In the time of the British Raj, a range of cultural customs in the Indian subcontinent perplexed the colonial power, and a select number perturbed them. One especially distressing spectacle was the practice of suttee, an antique tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.
One British officer, General Sir Charles Napier, was appalled upon coming across this ghastly scene, but he was beseeched by village elders to respect the time-honored rite. Napier’s response was at once sensitive and unsparing: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The gallant Victorian approach toward women, if that is not too genial a description, is no longer fashionable in the West today. In spite of the great advances in women’s autonomy and Western society’s growing recognition of women’s equality with men, it is a sad fact that the concept of universal women’s rights has lost precious ground in the commanding heights of Western culture. Even the above retelling of Napier’s exploits is more liable to disturb contemporary readers than it is to delight them. “Well,” many people will say, “what were the British doing in India in the first place?”
In the more “progressive” precincts of the left, the notion of women’s rights has largely been reduced to sexual freedom and reproductive rights. And there is often a subliminal identification of the Muslim faith with the wretched of the earth that inhibits any criticism of those (even brutish misogynists) with a darker pigmentation hailing from what was once deemed the Third World. The American right, for its part, has also turned inward and barely registers how endangered women’s rights have become in the world beyond our borders. Since the disappointments of the Iraq War, American conservatives have found less and less to like about the role of morality in foreign policy, never mind showing solidarity with the oppressed and the downtrodden.
This manifest betrayal of feminism, and the jeopardy in which it has placed multitudes of women, is the theme of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s provocative new book Prey.1 Hirsi Ali’s subject is (as the subtitle says) “immigration, Islam, and the erosion of women’s rights,” but the negative reviews of the book and its author in civic society and the prestige press offer a microcosm of the crisis roiling the West. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups do not even want the book to be read. In a peevish review of Prey, the New York Times’ Jill Filipovic chastised Hirsi Ali for her unapologetic defense of the rights of women in a Europe struggling to cope with mass migration from societies marked by patriarchy and polygamy.
Most readers will be aware that Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born women’s-rights activist with impressive bona fides on this question. After growing up in Muslim communities in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya (and suffering female genital mutilation), Hirsi Ali became a refugee and migrant to the Netherlands (in order to escape an arranged marriage). Having abandoned her faith, she rose to be a Dutch member of parliament and a prominent voice for the protection and empowerment of women in migrant communities. She collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to produce Submission, which criticizes the mistreatment of women in the name of Islam. After Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist fanatic, and Hirsi Ali was pronounced the next target, she began to live under armed guard. Eventually she fled to the United States and became an American citizen.
Hirsi Ali writes with both evident sympathy for traumatized refugee populations and an unflinching belief in the cause of liberal democracy. This uncommon fusion allows Prey to delve intelligently into a devilish issue that has been marked by a ceaseless stream of sentimentalism and sanctimony. The predicament is most acute in Europe, where the connection between large-scale migration from majority-Muslim lands (which often hold regressive views of women’s place in society) and the concomitant dwindling of women’s rights and safety has been unmistakable. The old continent became the cockpit for this story after the hasty decision in 2015 by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to do away with restrictions on the number of asylum-seekers who could come to Germany—and, thanks to the EU’s Schengen Agreement that dissolved internal borders, much of the rest of Western Europe. The result was a chaotic scramble for Europe’s frontiers, which quickly produced a spike in sexual harassment and violence in Europe’s streets and squares. “It is one of the rich ironies of early-twenty-first-century history,” Hirsi Ali writes, “that the single decision that has done the most harm to European women in my lifetime was made by a woman.”
Hirsi Ali freely confesses that compiling robust data about the sexual menace enveloping certain quarters of multiethnic Europe is profoundly difficult, but it is essential if a proper moral and material balance sheet of this decision is ever to be drawn up. Prey doesn’t fail to note that unscrupulous populist parties in Europe, assisted by Russian “information warfare,” have a vested interest in exaggerating the negative side of the ledger, though this hardly means it has been fabricated. Indeed, it should not escape notice that the ruling parties on the continent have an equal and opposite interest in downplaying the negative effects, since cultural segregation and alienation reflect poorly on their governing judgment. A further challenge is that the official data generally understate the problem of sexual violence: A host of factors—from difficulty identifying or apprehending the assailant—deter victims from reporting or successfully prosecuting an offense.
Without purporting to offer a complete picture of this complex phenomenon, Prey nonetheless marshals a wealth of data and presents it to the reader with considerable care and scruple. Almost 3 million people have arrived illegally in Europe since 2009, close to 2 million in 2015 alone. Two-thirds are male, and 80 percent of asylum applicants are under the age of 35. “The intensification of the Syrian civil war,” Hirsi Ali writes, “was the largest proximate cause for the migrant influx.”
