A response to Cologne and Charlie Hebdo

Syrian refugees protest against sexual assaults in Germany (Credit: Metro, EPA)

Most of us stirred on New Year’s Day with little more to deal with than a shocking hangover but 121 women in Cologne woke up feeling defiled, threatened and degraded after having been robbed and sexually assaulted by gangs of young men, who were said to be of Arabic or North African appearance. The accounts given by young women make harrowing reading, particularly if you’re female, as chances are you’ve been a victim of sexual assault yourself. It’s always a horrible experience, but sadly, part and parcel of being in possession of a vagina and living in Europe, a situation that all of us should be disgusted about and fighting to change.

The media, initially slow to report (as they always are on cases of abuse against women), soon turned the incident into some portent of a refugapocalypse of sexual crimes against (subtext white) European women, conveniently ignoring the fact that one of the victims was rescued from her abusers by a group of Syrian refugees and the protests across several German cities attended by refugees condemning the attacks and handing out flowers to women.

But underneath all the hyperbole, what are the facts? At the present time, 76 criminal acts have been identified by German police, seven of which involved sexual molestation; two males aged 16 and 23 with “North African roots” have been arrested in connection with the assaults. Police have identified 32 people who they believe were involved in the incident and 22 of those suspects are claiming asylum. Reuters reports that “Of the 32 suspects, nine were Algerian, eight Moroccan, five Iranian, and four Syrian. Three German citizens, an Iraqi, a Serb and a U.S. citizen were also identified.”

So as we can see, the truth is a lot more nuanced than much of the media portrayal. Cologne is a diverse city and officers are looking for men of Middle Eastern or North African appearance in connection with this crime; so this could mean immigrants, German born citizens as well as refugees. At its highest, all we can currently say is that of the 1.1 million asylum seekers that Germany received in 2015, a handful of these people have committed sexual crimes against women for which they should be held account.

Around 850,000 refugees arrived to Europe via dinghy through Greece last year. Of course a proportion of these people won’t be very nice, statistically that’s a given. Some will go on to commit crimes and they will be punished accordingly. But it’s important not to judge a whole swathe of people by the actions of a depraved few. The right-wing media likes to paint the picture of the religion of most refugees to be incompatible with European values. It’s true that it may take some refugees time to get used to European norms (although these issues are arguably cultural, rather than faith based) – potentially it could be shocking, for example, for a young man who grew up in rural Afghanistan, surrounded by burka clad women, to be plunged into a society where people get naked in saunas and women kiss women on the streets. But then again you have refugees from cosmopolitan Syria, like the guy from Latakia I met in the transit area in Lesvos, who merrily described his group of male and female friends who were part of skinnydipping club that met a couple of times a month. Refugees, and Muslims, are not a homogenous mass. A bit like Christians really. Funny that.

But the key is education. Perhaps Europe could follow Norway’s lead and give classes to refugees on sex, relationships, the law and consent? I would go further and suggest these classes should be compulsory in schools continent wide (something activists in the UK tried to introduce, but the House of Lords voted against) as given that I don’t know a single woman that hasn’t been sexually assaulted or worse, it’s clearly something that needs to be urgently addressed on a pan-European level.

Why does the media seem to only give huge amounts of attention to sexual violence against women when it’s committed by Muslims? It seems like a cynical hijacking of a serious issue to further an Islamophobic and anti-refugee agenda. This constant othering of sex offenders distracts from the real conversation – how do we build a society where women are safe? We can point the finger at the “Muslim outsider”, but this diverts us from the truth; that sex crimes in Europe, committed by all ethnicities, are so commonplace that most women don’t bother to report them and it becomes normalised. Painting all refugees as potential rapists because they are Muslim doesn’t do anything to solve this situation.

Queen Rania of Jordan commissioned Osama Hajjij to create this as a response to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon

Which brings me neatly on the latest satirical low from Charlie Hebdo, whose latest magazine featured a cartoon showing the dead body of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean trying to reach Europe, along with monkey-pig faced refugees chasing white European women with the caption, roughly translated as “What would have little Aylan grown up to be? A groper in Germany”. Apparently this is a satirical comment on the right-wing press and the public initially being sympathetic about the death of a refugee child, only then to turn on refugees after the assaults in Cologne.

There are so many issues with this cartoon that it’s hard to know where to start. The satirical element is so slight as to be nearly invisible and to the eye untrained in French humour, it just looks like out and out racism. If this cartoon was published in the Daily Mail, for example, it would be instantly decried as Islamophobic. The fact that the only claim to satire this cartoon has is that it’s published by Charlie Hebdo highlights the fundamental weakness of the cartoon. Also, the point it claims to make doesn’t really exist except for inside the heads of the cartoonist; no right-wing media anywhere in Europe have been supportive of refugees, regardless of the death of Alan Kurdi. The public have been similarly polarised – people are either anti or pro refugees and there is little movement between these two camps.

Of course, by far the most offensive element of this cartoon is the use of a dead child to be ‘satirical’. Alan Kurdi was a real boy. His father lost not only him, but his wife and other son and now he has to suffer the added insult of his son being depicted as a sex criminal. Many children have died in the dangerous crossing to Europe. Myself and many other volunteers have held grieving parents in the harbour in Lesvos and looked after children who have seen their parents drown in front of them. Perhaps if the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had done the same, they wouldn’t be so quick to make jokes out the death of a toddler. And perhaps they should read the response of Tima Kurdi, Alan Kurdi’s aunt, who branded the cartoon as “disgusting” and went on to say “I hope people respect our family’s pain. It’s a big loss to us. We’re not the same anymore after this tragedy. We’re trying to forget a little bit and move on with our life. But to hurt us again, it’s not fair.” Unfortunately, Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, has also seen the cartoon and released a statement saying “Today I am more sad than the day I lost (Alan) and my family.”

It’s very sad to see that a publication who know all too well what it’s like to lose loved ones in acts of terror should show such little empathy. One also wonders how Charlie Hebdo and its supporters would have reacted if the magazine’s murdered cartoonists had been shown the same treatment as they have meted out to the family of Alan Kurdi. As a volunteer friend pointed out the other day, what would happen ” … if individuals depicted the Charlie Hebdo authors shot dead behind their desks with a caption that read ‘Today, 11 people realized that in fact, the sword is mightier than the pen’. I wonder how their families would react/feel, to see their loved ones so crudely drawn in a editorial cartoon? How would the population of France react? Amused, or angered that someone had the nerve to draw the proponents of “free speech” in such a disgraceful manner?” I think we all know the answer to that.

Charlie Hebdo say they are lampooning xenophobia against refugees, but actually what they are doing is platforming it and adding to a culture of oppression against a vulnerable section of the population. If I was a refugee arriving in Europe, I wouldn’t feel very welcomed if I saw this. The fact that Charlie Hebdo and its supporters can’t seem to grasp the fact how destructive cartoons like can be is a symptom of the myopia of sections of the French intellectual class who are totally divorced from the reality of being a Muslim in France and all the attendant social problems of racism, poverty, marginalisation and discrimination. The fact that no other European country would print this doesn’t make France a bastion of free speech, it highlights how far the country has to go in terms of race relations and successful integration policies to counter the alienation of its sizeable Muslim population. The publication of cartoons like this, whatever their declared intention, will be seized on by the right and will be used to add fuel to the fire of anti-refugee rhetoric not just in France, but all over Europe, which is already reaching worrying levels, particularly in the wake of the Cologne attacks – see the rise of Pegida, continent wide human rights abuses against refugees and the resurgence of the fascist FN in France. But hey, who cares about all that, as long as you can be smug about your art over a cafe au lait?




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