Special Reports / Migrant crisis - after Cologne events

Crime is a crime, the rest is racism

Richard Sennett in conversation with Adam Puchejda · 20 January 2016

When you heard about the assaults on women in Köln, were you surprised?

That’s not the right question. It is not a question of cultural identity or anything like that, it’s a crime. It shouldn’t have been covered up out of some misplaced sense of political correctness, of not wanting to stereotype the group, and the people who did it should be punished. What happened is just wrong, it’s a criminal act and people who committed it should be treated as criminals. And it doesn’t matter who they are.

I agree, but some experts pointed out that the events in Köln were very similar to what happened in 2011 during the Arab Spring on the Tahir Square in Cairo, when hundreds of men also sexually harassed women.

Why do you think that’s important? Does it say something about Islam to you? That’s the implication of your question.

The implication is that maybe we should have been prepared.

I totally reject the idea behind what you say. It becomes a form of racism, very familiar to us in the US: all blacks take drugs, blacks have a problem with drugs. It’s outrageous. You have to think like a Kantian about this. If young Arab men have a problem with women, that’s a cultural issue. When the problem becomes a crime, then its treated as a crime, and the racist aspect of it falls away. That’s my view. I just think it’s a much cleaner thing, when something like this happens, to treat it as legal violation of another human being rather than searching for a cultural explanation of “why”. I’m not interested in it.

You are not interested in “why” this happened?

No, and for a very practical reason. The moment we start having a discussion about Islam and gendered violence, we stop having a discussion about what’s actually being done, and we have a discussion about motivation. To me, that’s wrong. I’m not interested in the motivation for a crime. I’m interested in that it’s been committed and that it will be punished. And the fact that the police didn’t act to protect these young women in Köln has a lot to do with the calculations they’re making about “why” in politics. If they went after those men, they could have been accused of being anti-Islamic.

So who is to blame for this?

The police is to blame for not acting. They should’ve been out in force.

Just to be clear, for you this is not a problem of many young men from a different culture coming to the streets and doing certain things?

The problem for me is they shouldn’t be allowed to harass women. That’s the real problem. It is not that there are many young men who come from Syria or Afghanistan. They’re here, they have to obey the laws of our country. If they don’t obey them, they should be punished. The moment that your start dealing with questions of cultural motivation, you are on a very slippery slope where the discussion is “why are Islamic men like that”. That slides into racism.

Something like this has not happened before, so people ask questions „why”, and they link these two aspects, the cultural and the political.

It happened because they are young Muslim men and they’re refugees. Ergo no more acceptance of refugees. That’s the logic of what you’re talking about. To me, this is unacceptable. Furthermore, you have a million refugees in Europe now. These include 200-300 criminals. Is that a big number? If you took a million Europeans, a million Poles, would you find 200-300 criminals?

Probably a lot more.

So why talk about it? Why not just persecute them? One solution is to get rid of the refugees. Europe should be only for our native, sexist harassers. That’s one answer. What’s another? Screen people as they come through the border: We know that you are a Muslim young man – are you also a sexual predator?

I think it is all part of a very convenient phenomenon of “Fortress Europe thinking”. I’ll give you a parallel issue in the US. There is a Mexican drug cartel which brings drugs across border from Mexico to the US, and one solution to this is Donald Trump’s, which is to deport all Mexicans who don’t have papers, all 13 million of them. That’s a racist solution. Close the border. Should we be like them? Is this what we want in Europe?

Me, personally, I don’t want that.

I know you’re trying to provoke me.

Well, I’m just saying that there are some serious people who tell us that we should look into it, not only as an issue of politics and law enforcement, but the problem of different cultures being maybe not in conflict, but there is tension.

That’s what I reject. I think these problems should not be looked at as a cultural issue. They should be looked at as a crime and treated as a crime. We don’t know, since these men have not been tracked down, whether they were refugees or not, but the discourse is that automatically they must be refugees. Ergo we have to do something to control the refugees in order to control the sexual harassment.

Police has confirmed that many of those men where immigrants and asylum seekers.

Can we deport them? The real issue in this is that we start having a cultural discourse on whether a million Muslim men are more prone to sexual harassment than a million young Poles. Racism is the inevitable result.

Do you think these events will change something in Germany and in Europe?

Yes, I think it will encourage the far Right. What you were talking about has a great knock-off effect. For instance, here in Britain events in Köln are being used by the far Right to argue that Britain should get out of Europe, because if we’re part of it, if we’re too closely bound to it, we’ll be too closely bound to Muslim men problem. That’s the argument already being made here. The larger picture is that it is very rare to have so many migrants, so many refugees flowing to Europe in such a short space of time. Another million at least coming next year. It’s traumatizing and it is a natural reaction to look for some reason why should keep them out.

So what can we do about it?

