Deutsche Welle: We still don’t know much about the men who sexually harassed and attacked a large number of women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. We hear that they come from Islamic countries, where couples are not allowed to hold hands or kiss in public, and where women have to cover themselves up. What kind of effect does such a strict code of behavior have on the way young men in this region come to view women and sexuality?
Lale Akgün: Tenderness, love or just being together as a couple is completely separate from sexuality. Sexuality is seen as something bad or terrible, only to be tolerated in marriage for the purpose of procreation. That’s why for men in these countries, sexuality is taboo. But in western Europe, they experience just the opposite. Women hold hands with their partner in public, they dress in a more revealing manner. For these men, women who don’t live according to the teaching of their imams in their mosques are whores, objects of lust and contempt.
So they have two extremes: the honorable, virtuous women, and the dishonorable ones?
These men can think of women only in terms of good and evil. Women are there to tempt men. The Koran even says that a woman is worth one-half of a man, which shows you how patriarchal Islam is. And many Muslims still believe that Islam is not a faith, but a way of life. I am a Muslim, and for me, religion is something private, something for my soul. For fundamentalists, it defines the way they live. They are not able to reconcile their beliefs with the modern world. Their faith is tied to a value system and a lifestyle that is still stuck in the Arabian peninsula of the seventh century.
Lale Akgün, former German politician of the Social Democrats
How can an Islamist fundamentalist ideology of women even exist in modern society?
Because of that moment when Islam becomes political. In the 1980s, people ignored the fundamentalist tendencies. Back then, people thought that it was a development that society would just have to bear. We bore it and ignored it until it began to impact us at home. One example is the stylization of the headscarf as something that enriches our multicultural society. That is nonsense. Headscarves are a sign of female oppression. Anyone who supports this particular image of women shouldn’t be surprised when men in the same community view women who don’t wear headscarves as “loose.”
Has a sort of parallel world been created because of the tolerance and freedom of religion here?
Freedom of religion is not a parallel world, as long as religion remains something that is private. But when religion is politicized and requires political decisions to be made, then that’s not something we should just politely accept. This is the point where it interferes in our lives. For example, when I as a mother have to think about whether or not to allow my daughter to be taught by a teacher who wears a headscarf. Do I want my daughter to be exposed to the kind of ideology that says women have to cover themselves up in front of men? If you don’t acknowledge that these things are connected, then the young men who grope women on the street could seem like an isolated phenomenon. But they’re not; they’re part of a bigger problem.
But being raised and taught our societal values doesn’t happen primarily through religion; rather, it’s the result of parenting. What kind of role do women play in Muslim families? Can’t they intervene and correct such views of women?
Men can only hold onto the power they have if they maintain the status quo. And that only works if they make sure that women understand that their system is the better one. They say, for example: Look at how these European women are being exploited. They have to work, raise children and do everything. But you can stay home, make yourself look pretty and look forward to your husband coming home in the evening. We, and by that I mean German society, have become too comfortable with this kind of role assignment in conservative Islam. One example: If we allow newly-arrived migrant women to take female-only German classes because their husbands would otherwise not permit them to take part, then that is the wrong approach. We have to make it clear to these people: If you want to benefit from our social system and have a good life here, then you have to accept our social norms.
Who is responsible for this conservative, backwards trend? People, the media, politics, religion?
If you see what kind of ideology the Central Council of Muslims supports, then it is clear that integration cannot be left to such associations. Not unless you want to make the current problems even worse. Islam doesn’t need any such associations. These associations are a desperate attempt by politics to have contacts within the scene. If politicians don’t do a U-turn and instead continue to cooperate with these conservative Islamic associations, then in the coming decades, you will find that conservative Islam has established itself here in Germany.
Lale Akgün (SPD) was a member of parliament from 2002 until 2008. Originally from Turkey, she now lives in Cologne, where she has long been an expert on the intersection of fundamentalist Islam and German society.