but to a more caring society where women can vote, unmarried mothers are not locked away, and where LGBT people have equal rights and respect. But such rights are hard-won. And even harder to maintain.

All cultures are not equal - nor do they treat individuals equally under the law. Neither are cultures static; they can transform and they can regress. We used to live in an extremely patriarchal, mono-religious society, where the bishop's mitre ruled a politician's every move. Over recent decades, we have changed for the better, we have matured. But by accepting the most horrendous of practices from others and excusing them as part of "their culture" is to demean entire groups of people.

We know now that some of the perpetrators of the Cologne attacks were recently arrived immigrants. This does not mean we should take the easy option of closing fortress Europe to the desperate people trying to flee situations more horrific than we (thankfully) can ever imagine. To do so would be to play right into the hands of the jihadi, who wishes to persuade all good Muslims that they will never be able to live in the West, but instead must settle for the caliphate.

We must take on a much harder task. Instead of defending our borders, we need to start defending our values; the Enlightenment ideals of universal human rights that make Europe that safe place of freedom refugees want to reach. We need to defend the hard-won rights of our women and our LGBT people and those who dare to criticise religious fundamentalism. True, our social progress has, in the past, "offended" many individuals and groups; but only those who wanted to deny universal human rights to others.

Can we do this? On past record, we haven't a chance. From 9/11 (American imperialists asked for it); to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (he should not have written that); to the Danish cartoons (we're so sorry for the insult); through to Charlie Hebdo (racist Islamophobes had it coming), we have excused behaviour we have been too scared to condemn. For too long now, the default response is to blame the victim and excuse the culprit because, you know... Western imperialism, Iraq, colonisation, Israel, feminism, Afghanistan, democratic socialism... (insert whatever as needed). The response to the attacks in Cologne shows we have learned nothing.

Last week, Dolce & Gabbana announced that they are to debut their own line of hijabs and abayas - despite the rise in anti-hijab and veil movements across the Arab world. Have they spotted a new market in Europe? When did religiously mandated misogyny become high fashion? Ladies, perhaps you better get your orders in.

@carolhunt; carolhunt.ie

Sunday Independent

Read More