Hirsi Ali avoids the routine mistake of imagining that Syrian nationals were the majority of displaced persons who entered Europe after Merkel threw open its gates. Relying on internal data from Frontex (the EU border agency), Frans Timmermans, a left-of-center Dutch politician who serves as the first vice president of the European Commission, has claimed that roughly 60 percent of the migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015 were economic migrants rather than refugees. Anyone who has lately spent any time in Saint-Denis, Malmö, Molenbeek, or Düsseldorf will have no trouble testifying to the ethnic diversity of the multitudes who’ve recently arrived in Europe. And anyone familiar with the current state of Europe’s frontiers, from the Italian island of Lampedusa to the Greek island of Lesbos, can attest to the distinctly multicultural and polyethnic character of the exodus still headed Europe’s way.
Even if the costs of this vast migrant wave are hard to quantify, they can be easily discovered by those who are not determined to miss them. Recall the single worst incident of sexual assault that occurred one night in Cologne, Germany. On December 31, 2015, hundreds of men (most of them newly arrived asylum-seekers of Arab and North African origin) “mobbed together to entrap women” near the city’s grand cathedral during a celebration of what locals call Silvesternacht. Eventually, 661 women came forward to report themselves as victims of sexual attacks that night. The response from the authorities was sluggish, as police and prosecutors did not wish to appear hostile to migrants and minorities or incur the censure of the politically correct public. By the spring of 2019, a mere 52 of the alleged assailants had been indicted, of whom only three were convicted of sex offenses.
The climate of sexual harassment and violence has scarcely been confined to occasions of revelry. The diligent research within the covers of Prey is too various to rehearse here, but a thumbnail sketch will suffice: There was a 17 percent increase in rapes in France from 2017 to 2018; in Germany, the number of victims of rape and “sexual coercion” rose by 41 percent in 2017; and in Sweden, there was a 12 percent increase in reported sex offenses in 2016—alarming trends that may have abated recently, the author explains, only due to fewer social encounters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hirsi Ali contends that all this constitutes strong prima facie evidence “for the view that the surge of immigration into Europe” after 2015 led to “a significant increase in sexual violence in the countries that accommodated the largest numbers of migrants.” This reading does not mistake correlation for causation. Since most European countries don’t report the ethnic background or religion of criminals, conclusions can only be tentative. But in countries that do collect and publish data, a striking causal relationship emerges between increased migration and increased sexual violence. Since 2009 in Austria, for instance, sex offenses increased by 11.8 percent. “Of the 936 rape cases reported in 2018, more than half of the suspects (55 percent) were not Austrian citizens. In 2017, asylum-seekers were suspects in 11 percent of all reported rapes and sexual-harassment cases in Austria, despite making up less than 1 percent of the total population.” Danish authorities also input the ethnic background of criminals in their database. In Denmark, non-Western immigrants and their descendants account for a high proportion of convictions for sex offenses.
A great number of Muslims and others who have recently arrived in Europe undoubtedly embarked on the perilous journey for the same noble purposes that once stirred a young Hirsi Ali—seeking asylum and the chance for a better life. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they have bright economic prospects in advanced market democracies, nor does it mean they are primed to integrate smoothly in the host societies, especially when so many Europeans lack the will to acculturate newcomers to Western norms and laws. It doesn’t help matters that the migrants in question are overwhelmingly drawn from traditional societies with benighted views on the rights of minorities within minorities: Among these double minorities are gay Muslims, feminist Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims. And women—the largest minority—are often treated as “commodities.”
The derelict states and illiberal societies inspiring so much human flight are particularly wrenching environments for this half of the population. In these lands, women and girls are exposed to all manner of mistreatment and brutality. Writing with firsthand knowledge of some of these torments, Hirsi Ali explains that across the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, it is not out of the ordinary for women to be “killed, raped, enslaved, beaten, confined, and debased.” She goes on: “Female fetuses are aborted and baby girls abandoned. Girls are denied education or have their genitals cut and sewn. Girls and young women are forced into marriage with men they hardly know.”
Of course, upon reaching European soil, many migrants have a decided preference, as Hirsi Ali once did, to adapt to local customs and become productive members of their new society. Although she fully acknowledges this in Prey, the number isn’t presumed to constitute a majority. In fact, a not insignificant percentage of the predominantly male migrant population tends to regard Western doctrines of gender equality and sexual liberalism as an affront to their religion and way of life. Some are given to anti-social behaviors, open anti-Semitism, and in extreme cases may be vulnerable to recruitment by jihad. These men, Hirsi Ali explains, “see no reason to alter their views simply because they now live in Western Europe.”
