What happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve is taking place now, at this very moment and as a matter of course, in broad daylight a hundred thousand times in North Africa and the Arab world: women are being sexually assaulted, humiliated, and, if they resist the attacks, denounced as “sluts” or “whores.” The Egyptian author and feminist Mona Eltahway described this phenomenon and its causes on May 2, 2012, in Le Monde: “Well, they [the men of the Arab world] hate us. It has to be finally said. . . . Women in the whole world have problems; it is true that the United States has not yet elected a woman president; and it is true that in many Western countries (I live in one of them), women are still treated like objects. That is the point where the conversation usually ends, if you try to discuss the reasons why Arab societies hate women. Name any Arab country, and I will give you a litany of examples for the bad treatment—it is a thousand times worse than you think—of women, which derives from a poisonous mixture of culture and religion which evidently only very few people are willing to address, out of fear of being accused of blasphemy or shock.”
The eruption of violence in Cologne was so powerful that the “poisonous mixture of culture and religion,” which Eltahaway describes in detail in her book Foulards et Hymens: Pourquoi le Moyen Orient doit faire sa revolution sexuelle, can no longer be denied or repressed, even though that is exactly what the Left and Muslim groups are trying to do. Thus in response to the outrage over the attacks, the taz wrote of the “reproduction of the racist image of the innocent white woman who must be protected from the aggressive Muslim man.” However it was not a “white” but rather an Asian looking woman who described in detail how she was grabbed by dozens of hands: “I found that they [the men] did not think that they were doing anything wrong.” In Eltahway’s book, taz could find out why the young Muslim men did not think they were doing anything wrong.
Women Can’t Escape
But there is reason to fear that Eltahway too, although she is a Muslim and Egyptian, will be called a “racist.” The Commissioner of Ditib, the Turkish Religious Office for Interreligious Dialogue, Bekir Alboga, has already warned against a “culturalization of the crimes,” and the scholar of Islamic Studies Lamya Kaddor has claimed: “At the Oktoberfest in Munich and the Carneval in Cologne, intoxicated men frequently sexually pursue and assault women. That is excused as collateral damage of these events. There is no difference between one sexual violence and the other.”
Really? The difference is that sexual violence in North Africa and the Near East is part of everyday life and that in this sense there is a permanent “Oktoberfest” and “Carneval,” from which women cannot escape by avoiding the events. Violence starts in front of the house door and in the street. Nawel, an Algerian colleague, reports regular assaults in the bus. Even though she actually opposes wearing a veil, she puts on a hijab for the bus ride. This does not stop men from satisfying themselves by rubbing up against her body.
Once I had to have Rachida, a Moroccan colleague, picked up by a watchman and taken home on his bicycle. That day, she had decided not to wear the long djellaba, with the result that young men pursued her with knives. Instead, she rode on the bicycle past her assailants, in her jeans with her hair waving in the air.
Death Threats from Fundamentalists
Sexual assaults are the rule and not the exception in Muslim countries. A Muslim woman can take the bus in Germany without having to fear being groped, but a European woman cannot do that in North Africa. I became convinced of this during my ten-year stay in Algeria and Morocco. A Muslim woman can go to the market in Germany without feeling men grab her behind, but a European woman cannot do that in North Africa. Western women are seen by many young North Africans as half whores, because “they do it with lots of men before marriage.” Even if a woman is holding the hand of her seven-year-old son—as a mother, a sort of “holy cow”—and goes for a walk in a field far away from crowds, it does not take long for young men to appear, surround her, not leave her alone, while they whisper vulgar words to her. The fundamental division of the Muslim world into “believers” and “non-believers” encourages these attacks on “Western,” i.e., “non-believing” women. The only solution is to return home as quickly as possible and give up on taking any more walks.
In my ten years in North Africa, I also met many Muslim men and women who found this view of the “Western” woman repulsive. They kept a great distance from those preachers who divided the world, in an ultimately misanthropic manner, into “believers” and “non-believers.” They advocated a humane and cosmopolitan interpretation of the Koran, courageously wrote against religious obscurantism, and attacked the most powerful men in their dictatorial states: these critics were women and men, intellectuals, artists, as well as countless so-called “simple people.” Despite death threats from the Algerian fundamentalists, I decided to stay there because of people like this. But the problem is that most of the influential institutions of Islam in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries continue to refuse to participate in a theological discussion as to how to overcome the fatal distinction between “believers/non-believers” and to integrate the behavior of non-dogmatic Muslims into Islam. The spokespeople of the Muslim associations should finally address this “exclusion” of Muslims openly.