There are lots of things that can be done about the refugee crisis, but they have nothing to do with the culture of young Islamic men, with conflating two things with each other. We haven’t had a fair distribution of these refugees. The only two countries that have really made an effort are Sweden and Germany. Poles had a kind of shameful, very racist reaction, the Brits as well. And it’s a point where the European Union is not a political union and it’s supposed to be. I’m part of a group which is dealing with more immediate issues about the refugee crisis, it is linked to the UN, and it is about how to get people sheltered, how to improve their living conditions, provide them with food, etc. And one effect of Europe saying „go away” is that there will be, there is in the making, a horrible humanitarian crisis. And that has to be solved internationally. Instead, we have discussions like this, oh, they should not have come, they are too foreign, which is a way of saying, you’ll freeze to death.

How can you convince those people – Poles, Hungarians, others – to accept the refugees?

Well, I don’t know. You have to tell me. It is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery to most foreigners. It’s as though your high culture and your social life have very little to do with each other. In Hungary, it’s the same thing.

That way we go back to the problem of culture.

But it’s also a practical question, because these refugees need help. They couldn’t get any help in Greece, because Greece in itself is too poor. There is no mechanism in Greece, because the EU failed to distribute it equitably. There weren’t people from the EU organizing boats and planes to get people to other countries. So I think it’s going to crack the European Union apart and I think it is going to be helped along with that kind of culturalism you are describing. Oh, we are not going to anything, we will let these people freeze to death because they are culturally different.

I must oppose, I don’t think that Poles, the ordinary Poles, are indifferent to what is happening. They are simply afraid.

So that means that the government will follow rather than lead.

What can we do to change the attitude of the elites? They say for example that we cannot invite so many refugees in, because our economy is not strong enough to absorb all those people, to host everyone.

That I can understand. There has to be a reasonable distribution, what the economy can absorb. Britain, where I live, is quite a different case to you. We have been with lots of Polish guest workers, we have a labor shortage in this country, and it is treated as Europe’s problem. We will take 5000 refugees a year for the next five years, while at the same time we have about 200,000 Eastern Europeans who immigrate to Britain every year. And there’s still labor shortage. United States, which has a very low unemployment rate, and is taking in 7500 refugees a year.

That’s nothing.

Nothing. These are countries that should have been doing what Germany has done and they weren’t. It’s a breakdown in political organization, very practical political organization. Saying that there is a humanitarian crisis, and let them die, or we deal with it, and if we deal with it, who are the responsible parties that can deal with it? And that would be the US in the first instance, but Britain could help, Australia, huge labor shortage, but it’s where the political class just says, oh, it’s so terrible and there are so many cultural problems, it might be so dangerous to let those people in… So you see why I’m skeptical about this. Conflating these issues with the refugee problem is saying we are not going to manage the refugee problem, and that means we’ll have another year, another million displaced people. To the best of the UN knowledge, there is 6,5 million displaced Syrians. Out of that 6,5 million, some are going to come to Europe. It’s not a question of whether they should come, they are going to come, they’re coming.

So the European Union will collapse because of that.

I think so.

And what next? Refugees will still be there.

I don’t know. My crystal ball is cloudy. But the thing that I and the group that I belong to is focused on is the humanitarian problem, and this culturalism is only going to make it worse.

And do you think that intellectuals can do something about these public discussions?

We haven’t managed to so far. We have absolutely no influence on the British government.

Your outlook is very pessimistic then.

Well, yes, it is pessimistic, but what I am convinced about is that at least we are clear about what’s happened, and not doing this kind of cultural stigmatizing, which is what you are quoting to me as the explanation for not doing anything, or trying to close the borders.

Still the problem is not solved and we don’t even know how to begin solving it.

Yes, that’s right. Let’s put it this way, if you conflate the cultural and the criminal you make the problem more insoluble.

John Gray says that politics is about solving insoluble problems, trying to figure out what to do with these kinds of problems. So if we are not ready to do anything about this, it means that it is not only the European Union that will collapse and we will go back to the nation states, it means also that we will have a problem with politics as such.

That’s right. It is a very serious issue. What’s politics about if it’s not about this? But it also means that every nation state becomes a kind of fortress. That’s why I think your line of questioning is malign. That’s a greater danger. And we need to see this the way Kant would have seen it, which is that a crime is a crime, treated that way, no matter who commits it. And I think it’s a realistic one in this context.

“Fortress Europe” may also mean a different configuration of the European Union, in which Eastern countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia will be kicked out of the EU?

I wouldn’t say they would be kicked out. If the EU actually found the solution that was a fair distribution of the refugees, and Eastern Europeans didn’t want this solution, they might leave. Just as the Brits are going to.

Precisely, and the European Union would be for example Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy only.

It’s a terrible prospect and I think it could really happen next year because there will be more refugees. If you would have said to somebody, yes, live in a refugee tent for the next year, the European Union is very precious, you know, we can’t threaten it, no refugee will say, of course, I will stay where I am. This is not a problem of the agency of the refugees.

But often times, I don’t know about the discourse in Poland, but here it’s about the outsiders being presented as parasites. Poles are considered that way by the Brits, who often think that immigrants want our welfare, and refugees are just another figure in that landscape – they are parasites. It’s a crisis that could break Europe apart.

This is a kind of language that we haven’t heard since 1930s in Germany.

Exactly.