Review – Prey: Islam, Immigration and the Erosion of Women’s Rights by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that Muslim immigration is diminishing women’s rights in Europe in a way that is measurable and sustained. She makes an empirical case for asylum seekers and recent immigrants perpetrating an out-of-proportion number of sexual crimes, and contributing to a de facto culture of seclusion in which – at least in some parts of the European continent – women venture outside less than their male peers and partake less in society.

These are dramatic and stark accusations, and have largely been rejected out of hand. Hirsi Ali’s book Prey: Islam, Immigration and the Erosion of Women’s Rights has been only sporadically reviewed. It has been praised by a variety of conservative outlets, and either ignored or dismissed as hypocritical and wrongheaded by Left-wing ones. These responses were essentially guaranteed. They were made inevitable not only by the contents of Hirsi Ali’s previous five books and the love she attracts from friends and the dislike in which she is held by her critics, but also by the nature of the argument she proposes. It is visceral and sharp. Those looking to accuse her of stirring up this and that need not look far.

Examining which demographic groups commit which crimes, Hirsi Ali is clear that she is on uneven footing because of the state of the evidence available. The reporting and conviction rates for sexual offenses are notoriously low, and the definitions of sexual crimes vary by country, making accurate statistics very difficult to come by – difficult to find in the first place, difficult to evaluate thereafter, and more difficult still to compare. To take just one example: the last time Sweden released data publicly on the immigration status of criminals was 1996. It has been left to enterprising sociologists and newspapers to commission their own surveys ever since, with predictably polarised results.

In evidence, I will reproduce some figures collected in Hirsi Ali’s tables: for Denmark, according to the country’s statistics bureau, between 2014 and 2018, the number of rape convictions handed down to ‘non-Western immigrants and their descendants’ never fell below 39 percent, and was in 2014 as high as 47 per cent of the total. The proportion of groping convictions given to the same group in the same period was 21 percent of the total in 2014, 26 percent the year after, 28 percent in 2016, 35 percent in 2017, and in 2018 it was at 18 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of all sexual offenses committed by the same group is notably lower, fluctuating between 11 and 21 percent.

Hirsi Ali is more subtle than her critics may allow by drawing few didactic conclusions from such opaque data; it is not only the tendentious who might suspect that the absence of clear statistics is purposeful. She accepts the variance by country, by region, and often by methods of recording. She does, however, allow, as many interior ministries do, that foreigners of all kinds are in general overrepresented in crime figures, including sexual offenses. In France, foreigners are 7 percent of the population, but 14 percent of sexual crime suspects. Between 2014 and 2018, the proportion of non-Germans who were suspected of sexual violence in that country rose from 18 to 29 percent. Asylum seekers in Germany are more likely to be suspected of each category of crime than their proportion of the population (the aggregate figure is 8.3 per cent); and they are slightly more likely again (9 per cent) to be suspected of sexual crimes.

Hirsi Ali attributes most of this rise in sexual crimes to the Mediterranean refugee crisis after the Arab Spring began ten years ago, notably increasing in 2015 with the German acceptance of one million asylum seekers and the aggregate rise in migration across the continent. This precipitated a rise in the general population, and especially – because young men were more likely to make such a difficult journey – in the male population aged between 15 and 40, the very demographic most likely, by a distressing margin, to commit sexual crimes. In individual jurisdictions, the evidence is indeed of a proportionate increase in crime, including sexual crimes, from 2014-5, and especially after 2017.

Yet, as Hirsi Ali herself notes, for all of the above numbers, there is still little to go on. Firm conclusions about sexual violence run into endless institutional roadblocks.

Whether one agrees with Hirsi Ali or not that the culture of recent arrivals is behind this rise in sex crimes – we’re coming to that – there is the question of whether it could be tackled by purely technical measures. The unfortunate truth is that the broad measures popular with the publics in Europe and Britain to deter and punish sexual violence – including longer prison sentences and more aggressive policing – are rather limited in what they can do, at least in the present circumstances where threats of deportation for violent immigrants, say, are not credible; it is understood by all sides that such things are rarely carried out.

If administrative action alone cannot work, then the discussion of culture has to be had. Hirsi Ali points to a number of upsetting examples: young men from places like Tunisia, Afghanistan, and Syria groping girls in swimming pools and raping women who were out walking. More instructively, she points to specific behaviours that are clearly alien to the host countries. In particular, she dedicates no small space to taharrush gamea, literally translated as ‘collective harassment,’ but which has become more freely translates as ‘the rape game’: mass, public sex attacks. This phenomenon is best-known from Egypt; several female Western journalists suffered such an ordeal covering the protests in 2011, including one who was gang raped actually during a broadcast. In Germany, New Years’ Eve 2015/2016 has become an infamous case study. These sort of attacks, which do not make for a high proportion of the total instances of sexual violence, are particularly frightening and leave an outsize imprint on public consciousness; the fact that the police seem unable to halt them only makes this worse.

In covering the mass assaults on women in Cologne in December 2015 or the ‘grooming gangs’ in British towns, Hirsi Ali points to their common features: groups of men from Muslim-majority societies attacking one or more women together. She could have added that in both instances the police inaction – and refusal to accept that these things were happening after they were informed – meant that crimes not only went unpunished; criminals were not even identified. Hirsi Ali describes these events as fitting essentially no pattern, except an assumed motivation: contempt for the female victims that meant perpetrators felt justified.

This is worth discussing in terms of causes and consequences. Young men and boys from patriarchal cultures are more likely to do these things, Hirsi Ali argues. But all is not lost – they can be taught mandatory sex education in countries with secular systems of education. And, so long as they are subject to the same laws as the rest, those laws can be enforced and strengthened. More significant than this, perhaps, are the consequences for authority. For a time, police forces did not uncover ‘grooming gangs’ or try to address their members’ connections, and did not deal with events like the Cologne mass assault with the determined seriousness they demand. There is reason to believe that the right lessons can still be learned from these sad instances, and there is some indication of this beginning among the MPs and police officials interviewed in the book.

Hirsi Ali associates this also with a broader trend of women being slowly driven from public life. In some parts of some European cities, she writes, women are not to be seen on the seats outside restaurants; to walk into certain cafes as a woman is to be stared at and verbally accosted. And by some measures, harassment on the street has also increased. This is the product, she writes, of unintegrated areas, where the habits of the old country reassert themselves unchallenged, and a kind of de facto male guardianship keeps the women indoors. It is an eye-catching threat, but not an irresolvable problem.

Such is the great majority of Prey. Many of its worst incidents could be solved or mitigated by the police and border authorities better doing their jobs. Most of the cultural problems it describes could be drawn down by integration models which work and are not built upon rent-seeking consultancy. A tougher system of criminal justice would punish sexual criminals of all backgrounds. Hirsi Ali does advocate for all of these things. But because of her back-catalogue, and because of the asides the book sometimes almost disappears into, it was never likely those aspects of her argument would emerge into the light of day and the heat of discussion.

This essay was originally published at European Eye on Radicalization.

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