MADRID'S Islamic Cultural Centre has wholeheartedly condemned the sexual assaults on hundreds of women in Cologne, Germany on New Year's Eve perpetrated mainly by men of Arab origin, but has appealed to the national community not to let this cloud their views of Middle Eastern war refugees.
An estimated thousand or so men gathered outside Cologne station and in the square outside attacked at least 170 women – numbers which may rise when they have all reported the incident – groping them, forcing themselves upon them, and in some cases stealing their mobile phones.
One rape has been reported, but more are expected to come out of the woodwork, and of the 31 arrested so far four are from Syria, one from Iraq, two from Iran, two German, one Bosnian and the rest Moroccan and Algerian.
Women reporting the assaults all described the attackers – whom they had no choice but to walk past because of their blocking the exits – as being of 'north African or Arab origin' based upon their accents and facial features.
The so-called 'M-30 mosque', Madrid's main cultural community meeting place for the city's Muslims, issued a statement stressing its 'amazement and indignation' at the news, but said it was 'very concerned' how security forces quoted in the news have 'linked the attacks with asylum-seekers and the opening of borders to refugees'.
Asylum-seekers in any country are not allowed outside of secure immigration centres until their application has been processed, meaning the information is misleading and the persons in question would either have been 'regular' migrants or officially-recognised refugees.
“It is truly worrying, and we wish to point out that just because a small number of Arabs or men with Arab-like features, who only number a few dozen anyway, know nothing about human values or ethics, does not mean they should taint the image of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers nor damage the reputation of millions of Arabs and Muslims who live in Europe,” the mosque leaders state.
After slamming the New Year's Eve assaults, the Islamic Cultural Centre appealed to the media to 'be objective' and to 'realise the difference between a few individuals who do not respect others, and the rest of the Arabs, Africans and Muslims in general in Europe who only want to live in peace and leave their hell behind them'.
An estimated 1.85 Muslims live in Spain and around two million in the UK – the former mainly of Moroccan origin and the latter, mostly Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from some parts of India – and a vast majority are second- or third-generation migrants.
Their deep-rooted presence in European countries means many of the foreign-born Muslims have lived on the continent for many decades, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, live peacefully and in harmony with other nationalities in their neighbourhoods.
Cultural training for migrant men pioneered in Europe
Some countries are attempting to tackle cultural differences among new arrivals at grass-roots level.
A scheme in Norway involves free and voluntary lessons on societal norms in the country, focusing heavily on attitudes to women.
One man, a Muslim from the Horn of Africa who volunteered to take the course said he was surprised at the differences between the west and his own nation, and stressed that the experience of the Norwegian Cultural Orientation Programme had been extremely valuable.
“I was shocked to see women in skimpy clothes drinking alcohol and kissing in public – back home, only prostitutes do that, and in films, couples only hug but never kiss,” said Abdu Osman Kelifa, whose confusion at the social disparities led him to ask to take part in the pioneering scheme.
“In Eritrea, where I come from, if someone wants a lady he can just take her and he will not be punished by the police – but in Norway, women can do any job from prime minister to truck driver and have the right to relax in bars or on the street without being bothered.”
The NORCO Programme has raised controversy, with some claiming it stigmatises migrants, but others recall that it is recommended rather than compulsory and is valuable for men who come from countries where the sexes do not mix, where women are not allowed to show flesh, or where public affection is frowned upon or even against the law.
One such course uses fictional characters to illustrate social situations they want migrants to analyse – the 'good' character is an immigrant called Hassan and the 'bad' and 'predatory' man is a native Norwegian called Arne.
All courses are taught by persons of a migrant background, as far as possible from the same culture as the volunteer candidates, and in their native languages, through interpreters if necessary.
Similar schemes are being considered in asylum centres in Denmark and Germany.