Let’s be clear, what is commonly referred to as the Cologne sex attacks was something that should not have happened – at New Year’s Eve, outside Cologne railway station, groups of young men assaulted women and girls of all ages sexually and often also robbed them of some of their belongings. The police was unable to intervene and in fact initially played down the events, as did the media.
Once in the open it did not take long to make out the culprits: hordes of ‘North-African’ or ‘Arab’ looking men – a Sexmob in the words of a German tabloid – who were out to finally conquer what they hate most: innocent, white (or so is the implication even if the ‘attackers’ made no such difference and many women were in fact non-white) German women.
The way these events and some smaller scale incidents in other German cities have been used by some sections of the media, politicians and agitators should make anybody who believes in the values of the enlightenment worry – and not only in Germany but all over Europe, not least because it seems to accelerate a downward spiral in public discourse that could have been observed for quite a while now.
Germany has a tradition to select the Un-word or Non-word of the year (Unwort des Jahres), a phrase that is meant to stress and critique inadequate and derogatory use of language. It is interesting to have a look at those Un-words in the last couple of years in order to see the deterioration of civic discourse in light of one of the biggest issues of our time, refugeeness and migration. Partly as a consequence of the latter, in Germany a movement called Pegida, a German acronym for ‘patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident’, sprung up that has since extended in various ways across borders. In defying civic conventions of protest it not only posts images such as Angela Merkel on the gallows for not least her refugee policy, but also routinely threatens journalists and photographers and refers to the media more general as Lügenpresse (lying press), a term that was used as a propaganda tool by the Nazi party in the 1930s and 40s. Lügenpresse thus became the Unwort des Jahres for 2014 in order to stress and condemn this inappropriate use of language. The Un-word for 2015 was announced on 12 January 2016, and it is Gutmensch – which refers to people who essentially agree with Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees but paints them as politically naïve and essentially stupid for not understanding that they in fact let in future terrorists or, well, sexual assaulters. From Lügenpresse to Gutmensch, it is thus a small step to arrive at the Sexmob as a sweeping judgement of men who are Muslim and thus by definition, so many media reports suggest, hate women and are driven by the constant urge to degrade them. Sexmob might become a prime candidate for the Un-word 2016 – even if one dares not to think about how much worse public discourse might have got by the end of the year.
But not only the fact that the tone of public protest and debate has become rougher and more relentless should make us worry, but also explicitly its racist and sexist character. Many of those who now claim to want better protection for women are actually little concerned about women’s experiences that night – many of whom explicitly rejected the racist undertone with which their ordeal has been reported. They are simply out to draw political capital and advance their agenda against the welcoming culture that Chancellor Merkel had pushed through against many in her own government in one of the most compassionate and enlightened responses to the refuge and migration issue on the European continent. And they seem to succeed in a frightfully short span of time to make racist comments acceptable again – and brand those who object not only as Gutmenschen but as somehow delusional. As a consequence, politicians from all parties (and including Angela Merkel) now cry for tougher laws, not only against sexual assault but also concerning the right to deport those who have committed such acts. A leading politician of the party of the Left, a party founded on principles of international solidarity, even suggested (referring to recent refugees) that rights as a guest are forfeited if a guest misbehaves – suggesting that refugees are not here because Germany is bound by international law but due to some kind of guest-code. Even if her party was quick to denounce that statement, it is exemplary for a current trend to disown solidarity.
Of course everybody who committed assaults, robbery or other punishable acts on that night in Cologne should be punished according to the law and held to account. But to use a highly emotive event in which, as it emerges now, people of all sorts of background, nationalities and cultures took part in different ways to advance an agenda of xenophobia and proclaim (once again) a clash of civilisations is distinctly against the very spirit of the enlightenment that those who advance those agendas partly claim to defend. And in contrast to some of the placards at recent demonstrations: Islam is part of Germany, as are manningfold other religions, non-religions and belief systems – and Germany is a much richer (and more enlightened) place for it.
In Defence of the Enlightenment is a book by Tzvetan Todorov (2010), Atlantic Books, and he spoke about the theme at the RSA, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFHho-qnIio