This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost in January 2016.
In recent days, how many of us gasped at photos of emaciated Syrians in the besieged town of Madaya? In light of this tragedy, the post-Cologne fence-building and anti-refugee postulating around Europe must surely be even more alarming. The Syrian humanitarian crisis remains as desperate as ever, but after Cologne’s New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults, right-wing populist “refugees not welcome” sentiments seem to be gaining ground throughout Europe. Monday morning also brought allegations that Swedish police covered up group sexual assaults in Stockholm, too, because of fears of a right-wing backlash. In an increasingly globalized news culture, and particularly when it comes to EU countries like Germany, “their” concerns are frequently “our” concerns, too. All over Europe, merely condemning right-wingers as bigots will neither quell popular fears nor win the argument. Liberals must look in the mirror. And then we must make some concessions.
Since reports of the Cologne attacks emerged over a week ago, accusations of police and government cover-ups have flourished in a kind of perfect storm of liberal conspiracy narratives. Sadly, it’s not hard to see why. Up to 1,000 men said to be “of North African and Arab appearance” conducted coordinated attacks on women and teenage girls — surrounding them in groups, grabbing and groping them so hard they left bruises on their bodies — but an initial police press release claimed the night had “passed off peacefully.” Then, after revelations, days of insistence that there was no evidence for asylum seeker involvement followed, with Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker even branding any suggestion of refugee involvement “impermissible,” an internal police report emerged last Thursday. German magazine Der Spiegel claims to have seen the report and said it revealed that some of the attackers asserted they were Syrian refugees. One reportedly told an officer: “You have to treat me kindly. Mrs. Merkel invited me.” Another apparently ripped up residence papers in front of officers, shouting defiantly: “You can’t do anything to me. I can get a new one tomorrow.”
We must confront the fact, for example, that some dangerous undesirables will indeed have found their way into the EU amongst all the decent and deserving refugees.
Perhaps because the police report appeared to give credence to a some-bad-apples-among-the-innocent-refugees narrative that we liberals often like to pretend has no bearing, for a whole day after it emerged in Germany, only the right-wing press in Britain deigned to publish it. In some cases even as late as Friday morning, there were left-leaning articles sticking with the “nobody really knows if migrants were involved” rhetoric. Perhaps purely because this is the sort of thing the xenophobes will jump on, many on the left seemed reluctant to touch it. Concern for minorities, or knee-jerk political tribalism at its finest?
When political correctness reaches the point in which people are — never mind being afraid to express opinion — afraid to report police memos, then we know sanity has been left behind. This sort of obfuscation is dangerous not just because it makes detection of the actual perpetrators more difficult, but also because it is driving otherwise reasonable people away from the left and all too often into the arms of right-wing populism. Now, German police have publicly confirmed that more than half those questioned so far are indeed asylum seekers, and the right is doing its victory dances. Scroll down any comment thread and amidst the growing calls to leave the EU, you’ll find “Libtards” and “the left” named as the personae non gratae in this whole affair. And for American readers, understand, this is exactly the sort of thing that Trump and his cronies can seize on, a perfect “Europe is being cowed” cautionary tale. In the words of an anti-racist Cologne protester on Saturday: “It’s not good to ‘protect’ us, it just makes the racism worse.”
Frankly, we on the left must wake up and become more willing to describe the world as it is. To confront the fact, for example, that some dangerous undesirables will indeed have found their way into the EU amongst all the decent and deserving refugees. If not, we face the prospect of being ruled for the foreseeable future not only by those on the right who want to “stoke up anti-immigration rhetoric,” but also who will happily dismantle our public services. Right-wing populism finds a perfect ideological punchbag in a woolly liberalism that often fails to stand up for liberal principles. In the case of Cologne, we’ve seen not just obfuscating, but also what might be called victim-blaming. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, for example, advised women on a “code of conduct” for public celebrations, including “keeping more than an arm’s length away” from men, even reportedly warning against being in a “celebratory mood.” Channel 4 News broadcast an interview with a Tunisian refugee who said with a straight face: “It is not the fault of the refugees — the couple of refugees who were there, who might also be culprits. It’s the fault of the laws and bureaucracy in Germany that say you have to wait six months or one year for the day when you can find a legal job.” I’m sorry, what?
Right-wing populism finds a perfect ideological punchbag in a woolly liberalism that often fails to stand up for liberal principles.
Recently, two activists I know freshly returned from work with migrants and admitted sheepishly to me that their time on the front line had led them to consider — briefly — that perhaps Germany should close its borders. They told me that most of the migrants they had seen were not actually refugees. And then they looked at me as though they expected I would roundly accuse them of being Nazis. Unsurprising, since nuance and pragmatism are frequently becoming trickier in the ideological battle trenches of the digital era. Perhaps because of the constant demand for brevity in tweets and Internet comment pieces, a popular, and often false, thought association ensues: if you think this, then you must also think that. Suppressing debate and dissent within the left itself, this phenomenon has become a kind of digital McCarthyism. And it is driving people away from the very political associations that would protect their public services and democratic rights. Suggest last week that any asylum-seeker sex attackers be deported, for example, and sit back and wait for the Hitler comparisons to be pelted at you faster than you can say “no platform.” Personally I am firmly left of the political center and share concerns about anti-refugee sentiment but — and call me Mrs. Picky — I draw the line at welcoming sex offenders into Blighty for toast and tea.
Last week it was revealed that 40,000 Syrians — including many women and children — trapped in Madaya because of Assad’s war, were resorting to eating grass as they starved to death. One must ask: how is covering up for young men who seem determined to gleefully flout European norms and laws going to help those thousands of innocent would-be refugees who might otherwise be offered a haven were it not for the impending right-wing blowback against the worst excesses of liberal apologism? Merkel’s seeking of greater powers of deportation for asylum seekers found guilty of, say, sexual assault, has been characterized by some on the left as “bowing to populist pressure.” But is Merkel justified? In our reluctance to face up to the painful — yet credible — reports of migrant involvement in these horrific Cologne attacks, we have unwittingly given succor to those who would deny haven to any refugees at all.