WHAT’S NOTABLE, beyond the bounds of the book, is the tremendous slander and calumny to which Hirsi Ali has been treated by the political left for refusing to bite her tongue about the subjection of women in today’s world. Progressives of various sorts have learned to shudder at her full-throated denunciation of the miseries inflicted on women by the violent votaries of a patriarchal faith. Following a tested pattern of decrying Hirsi Ali’s “Enlightenment fundamentalism,” even self-described feminists such as Filipovic have rushed to indict Prey for its “illiberalism” and “absolutism.” Filipovic insists the book promotes nothing more than a “feminism of reaction.” She even purports to detect elements of “bigotry” in Hirsi Ali’s brief against Europe’s one-way multiculturalism and its accommodation of old orthodoxies.
This is representative of a growing tendency on the left to defend nearly any belief or behavior that goes under the banner of Islam. Since the denizens of an ancient faith centered in the Arabian Peninsula are widely considered victims of racism and colonialism (even the perpetrators of sexual or political violence among them), they enjoy considerable deference from the virtuous elite in the West. The principles of anti-racism seem to dictate staunch opposition to their critics and foes. This way of thinking is made more plausible because a large number of those arguing that there is a dangerous anti-women problem among Muslim immigrants are openly xenophobic and throw in with the forces of populist nationalism disfiguring political culture across the West.
Filipovic recycles the cheap slander pushed by the Southern Poverty Law Center that Hirsi Ali is an anti-Muslim “extremist” (Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer, successfully sued the SPLC for defamation after being similarly accused). “She calls herself an ‘infidel,’” Filipovic writes of Hirsi Ali, “while many Muslims say she’s just an Islamophobe.” In fact, it was the Muslim sadist and fanatic who butchered Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, and who told her that she was next on the list, who deemed Hirsi Ali an “infidel fundamentalist.”
It is true that some Muslims and non-Muslims who play the dull game of moral equivalence in the West allege that she is an Islamophobe. But what of it? The facile association of Islam with the poor and the vulnerable has long been expressed in the stupid neologism “Islamophobia,” which seeks to promote criticism of Islam to the rank of special offenses associated with racism. This freighted term obliterates the distinction between criticism of religious dogma (even heresy or blasphemy) and anti-Muslim bigotry. A Europe that observed this crucial distinction would, as Hirsi Ali recommends, devise a new approach to integration that privileged immigrants who conformed to the values of the societies giving them sanctuary. A Europe too morally or intellectually enfeebled to do so will continue to do immeasurable harm to individuals traduced by the most reactionary elements in the “faith community” of Islam: Both to the minorities within minorities and other targets of Islamist wrath—Hirsi Ali, here, has the honor of being counted twice.
The widespread reluctance to address the crisis of Islam has allowed predatory violence and religious fundamentalism to become entrenched within many Muslim communities around the world. Raging against “Islamophobia,” the modern Western dispensation bears the marks of Islamophilia. The feminists who have taken such a soft and conciliatory line on the nexus between large-scale migration and reactionary Islam have outdone the most committed misogynists, because they have insidiously rolled back women’s rights in ways that would’ve been unimaginable a few decades ago. And these rights will be hard to recover. Squeamish feminists took what was supposed to be the crowning glory of modernity—women’s freedom to live by no man’s leave—and instead of enlarging its circle to lands where the civil rights of women are radically circumscribed, it emboldened and empowered those promulgating contempt for Enlightenment values near and far.
This tension forms what Hirsi Ali calls “the feminist predicament.” In the very recent past, the feminist mission has been challenged, and undermined, by issues of racism, religion, and intersectionality. “Liberal feminists today care more about the question of Palestinian statehood,” she writes, “than the mistreatment of Palestinian women at the hands of their fathers and husbands. In the battle of the vices, sexism has been trumped by racism.” This is undoubtedly true and is itself a symptom of the sloppy equation between the proletarian masses and the Islamic faith. (That the Palestinians, about 20 percent of whom were Christian until their numbers began to decline, have become an “Islamic” cause in the Western mind is only one symptom of such sloppiness.)
It cannot be said too often—indeed, it is not being said nearly often enough—that human rights are universal, and the failure to assert this claim is not anti-racist but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the imperialists of old never dreamed of. Without renewed vigor among Europeans to secure hard-won liberties and foster respect for liberal values, the machismo of unassimilated newcomers will only blur the divide between the Levant or the Mahgreb or the Hindu Kush and the old and famous capitals of Europe.
Whenever Europe decides to think more seriously about its duties to the women and girls in its care, it will find it has little choice but to follow the path Ayaan Hirsi Ali has laid down. Until then, the most vulnerable among them will be compelled to walk alone in streets ruled by the customs of others.
1 Harper, 348 pages
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