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n March 2010 a landmark study, "Violence Against Women: An EU-Wide Survey," was published by the European Union. The study found that violence against women was endemic across Europe, reporting that one in three women had experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, while one in twenty women across the EU had been raped. This pattern of mass sexual violence is met with low prosecution rates; every year in the UK, for example, an average of 15,670 rapes are reported to the police, yet only 1,070 rapists are convicted of their crimes. When news of the events that took place on New Years Eve in Cologne, Germany—reports of over 1,000 men of “North African and Arab origin” carrying out a mass sexual assault—reached me on New Years Day, I was filled with dread. Dread not only at the acts of sexual violence, but at the racist response that I knew would unfold. Having grown up in Europe’s Maghrebi diaspora, I am all too aware that rather than situating these events within the figures outlined above, the assaults would be attributed to the supposedly inherent barbaric and violent masculinity of northern African and Arab Muslims.
New Crimes, New Responses
My dread was not misplaced. In the wake of the assaults they were quickly characterised by a German police chief as a “new dimension of crime.” Anti-migrant and refugee protests erupted in Cologne, while in Finland militia groups began patrolling towns housing asylum seekers in the name of protecting Finnish women, and in Austria political parties called for the closing of the nations borders to prevent similar attacks. Concurrently, attention was drawn to Norway’s announcement in early-December that “male refugees from conservative societies” would be given sexual consent classes to “help them adapt to a country where women have greater freedoms, wear fewer clothes, and walk alone in public.” What all these responses to the events in Cologne share is an exceptionalising of sexual violence as located in the cultures and religion of the so-called Arab world, an inherent monstrosity attributable to Muslim and Arab men. A barbarity that can only be solved through border control, or corrected via schooling in the European values of tolerance, civility, and respect.
What I want to reflect upon here, albeit briefly, is the ‘newness’ attributed to these crimes. As the statistics in the opening paragraph suggest, sexual violence against women in Europe is nothing new. Neither are mass sexual assaults in Germany. Every year at Germany’s Oktoberfest, for example, at least 10 cases of rape are reported, while the estimated number of unreported cases stands at 200. And in February 2016, just weeks after the events of New Years Eve, 22 cases of sexual assault were reported on the opening night of Cologne’s annual carnival. So what purpose does characterizing Cologne’s events as "new" serve?
The labeling of the Cologne sexual assaults as a “new dimension of crime” importantly calls forth new responses. In the wake of the events they were quickly blamed on the mass and recent influx of Syrian refugees. Yet in the weeks that have followed they have increasingly been attributed to men from the Maghreb. The US magazine Time, for example, reported that the suspects for the attacks were “mostly asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from North Africa.” While the UK’s Daily Mail highlighted the broader criminality of Maghrebi men, reporting that “forty per cent of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian migrants registered in Cologne have been arrested for crimes,” while only 0.6% of Afghans and just 2.4% of Iraqi’s had been.
In response to this "new" crime, in mid-January 2016, Germany announced that it was going to limit migration from north Africa by declaring Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia "safe countries." A move meaning that “that migrants from those countries would have little chance of winning asylum.” Here the temporality of the crimes ‘newness’ warrants new and harsh border controls, curtailing northern Africa’s access to Europe. A temporality which doubly functions to evacuate the events out of the contexts in which they emerge; a scene in which sexual violence is endemic to Europe, reaching far beyond the bodies of northern African Muslim men.
The "Oldness" of the "Maghrebi Rapist"
Not only is sexual violence against women nothing new, but neither is the global deployment of tropes of black, brown, and Muslim rapists in the service of border control, colonialism, mass incarceration, and racial segregation. In the US context, for example, the "myth of the black rapist" has been integral to the historical surveillance, segregation and terrorization of black communities, simultaneously masking the widespread sexual violence brought against the bodies of black women (Davis, 1981; Somerville, 1994; Wells-Barnett, 1892).
In the context of Cologne’s events, the myth of northern African rapist has a similarly violent history. In Toward The African Revolution, Frantz Fanon reminded us that the northern African man had been explicitly coupled with rape. Writing about the Maghrebi man, Fanon sarcastically remarked, “Sexuality. Yes, I know what you mean; it consists of rape” (Fanon, 1969: 11). For Fanon, the violent colonial fantasy of the "Maghrebi rapist" at once justified France’s violent "civilizing mission," simultaneously erasing its vast sexual crimes. Yet importantly, the figure of the northern African rapist served another function: European border control. Fanon quotes Dr. Leon Mugniery, a French doctor, who argued in his 1951 medical thesis that if the French did not take measures to control Maghrebi immigration, France “may well be exposed to increasing attempts at rape” (Mugniery, 1951, cited in Fanon, 1969: 11).
As we watch Fanon’s "Maghrebi rapist" deployed across Europe once again, it is important to remember that this figure never left the European imagination. In February 2015, ten months before the Cologne assaults, the Gatestone Institute published a study on the rise of sexual violence in Sweden. The study’s headline findings suggest a “strong connection between rapes in Sweden and the number of immigrants from MENA-countries,” suggesting that “immigrants from North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) are 23 times as likely to commit rape as Swedish men.” Similarly, in August 2016, four German feminist organizations wrote to the Minister of Integration and Social Affairs, arguing that "Muslim Middle Eastern" refugees would bring with them a “culture of rape and violence.”
A focus on the events of Cologne as new or exceptional evacuates them from this context in which they emerge. A context in which the biologization of northern African men as sexually violent has long been used as a technology of European border governance, one which sees its border management regime, carceral policing, and colonial histories violently intersect. The naturalization of the "Arab-Muslim rapist" falsely implies that sexual violence is alien to Europe, only arising when its vulnerable borders are penetrated by Muslim men. A "new" and "urgent" vulnerability that temporally overtakes and ignores the ingrained, quotidian racial biases in crime reporting and incarceration.
Thinking Racial and Sexual Violence Together
To speak of the "northern African rapist" as a colonial myth, then, is not to deny the reality that men, including those from northern African and Arab backgrounds, commit acts of sexual violence. Rather, it is to draw attention to the ways in which the targeting of Muslim, Arab, and African bodies as the perpetrators of sexual violence functions concomitantly to criminalize whole populations and territories. A criminalization that simultaneously marks Europe and its imagined-as-white populace as victim, justifying its harsh and racist border management regime. This bodily targeting utilizes colonial sexualities as border technologies, evading a wider conversation about Europe’s sexual violence epidemic. In fighting against sexual violence we must simultaneously fight against the historical racialization of the figure of the rapist. A fight that necessitates recognition of Europe’s imperial pasts and presents, and all of the violent gendered and sexual tropes they entail.