Muslim world Politics Women

Using racism claims to stifle debates on women’s rights

Interview with migration researcher Sandra Kostner

On Austrian Radio, I presented Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book “prey”. Her thesis: The mass immigration of young Muslim men poses a threat to the rights and freedoms of women. The governments of Europe have failed in integrating these men.

Sandra Kostner is assessing the problem as an academic.

Sandra Kostner ©privat

RH: To what extent is the Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali right when she sees sexual offenses as the tip of the iceberg of how the immigration of many Muslim men affects the lives of women?

Sandra Kostner: The crime statistics of European countries that received many young male refugee migrants in 2015 and 2016 show an increase in sexual crimes in the following years. The statistics also show that serious sexual offenses were disproportionately committed by refugee migrants. Crime statistics serious offenses pretty well. Less serious offenses, such as sexual harassment, however, often go unreported. Therefore, we don’t know how many women are affected by such offenses. And we don’t know how many women have changed their behavior because they fear to be sexually assaulted or harassed – for example, by avoiding certain streets, squares or public transportation at certain times, or by changing the way they dress etc. There is anecdotal evidence, which Ayaan Hirsi Ali also refers to in her book, but there are no large-scale quantitative studies. Such studies would have to be carried out in order to draw firm conclusions. But that is precisely what too many researchers shy away from.

RH: For what reason?

Kostner: Mainly because postcolonial theories have become prevalent in the social sciences. Those theories are marked by oversimplified and rigid assumptions, namely: The West has colonized the rest of the world, dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed. The oppression was justified with racist narratives. Because of their countries of origin, refugees are automatically considered victims of the racist and oppressive West by the proponents of postcolonial theory. What’s more, many of those academics apply their theories to practice, and act like spokespersons of “the oppressed of the earth”, putting forward an agenda that calls for equality of outcomes between those whom they label as perpetrators or victims of racial oppression. For that reason, they are more concerned about protecting the “victims of the West” from racism than women from sexism.

RH: The crime statistics don’t specifically state that the perpetrators of violence are Muslim immigrants.

Kostner: That’s true. But if you consider the residence status of the offenders, you notice a disproportionate share of asylum seekers and refugees among them. Moreover, the rise of such offenses in the wake of the large influx of refugees, points to the fact that many of those offenders come from Muslim-majority countries. While it is safe to assume that most migrants originating from those countries are Muslims, we have to refrain from jumping to the conclusion that sexual offenses are rooted in their religion. While religion impacts on how people think and act, it is just one of many factors that make people think and act in certain ways. However, it equally misses the point if one (like most postcolonial scholars) denies that religion can shape people’s actions, among them attitudes towards women and sexual behaviour.

RH: Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her book that those who suffer are primarily not Western women, i.e. non-Muslim women, but Muslim women.

Kostner: Those who deny that there are migrants who cherish and practice cultural values that infringe Western liberal values and human rights standards, ultimately support the powerful members of patriarchally-structured communities, in the case at hand: chiefly Muslim men. Unsurprisingly, they have no interest in girls and women leading autonomous lives. When in such instances, people, particularly politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, and social workers, turn a blind eye on what is happening in those communities out of concern that they will be accused of fanning “anti-Muslim racism”, girls and women pay the price for it.

RH: Ayaan Hirsi Ali also believes that if you talk down crimes against sexual self-determination committed by refugees, you would at the same time strengthen right-wing populists.

Kostner: If no other political party names this problem and tackles it head-on, then right-wing populists can profit from it. This is especially the case if the overrepresentation of refugees among sex offenders persists over a longer period of time, and there are repeated serious crimes, which are reported intensively in the media. If the other political parties then also seek refuge in rhetoric that protects the perpetrators, right-wing populists can distinguish themselves as protectors of women’s rights. This instrumentalization of crimes catches on with a part of the electorate that gets the impression that “the” politicians don’t care about the native population because they give the immigrant criminals the benefit of the doubt.

RH: How that happened after the sexual attacks on New Year’s Eve 2015/16 in Cologne.

Kostner: What happened in the wake of that night is a perfect example for those discursive deflection strategies, which are employed to draw attention away from what has actually happened to whether and how right-wing populist parties are trying to use such deeds to harness electoral support. This is exactly what happened following the sexual assaults in Cologne: Within days the public debate was redirected – away from the assaults to how right-wingers, particularly Germany’s most influential right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), tried to use them to boost their anti-refugee and anti-Muslim agenda.

RH: With the result that many people now no longer criticize for fear that it could be used by the AfD for discourse.

