If you leave meat uncovered on the street and a cat eats it, whose fault is it? The problem is not the cat, but the uncovered meat. Growing up, Ayaan Hirsi Ali heard this kind of attitude from her grandmother in Somalia. It’s a loathsome attitude widespread in societies defined by Islamic culture: if only the victim of a sexual assault or rape had stayed at home, or worn her hijab, then no problem would have occurred.
When Hirsi Ali fled to a new life in the Netherlands, she marveled at the freedom and independence that women in Europe enjoy. One obvious difference: Instead of body-concealing sheets and headscarves, they dressed however they pleased, and were free to leave home unchaperoned. Having gained asylum, Hirsi Ali herself rose to become a member of parliament, and later a public intellectual.
But today, she believes, parts of Europe are beginning to take on the oppressive attitudes of cultures that “explicitly downgrade women’s rights.” In Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, she examines an issue many prefer to ignore: the repercussions of mass immigration to Europe from Muslim-majority countries. “Talking about violence by Muslim men against European women is unfashionable in an age of identity politics, when we are supposed to operate within a partly historical matrix of victimhood.” It is even harder, she notes, when the topic is a “favorite of Russian agents of disinformation as well as ‘alt-right’ trolls.” She rejects both fashionable denial and xenophobic fearmongering, and instead strives to understand the actual scale of the problem and its causes.
One unsubtle sign of the problem was an incident in the German city of Cologne, on New Year’s Eve 2015. In the square near the city’s cathedral, some 1,500 men of Arab and North African backgrounds massed together. These men, mostly asylum seekers, sexually harassed and assaulted seemingly any women they could grab. Some victims described being separated from friends or husbands, and “pushed inside ‘hell circles’ of young migrant men.” The men “groped women and girls, no matter their age, appearance or circumstances, grabbing their breasts and between their legs. One woman described several men trying to insert their fingers into her vagina.” Some assaults went on for upwards of thirty minutes.
That night in Cologne calls to mind the horrific “rape game” (taharrush gamea, in Arabic), known in North Africa. It’s a practice made infamous, Hirsi Ali notes, by the ordeal that Lara Logan, a CBS journalist, experienced in Cairo’s thronged Tahrir Square. Covering the so-called Arab Spring protests in 2011, she was separated from her camera crew, swarmed by a gang of men who tore her clothes off, and violently raped her with “sticks, flag poles, hands — at a certain point I lost track,” for at least twenty minutes. In Cologne, 661 women “reported being victims of sexual attacks that night.”
One of the major claims of Hirsi Ali’s book is that there’s a more-than-anecdotal relationship between a rise in sexual violence against women in Europe and the influx of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, particularly since the mid-2010s. It’s a strong claim, for which the data are difficult to piece together. The legal definition of rape, for instance, varies from one country to another, and there’s often a lag time in publishing the data. Nevertheless, Hirsi Ali and her research team sifted through the data that they could find and went to Europe to verify claims in news reports. While acknowledging that in some countries the definitions for certain sex-related crimes had changed, Hirsi Ali contends plausibly that such redefinitions are insufficient to explain the findings.
The rates of “either rape or sexual assault went up between 2014 and 2017 in every European country for which data are available” and “in some countries — notably Denmark and England — they went up a lot, roughly doubling in the case of Denmark.” In that country, Hirsi Ali reports, “‘non-Western’ immigrants and their descendants” account for “around two-fifths of rape convictions and between a quarter and a third of groping convictions — even though they make up less than 13 percent of the population.” In Germany, asylum seekers constituted only 1 or 2 percent of the population from 2015, but they were “disproportionately responsible for sex crimes included in the statistics, making up nearly 12 percent of suspects by 2018,” and responsible for 16.3 percent of grievous sex crimes, such as rape.
To understand this phenomenon, Hirsi Ali argues, we need to take seriously two major causal factors: the ideas and cultural attitudes that many people from Muslim-majority countries bring with them, and the irrational decisions and self-deluded policies of European authorities.
Many asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries brought with them their society’s endemic contempt for women. She cites a UN survey of more than four thousand men in Morocco, Egypt, Palestinian areas, and Lebanon which found that between one-third and two-thirds of men admitted to sexually harassing women in public. Women are reduced to commodities, useful only for their capacity to bear children, and therefore subjected to a “modesty doctrine.” Hirsi Ali regards such attitudes as tied to and reinforced by Islamic ideas. “More than any other major religion,” she writes, “Islam formalizes the subordination of women.”
This problem is compounded by the failed policies and self-delusion of European governments. Programs to integrate immigrants are well established, but according to Hirsi Ali, their ineffectiveness is an “open secret.” For example, of the refugees arriving in Netherlands in the 1990s, only 55 percent were working fifteen years later. In the early 2000s, the Dutch government spent upwards of 16 billion euros on integration programs across sixteen years, with little to show for it. There are laws in various European countries that require asylum seekers convicted of certain crimes to be deported, but Hirsi Ali reports that this doesn’t happen consistently. In Sweden, for instance, only about one-third of repatriations actually take place.
