It is impossible to say that sexual abuse has nothing to do with Islam – stringent sexual morals, a hierarchical structure, and a complete separation of the sexes tend to suggest the opposite. A religion that sees women as either possession or threat must be held partly accountable
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One does not need to express an opinion on every single issue, especially in cases where the facts are not yet well understood. I have not yet said anything about the events in Cologne because this is a topic that is close to me – and I would rather wait to share an informed opinion rather than simply express my personal feelings.
However, I would like to say a few words on the subject of sexual harassment in general.
I come from Egypt, where the sexual abuse of women has now reached an unbearable scale, in part because it was initially ignored or downplayed. This can be ascribed to a few factors: for one, it is difficult to admit in a supposedly religious, moral society that many women are sexually abused; for another, there are concerns about the effect a more open discussion might have on tourism, one of the country's main sources of income. And many even go a step further and blame the victims because of the way they dress. The hypocrisy and unwillingness to confront the problem have turned a limited phenomenon into an epidemic: over 95 percent of Egyptian women report daily experience with sexual abuse and sexual coercion.
In my books, I have examined the causes of this epidemic, and above all the role Islam plays.
In Egypt and Morocco I saw cases of collective abuse firsthand. Almost without exception, the culprits were not individual religious youths, but small groups, which were often under the influence of drugs. It is forbidden for a religious Muslim to touch a woman to whom he is not married, even his own fiancée. Particularly devout Muslims are even prohibited from shaking hands with a woman, and Salafis in Egypt believe that a man riding the bus cannot even take a seat that a woman has just vacated for fear that the warmth of her body could excite him sexually.
Yet despite these regulations – or perhaps even because of them – it is impossible to say that sexual abuse has nothing to do with Islam, because these stringent sexual morals, this hierarchical structure, and this complete separation of the sexes tend to suggest the opposite. A religion that sees women as either a man's possession or a threat to his morality must be held partly accountable.
Forty years ago, hardly a woman in Cairo wore a headscarf, and public sexual harassment was rare. Today there is hardly a woman who is not veiled, yet they are hassled and groped on public streets. The same could be said for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, along with most of the other predominantly Muslim countries, which stand at the top of the international list for sexual harassment; the problem is even widespread in wealthy Saudi Arabia. One could even suspect a correlation between the veil and sexual harassment, and indeed, there is a connection with the course Islam is taking – but it is not only about that. Just as in India, the real problem is a culture and a hierarchy that seems women as less valuable than men.
The younger generation in the Islamic world has grown up living a duality. At home and in the mosque, they are brought up with a strict moral code, one that allows men and women barely any opportunity to build a healthy, symmetrical relationship with each other. On the internet, on the other hand, they experience a world in which there are no borders between men and women, one with no firm morals. And the number of young Muslims exposed to this world is by no means small: Islamic countries top international lists in terms of their consumption of pornographic videos. This duality creates a warped relationship between men and women, one that even affects those young Muslims living in Europe, who live in closed communities but are nevertheless exposed to the temptations of the broader societies.
The Arab world has been socially disintegrating for years, leading to more and more isolated individuals. Through these processes of disintegrations and isolation, four phenomena are strengthened: terrorism, protest movements, emigration, and sexual harassment. All four can be traced to the breakneck pace of social change. Young Muslims can expect little from the state and from their families, and drift further and further from their grip; they feel robbed – by their countries and by the entire world – of the kind of life they feel they are owed, and go into the street (or the sea) to take it for themselves.
Many young Arabs leave their countries behind and come to Europe. The majority only want to live in peace and well-being. But many still carry the germ of this duality with them: they come with high hopes for Europe, but contempt for its values. With conservative attitudes towards morality and a desire for freedom. Freed suddenly from the eyes of their community, they freak out in the West, organizing themselves into groups and new ad hoc communities. One becomes a Salafist, another a drug dealer, pickpocket, or womanizer. One sees in European men only crusaders bent on destroying Islam, the other sees in European women only the porn stars they remember from the Internet.
Germany cannot repeat Egypt's mistakes, holding its tongue for fear of encouraging right wing fringe groups. Of course, the crimes of a small group are not the responsibility of all Muslims or all refugees – but it is time that this very majority devote some attention to the problems within its own communities. Rather than play the victim after every such incident – forgetting the actual victims entirely – there needs to be more honesty when it comes to sexual morality and the potential for violence in Islam.
Germany can avoid ceding the topic of Islam and the refugees to the right wing fringe by discussing it openly and honestly. Whether fundamentalism or harassment, reluctance to integrate or crime – we have serious problems, and covering them up and talking around them only exacerbate them.
So Ms. Merkel, Minister of the Interior – time to start the conversation!
Translation: Josh Raisher