The so-called ‘Islamic rape of Europe’ is part of a long and racist history

Ishaan Tharoor
Thursday 18 February 2016 10:29 GMT
The front page of Polish magazine 'wSieci'
The front page of Polish magazine 'wSieci' (wSieci)

A popular right-wing Polish newsweekly, wSieci or "The Network," published a deeply provocative magazine cover this week. It shows a young blonde women, garbed loosely in the flag of the European Union, being groped by three men. Only the six swarthy arms and hands of the assailants are in view, but the message is clear and barely needs the brutal cover line: "The Islamic rape of Europe."

According to the Daily Mail, the Polish magazine said it was focusing on "what the media and the Brussels elite are hiding from the citizens of Europe." An editorial in its pages, entitled "Hell Europe," inveighed against a culture of "tolerance and political correctness" that supposedly led to the grim scenes on New Year's Eve in the German city of Cologne and other northern European town centers.

Groups of men, many apparently of Arab or North African descent, went on a shocking criminal rampage that led to hundreds of complaints to the police of rape, sexual harassment and other abuse. The incidents fed into an already growing backlash against European policies welcoming migrants and refugees, particularly an influx from war-torn Syria.

Breitbart, the far-right American news website, picked up on wSieci's cover story and detailed its message of a clash of civilizations:

Outlining the fundamental differences between eastern Islam and western Christianity — “culture, architecture, music, gastronomy, dress” — the editorial explains these two worlds have been at war “over the last 14 centuries” and the world is now witnessing a colossal “clash of two civilisations in the countries of old Europe”. This clash is brought by Muslims who come to Europe and “carry conflict with the Western world as part of the collective consciousness”, as the journalist marks the inevitability of conflict between native Europeans and their new guests.

The narrative of an Islamic or Arab takeover of Europe, though hardly new, has gained real traction in recent months, propagated by both xenophobic activist groups as well as populist political leaders and parties.

To be sure, there are legitimate security concerns posed both by the surge in new arrivals as well as the continuing instability and conflicts in the Middle East. The attacks in Cologne, writes the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud, were a reminder to the West of the Muslim world's "sick relationship with women" -- a product both of patriarchal and religious norms as well as the stifling legacy of authoritarian rule.

But perverse, misogynist behavior is not the province of just one culture or society. And much of Europe's anti-refugee hysteria, as my colleague Adam Taylor charted this week, has been overblown and fueled by often misleading innuendo and rumor circulating on social media.

Very few of the identified culprits in the Cologne attacks were themselves refugees. And countries like Poland and Hungary, while leading the conservative charge against E.U. policies that would allow in desperate Middle Eastern asylum seekers, still have minuscule Muslim populations of their own. The risk of a cultural invasion somehow contaminating their societies is, frankly, a phantasm conjured by fear-mongers.

That's precisely what wSieci's cover image aimed to achieve: Fear. It did so, moreover, by borrowing from a long-established set of racial codes.

It didn't take Twitter users very long to spot the parallels. The Polish magazine's rendition of a young white woman, violated by hairy, dark-skinned men, carries immediate echoes to nationalist propaganda of an uglier historical moment.

See, for example, the poster in the tweet above of a World War II-era Italian fascist call to arms, showing a dark foreign soldier seizing a European woman. Or see the Nazi-era imagery in the tweet below of a scheming Jewish spider eyeing a blonde fraulein or a French colonial soldier groping another girl.

These are not isolated images. Following World War I, there was great consternation about the presence of French African troops occupying a defeated Germany. That occupation lent itself to garish metaphor.

A stereotype of sexual threat surrounded the African soldiers, and fanned white outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

On a visit to Germany in 1920, a well-known British writer lamented the presence of "thrusting barbarians—barbarians belonging to a race inspired by Nature…with tremendous sexual instincts—into the heart of Europe." In 1921, 12,000 people rallied around Madison Square Garden in New York City and submitted a petition to Congress declaring "the Moral sense of the American people demands the immediate withdrawal of the uncivilized French Colored troops."

Nazi ideologue and dictator Adolf Hitler, writing in "Mein Kampf," raged at "the Jews who bring the Negro into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization, throwing it down from its cultural and political height, and himself rising to be its master."

That fear of bastardization and cultural degradation -- embodied so crudely in the image of the dark man raping the white woman -- was of course equally native to the United States. The specter of black rape was used for decades by whites to justify lynchings and massacres of blacks, and as recently as last year during a mass shooting in the city of Charleston.

In the past year, Poland has taken a dramatic hard right turn, and its leading politicians have made loud and conspicuous statements on the supposed threat posed by Syrian refugees.

An anti-refugee rally in the city of Wroclaw in November seemed to best capture the sort of populism on display. Thousands of protesters marched, denouncing an E.U. proposal that would see the country admit some 7,000 refugees. They chanted against Islam and migrants and for "God, Honor and Fatherland."

And then they burnt an effigy -- not of a Muslim or a refugee, but a Hasidic Jew wrapped in the flag of the European Union.

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