My friends and interlocutors in North Africa risked so much more than my political companions from the 1968 era ever did: murder, torture, prison. Just remember the uprising in October 1988, the first Arab rebellion (hardly noticed in Germany) in which the offices and ministries of the Algerian ruling party were stormed and police stations attacked—without a single religious slogan. It was these people who shaped my perspective on Muslims.
Muslim Dissidents Denounced as “Islamophobic”
I was all the more shocked that, upon my return from North Africa, I encountered the views about the Muslim world held by my old companions as well as the left-liberal mainstream, including the Social Democrats and the Greens: they seemed to have no idea of what was going on there, how much women suffer under religious dictates, and how thoughtful people were being destroyed by the state and state Islam. They seemed to fully ignore how much Islam and dictatorship worked hand in hand, when it was a matter of destroying their common enemies: democracy, human rights, religious freedom, and equal rights.
Muslim dissidents like Necla Kelek, Seyran Ates, Talima Nasreen, Hirsi Ali, and others have hardly been taken seriously by the Left and the left-liberals in Germany; instead, they have been denounced and defamed as “islamophobic.” Freedom of opinion and democracy—so they argued—are not necessarily forms of life to which the Arab world aspires. The whole left and left-liberal spectrum however built up a multicultural protectorate for the headscarf and the misogyny behind it, hatred for “the West,” and the defense of Islam from any criticism. It was in this intellectual and anti-critical miasma that parallel societies could blossom. But this not-wanting-to-know was incomprehensible.
This attitude is reappearing today in the “welcome culture” and the rhetoric of “Islam belongs to Germany.” Just remember the chair of the Green fraction in the Bundestag, Katrin Göring-Eckart, frolicking over the Supreme Court’s permitting headscarves for teachers in classrooms. But why are millions of fundamentalist men screaming for headscarves, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, and Morocco? Why is the headscarf most common where fundamentalism is strongest?
A Neurotic Approach to Islam
Hopefully the Cologne events will finally end the discourse about “the Muslims” whom one must not “insult, and that behind “the Muslims”—a category promoted by fundamentalists to describe all believers in Islam, while we used to speak of Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans, etc.—and we begin to recognize individuals whom we treat the way we want to be treated ourselves: as responsible adults, capable of learning, open to criticism, and not as infants whose favorite toy—in this case religion—we shouldn’t criticize because it will otherwise get angry and throw a fit.
This has not been the case. Interaction with Muslims has been more neurotic than normal. In this reorientation, we should learn from the example of those Muslim intellectuals in the Arab world who have long understood that a critique of Islam does not mean an attack on Muslims but rather protection from those inhuman excesses directed against women, homosexuals, independent thinkers, and so-called “unbelievers,” that is, against millions of Muslim women and men.
Here too we can find examples about Muslim authors like Boualem Sansal, Abdella Taia, Mona Eltahawy, Mohammed Choukri, and Kateb Yacine: “Hair of glowing brittle iron, the sun piling on it, like a handful of wasps”—this sentence from Nedjma, Yacine’s world-famous novel, was possible once upon a time: before the headscarf era. What a witty, beautiful, intelligent, and magical Muslim world there is and could be again, if the miserable apologetic discourse for its destructive spirits would finally end! Why not find courage through reading or listening to Tareq Oubrou, the Imam of the Mosque of Bordeaux? He calls on Muslims to take consideration of the less religious European public through signs of religion with “more discrete visibility”—he is referring to the headscarf—especially because the scarf is only “marginal” for the faith.
How Men Interpret the Koran
When I once showed an acquaintance from Rabat the Little Market Hall in Frankfurt, she responded surprisingly, “It is the most beautiful souk that I have ever visited.” “Our Little Market Hall?” I responded, “without the colors of Morocco, without the crimson red and saffron yellow of the towers of spices?” Her answer: “Without the blue of elbows that just happen to ram you in the breast, so that they scream from pain. Without the green of pinches and grabs all over the body. That’s right, your Little Market Hall does not have these colors of Morocco.”
