Germany's post-Cologne hysteria

A woman walking in front of the main railway station in Cologne, Germany on Jan 7, 2016.
A woman walking in front of the main railway station in Cologne, Germany on Jan 7, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

(NEW YORK TIMES) - On New Year's Eve, hundreds of men gathered in the plaza at the main train station in Cologne, Germany, groping and robbing scores of women as they passed by. By the end of last week, the police had received 170 complaints, including 120 related to sexual assault.

Despite the fact that the attacks occurred in the centre of Germany's fourth-largest city, it took days for the news to surface in the national media. Even stranger, the police seemed to know little about the attacks. No arrests were made, and the authorities claimed that nearby surveillance cameras offered little help in identifying suspects. The Cologne police chief was forced from his job last Friday.

The police have since identified 31 suspects. They are a multinational lot, including Germans, a Serb and even one American. But 18 of them are asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa.

This latest news is merely fuel for what many Germans already suspected, and witness accounts had already indicated: that the crowd was composed largely of men of North African and Middle Eastern descent, and that they were among the one million refugees that Germany has accepted over the last year.

The attacks - along with similar incidents in Hamburg - come at a critical time for Germany, and they raise tough questions about where Germany is headed: not just whether it will remain open to more refugees, but whether it can peacefully integrate those already here.

Rarely in recent memory has a single event captured the German conversation quite like the Cologne attacks. Long before any facts were in, commentators were already drawing conclusions.

Well-known German feminist Alice Schwarzer wrote on her blog that the events were a "product of misguided tolerance". Dr Frauke Petry, head of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party, said the events were a "result of uncontrolled migration".

And Ms Julia Klockner, the top Christian Democratic candidate in the coming state election in Rhineland-Palatinate, called for an "open debate" on whether foreigners, including asylum seekers, could be kicked out for committing crimes - a proposal that even Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously endorsed, though such laws already exist.

But as quick as the right was to use the attacks as a wedge against refugees, the left moved just as fast to deflect the blame. Mr Heiko Maas, the Minister of Justice and a member of the Social Democrats, said on Tuesday that "organised crime" was behind the attacks, though no evidence exists for such a connection (he has since threatened to deport foreigners found guilty in the attacks).

In other words, precisely when the country needs a cool-headed conversation about the impact of Germany's new refugee population, we're playing musical chairs: Everybody runs for a seat to the left and to the right, afraid to remain in the middle, apparently undecided.

The irony is that the Cologne attacks, by highlighting the issue of refugees and their culture, raise an incredibly important question and at the same time make it almost impossible to have a reasonable conversation about it.

Integration will fail if Germany cannot resolve the tension between its secular, liberal laws and culture and the patriarchal and religiously conservative worldviews that some refugees bring with them. We cannot avoid that question out of fear of feeding the far right. But integration will also fail if a full generation of refugees is demonised on arrival.

This isn't the first wave of migrants to post-war Germany, and it's not the first time that the left and the right have played their respective roles of under- and overestimating the challenges of integration.

The left has long ignored the established correlations between crime and the poverty and poor education that plague refugee communities; the right has long overestimated the link between the refugees' culture and criminal activity, even when studies show no such link exists (excepting so-called crimes of honour, which are extremely rare).

The real question we should be asking is not whether there is something inherently wrong with the refugees, but whether Germany is doing an effective job of integrating them - and if not, whether something can be done to change that.

None of this, however, fits into a TV sound bite or a tweet. Even if it did, it would probably fail to reach its audience in the heated atmosphere of the moment.

Assumptions have replaced observation, assertion has replaced assessment, and ideology has replaced evidence.

With its vision thus distorted, Germany is speeding towards a multicultural society, chased by the mob on the Internet, without any idea of what that society should look like.

We need to regain our sense of balance - or it's just a question of time until we hit a wall.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'Germany's post-Cologne hysteria'. Print Edition | Subscribe