Hirsi Ali describes a pattern of government officials looking the other way and staying silent, lest they appear to be xenophobic. Take the incident in Cologne. What was the official response? Police officers on the scene reportedly ignored women who came to them with complaints or else turned them away. A police statement on New Year’s Day claimed the evening had been “largely peaceful.” It was only after a groundswell of posts on social media and coverage in news outlets, that the authorities released information about the attacks and the perpetrators. Moreover, it turned out that smaller-scale gang assaults had occurred that night in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, and Bielefeld.
The pattern extends beyond Germany. That same year in Sweden, at the “We Are Sthlm” summer festival, a group of some fifty young asylum seekers preyed on women at the event. Even though “thirty-eight sex offenses had been reported on girls as young as 14,” Hirsi Ali writes, Swedish police stated that the event had had “relatively few crimes.” Months later, “fearing a backlash like the one that had followed events in Cologne, Swedish police came clean. Revealingly, Södermalm police chief Peter Ågren said that one reason for the cover-up was to avoid provoking racism or ‘play into the hands of the Swedish Democrats,’ Sweden’s rightwing populist party.” Hirsi Ali believes that European leaders have come to fear that if they speak about the rise in sexual violence against women, they would be seen as “xenophobic” or as appearing to give “ground to actual xenophobes.” Instead, they would rather “cover up the problem and leave victims at risk.”
The book describes several legal cases in which a foreign-born rapist is handed a lenient sentence or acquitted; for instance, because he was intoxicated, or because the victim could not prove it was non-consensual sex. Some judges, Hirsi Ali writes, “make allowances for migrant sex offenders’ lack of understanding of Western women’s sexual self-determination,” and she refers to a German case in which “the court had no doubt the victim had been raped,” but the offender was acquitted. “It is not only judges who make excuses for criminal behavior by young migrant men; politicians, mayors, bureaucrats, journalists, academics, community spokespeople, and refugee advocates all offer a variety of rationalizations and in some cases downright denials.”
Although the book powerfully illustrates this pattern of evasion and appeasement, the analysis of what drives it is underdeveloped. The chapter on feminism offers a useful observation. Why have European feminists been conspicuously silent about the rise in sexual violence against women? Part of the answer, Hirsi Ali believes, is that within the feminist movement “the concept of women’s rights yielded to the new ideals of multiculturalism and intersectionality.” Judging from Hirsi Ali’s book, Europeans broadly have been impacted by the notion of “multiculturalism,” which I think of as teaching people that it is wrong to judge certain ideas — notably, individual freedom — as superior to the ideas of other cultures, such as the Islamic subordination of women.
The problems documented in Hirsi Ali’s book predate the immigrant surge of the mid-2010s. In her view, the failure of past attempts at integration can be seen in the phenomenon of “parallel societies” — neighborhoods where immigrants and their children live in a kind of cultural bubble. Where Islamic norms and the customs prevail, so does contempt for women’s sovereignty. And there’s strong evidence that the pattern of denial and evasion at various levels of government — from local police to city councils and up — began long ago. That’s manifest in the scandal over “grooming gangs” in the United Kingdom.
Between 1997 and 2013, in numerous UK cities, gangs of men befriended underage girls from impoverished homes and offered them “gifts” of food, alcohol, drugs, and attention, and then coerced them into having sex. Some were drugged and raped. One thirteen-year-old was “repeatedly raped by groups of men, sometimes in an underground car park, where they had spray painted her name and the word ‘corner’ on the wall.” All told, these “grooming gangs” sexually exploited some 1,400 girls.
It turned out that most of the perpetrators convicted (84 percent by one account) were of “South Asian” origins (meaning, mainly Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi). One man from the Newcastle gang expressed the view that “All white women are only good for one thing — for men like me to fuck and use like trash.” A ringleader of the gang in Rochdale told victims that in his country, girls as young as eleven had sex. While beating his victims, another perpetrator recited the Quran.
What made the “grooming gangs” scandal still more horrifying was the attitude of many local governments. According to a 2016 inquiry that Hirsi Ali quotes in the book:
The case of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was a catastrophic example of authorities turning a blind eye to harm in order to avoid the need to confront a particular community. . . . Destroying evidence of perpetrator ethnicity and shutting down services was preferable to confronting criminals from a minority ethnic community; such was their fear of offending local cultural sensitivities.
Prey is a brave attempt to look unblinkingly at a phenomenon so many prefer to look away from. When considering solutions, Hirsi Ali rejects the “populist” demand for halting all immigration. Herself an immigrant twice over, she supports immigration but with a real commitment to reforming Europe’s broken system and integration policies. Of the policy recommendations she offers, some are a good start (such as rethinking the asylum and refugee system; limiting access to welfare benefits). And, crucially, she’s right that immigrants should be expected not just to learn the rudiments of the language, but must also “be willing to adopt the values of the country that has given them sanctuary.”
That’s the deeper challenge, which entails more than policy changes. One conclusion to draw from Hirsi Ali’s book is that Europe’s immigration failures — enabled by denial and appeasement — are symptoms of a moral-intellectual vacuum. To fill that vacuum entails understanding, and articulating confidently, the rational ideals, principles and values that underpin a free society. Above all, to undo the cultural retrogression that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is warning about requires thoroughgoing recognition of the individual’s moral sovereignty over her own life.