Kostner: In Germany, “applause from the wrong side” has been established as an admonishing phrase in recent years that serves one purpose only: to avoid debates on inconvenient topics, chiefly among them migration-related issues. “Applause from the wrong side” means that right-wingers might approve of something someone says. If that is the case, everyone who doesn’t want to be labelled a right-winger himself or be accused of fostering right-wing agendas should refrain from naming facts or making arguments, not because they are wrong, but because the “wrong side” might be in approval. The fear of being accused of receiving “applause from the wrong side” has become a powerful tool, with many rather biting their tongue than running the risk of being associated with the “wrong side”.

RH: How widespread is this attitude in your professional environment?

Kostner: I’ve observed this frequently when I openly address migration-related problems during public talks or panel discussions. Reliably, someone in the audience says, “I think it’s very good that you’re bringing that up, but you know that the AfD says that, too.” To which I always reply, “What you just said makes me conclude that you allow the AfD to dictate what you think and say.” This is always indignantly rejected with the words, “No, I don’t!” To which I reply: “That is exactly what you do when you point out that the AfD says this as well. By saying that you are giving the AfD the sole power over what can be said and thought in this country by ‘respectable’ citizens.”

RH: How can this development be scaled back?

Kostner: First and foremost, people need to stop condemning dissenting voices as morally inferior. Instead they need to view it as normal that there are legitimate differences of opinion. Secondly, all interlocutors need to be willing to understand the other side’s arguments. This applies in particular to activist academics, among whom it’s all too common to use racism claims to stifle the very debates they should engage in. It’s easy enough for them to ignore values conflicts and other migration-related problems as, in contrast to practitioners, they don’t have to deal with such issues on a daily basis. When practitioners, such as social workers or teachers, bring up problems they experience with some migrants, activist academics inform them that the root-cause of all problems is structural racism, not specific culturally-informed attitudes. Talking to practitioners in that way is as arrogant as it is ignorant. Especially those, who have first-hand experience of culture-driven problems need the assurance that they can talk freely about them.

RH: Then grassroots employees in particular would have to have the moral courage to spill the beans about what’s going wrong in their field.

Kostner: Yes, that would be important. And this has to start at their workplace. Many practitioners with first-hand experience work in the social service sector, where “diversity sensitivity” has become a value of paramount importance. This has all too often created an atmosphere that stops employees from bringing up issues that might make them appear as lacking in diversity sensitivity in the eyes of their colleagues and superiors. Add to this that many don’t have a permanent job, so that to get their contract renewed, they know they’d better act and talk in a way that curries favour with their employer.

RH: In your book “Identity-Left Purification Agenda” you blame New Feminists as well as representatives of postcolonialism for these conditions. Your accusation: with their cultural relativism, they would contribute to the perpetuation of cultural-religious practices that make it difficult for women and girls in particular to claim their rights to freedom.

Kostner: The problem is that they act according to the motto: “Redemption first, gender equality second.” That is, they take a very self-centered approach since their main concern is to demonstrate that they have overcome the “original sin of the West”: racism. They construe criticism of non-Western cultural or religions practices first and foremost as racist, since it may cast doubt on the level of redemption they have achieved. A corollary of this is that they don’t judge people’s behaviour by the same standards, meaning that a much lower standard is applied to non-Westerners. Furthermore, they deem universal human rights a hegemonic means employed by Westerns to keep non-Westerners in their place. Obviously, those who deny the existence of universal human rights, also disregard universal women’s rights.They are replaced by “culturally or religiously appropriate” women’s rights. In other words, truly equal rights are seen as appropriate for Western women only, all the other women are left in the lurch, as they can make do with a lesser form of equality, if the norms and values of their culture or religion call for it, like in the case of Sharia law.

RH: So what is the next step?

Kostner: Politics and society have to commit to ensuring that everyone in this country not only has the same rights, but can exercise them. To ensure this, an inconvenient truth needs to be admitted, namely that tn certain communities, women – and girls even more so because they are in an even weaker position – cannot enjoy the same rights. What’s more, policies need to be devised and implemented that address the very issues that generate gender inequality in those communities.

Sandra Kostner is a historian and sociologist specializing in migration research. Since 2010 she has been managing director of the master’s program “Interculturality and Integration” at the University of Education Schwäbisch Gmünd. Among other publications, she edited the anthology, Identitätslinke Läuterungsagenda. Eine Debatte zu ihre Folgen für Migrationsgesellschaften (The Identity-Left’s Redemption Agenda. A Debate on its Consequences for Countries of Immigration) and wrote the foreword to the German edition of “The Disuniting of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society” by Arthur M. Schlesinger (2020). In February 2021, Sandra Kostner co-founded the Academic Freedom Network. In September 2021 her new anthology will be released, titled: Lehren aus 9/11. Zum Umgang des Westens mit Islamismus which she’s co-editing with Elham Manea. The English edition will be published in spring 2022, titled: Lessons learnt from 9/11. How the West has dealt with Islamism.

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