“In the Little Market Hall, women are in charge, not the Koran,” it slipped out of me. “Excuse me, I did not want to insult the Koran.” I know that the Koran also says that men too should look down when they meet a woman, and not only women, when they meet men.” “You don’t have to apologize,” my acquaintance answered, “because the Koran has always been interpreted by men. They take what they want.” For example, Sura 4, verse 34: “Men stand above women because they have been distinguished by God.” Or Sura 2, verse 228: “Men stand a step above you. God is powerful and wise.” Or Sura 2, verse 223, “Your women are a field to seed. Go seed your field wherever you want . . .” That sticks. This only refers, excuse me, to the “seeding” of married women, but has long been extended to unmarried men, who have to “seed” every day, because they are poor and do not have the money necessary to marry. “It’s not my fault,” they say to themselves and go grab a piece of woman everyday.
“This does not sound good,” I said. “What should young people do?” the visitor from Rabat continued: “Pre-marital sex is against the law because Islam treats it as a sin. One of our religious sheiks recently showed that he understands the problem. Sheikh Abdelbari Zamzani issued a fatwa that offers unmarried Moroccan women a carrot: When he subsequently faced mockery, he could not understand it since he thought he had spoken as a feminist: he had given permission for hymen repair—after an accident! You know, it is this jumble of religious mandates and a contemporary reality that puts men in a permanent sexual emergency—of course no one speaks about the women.”
Women in Short Skirts Attacked
During the ten years of my stay in North Africa and in visits later, I never met a single woman who could not report sexual assaults. With the increasing Islamicization of Algeria and Morocco, merely wearing a skirt can lead to an attack. Consider this incident in Inezgane near Agadir: In June 2015, the day before Ramadan, two young Moroccan women named Sanaa and Siham went shopping in the souk in Inezgane. They were wearing skirts, cut just above the knees. When a shopkeeper saw them, he said to the people around that this kind of clothing insults the feelings of shame of all Moroccans, at which a crowd suddenly gathered around the two women, called them sluts, as young men surrounded them, groped them, and made insulting gestures.
Called by another shopkeeper to protect Sanaa and Siham, the police also determined their clothing to be shameless. They arrested the two women and brought them to the prosecutor the next day. A few days later, in the same souk, two men thought to be homosexual were beaten up and similarly arrested. No ulema protested in either case, while in Agadir, the tourist site, signs of “Respect Ramadan. No Bikinis” started to appear, to stop Moroccan and foreign women from sunning themselves on the beach.
Early in August 2015, the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote about these events: “It is time for the government to respond to this dictatorship of ignorance, frustration, and stupidity. Last week, armed hooligans carrying swords and knives hunted down bathers without the veil. Caution: this starts with attacks like these and ends up with a bomb in a swimming pool or a café. The security services have to take these dangerous activities absolutely seriously and guarantee the security and freedom of the individual, whether man or woman.” A month before a murderous assassination had taken place on the beach of Sousse in Tunesia, which Salafists regarded as a brothel.
The Left Has To Change
There is only one way to stop this development of an out of control Islam, whose schizophrenia exploded this time outside of the Cologne train station, if this regression is not to continue: Islam has to learn to face the same criticism that Christianity has faced. But serious Islam criticism here has been a matter of a handful of women and men who have been rejected by Muslim societies as “islamophobic.” This has to change.
The obsequious stance on the Left toward every sort of obscurantism, as long as it carries the label “Muslim,” has to end. This obsequiousness is comprehensible of course, since the fundamentalist-Muslim world shares the same anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli aggression that is the life elixir of the German Left. It is dangerous because with its dependence on an Islam stuck in fundamentalism, it also accepts that “monster” which the Muslim philosopher Abdennour Bidar sees growing out of it.
For the past fifteen years, the German Left has been hammering against Muslim proponents of enlightenment, attacking them for adding ammunition to right-wing populists. But the real support for that populism comes from the blood of those victims of the “monster,” against which Muslim friends are desperately fighting, without the European Left understanding what is really at stake, for non-Muslims too. All that matters for it though is that it’s against “the West,” which can be blamed for the decline of the Islamic world—a claim that cannot survive any historical analysis. Just as the Left finds scapegoats for the collapse of socialism, the Muslim world is looking for its own excuses: Losers stick together, underdog and underdog, together we are strong, the desire for vengeance is burning: watch out, we’ll pay you back.
“Sterile” Islam Sticks in the Heads
However the Muslim intelligentsia of North Africa regards the critique of Islam as the sine qua non, if their societies are not to fall into permanent obscurantism, amplified in Germany too by corresponding tendencies through immigration and communication. Muslim dissidents with North African backgrounds recognize right-wing populism in the “theopopulism”—misogynistic, xenophobic, and anti-enlightenment—of an increasingly Salafistic Islam, against which political and religious authorities have no compelling arguments, because they too reject “Western” human rights as an absolute enemy.
The only ones who care about enlightenment are the Muslims “freedom seekers,” as the Tunesian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama calls himself. The dissidents of the Muslim world would like to see the European Left and intellectuals on their side. But that is in vain, as Fethi Benslama discovered in his 2004 text, Non-submission Declaration for the Use of Muslims and Those Who are Not: “Some heirs to the enlightenment are blind to the enlightenment of others.”
Unchallenged by the European enlightenment, an Islam can spread in the young Muslim generation in Germany too, that the Muslim philosopher and Tunesian Islamologist Abdelwahab Meddeb described this way: “A religion which ultimately calls itself the carrier of a definitively divine message, sealed by prophetic inspiration, such a religion, taken literally, annuls every question, and grounds an absolute truth without possible dispute. . . . Reduced to this skeleton, Islam turns into a worldview that is religiously and politically desiccating, sterile, ignorant of the ‘acutely living’ contemporary questions. It turns into an aggressive, magnetic monologism, deaf to every dialogue, cut off from all conditions that could open any relations between persons and peoples, citizens and nations.” Our recently developed “integration centers” will not be able to do much against this kind of Islam, if they avoid confrontations in order to avoid “insulting” Muslim immigrants.
Muslims Criticize Islam
In Muslim countries precisely this deaf Islam is gaining ground in the public televisions, especially when it is sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The result is the spread of “theopopulism.” The term was coined by the journalist and writer Kamel Daoud, who lives in Oran. In Quotiden d’Oran, he has been writing a column for years, “Raika Raikoum (Our Opinion–Your Opinion).” It was there, on May 28, 2015, that he asked: “Do we have to go into the underground against theopopulism?”—a reference to the underground resistance during the French war of liberation. “Too short skirt, rejected in a school in Algiers, a regressive rector who supports his guard against a female student with a morality fatwa. This was unthinkable a only few decades ago, but it is thinkable today because by now even a rector in Algeria is caught in the binary thinking of hala/haram (allowed/forbidden). But this is not the only case of the only permissible thinking in the name of the only God. . . . The hairy tumor [Daoud means Salafism] has entered Algerian rites, the clothing, the cosmetics, and the dental care. Time now means prayer and no longer punctuality, and promising now means ‘inshallah’ and no longer keeping one’s word. The goal of life is death, not life. . . . It is the binary hala/haram thinking that makes up ‘theopopulism’: the ‘crusaderization’ of the ‘anti-Muslim’ West, the obsession with a Jewish conspiracy imagined everywhere, promoting Islamist examples in fashion, rites, sexuality, celibacy, marriage. . . . The country: nikabized, mobbed, transformed into a surveillance station for women’s butts, via shaming and medieval sermons.”
This is the North Africa from which some of the Cologne perpetrators come. Many of these phenomena are more or less also observable in Muslim communities here. One thing has been going on for a long time: “Feelings of guilt in progressive elites and denouncing them as . . . Islamophobic” (Daoud), especially by Muslim associations, the Left, and the Greens. But we should not let ourselves be fooled, since it is Muslims themselves, Muslim “freedom seekers” who are as little “islamophobic” as we are, when they attack a misogynistic, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual Islam instead of subordinating themselves to it.
Samuel Schirmbeck is an author, film director, and journalist who reported for German Television from Algeria. This essay appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on January 11, 2016. Published with permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman