Two months after the New Year’s Eve sexual assault incidents in Cologne and other European cities, the question of integration of Muslim migrants and refugees in Europe has become more pressing with protests supporting and opposing the far right anti-Islamic movement Pegida in a string of European cities.
Rallies for and against the mass migration and the so-called "Islamization of Europe" gathered momentum in early February in Dresden, Prague, Dublin, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Bratislava, Birmingham, and the French cities of Montpellier, Calais, and Austria’s Graz.
"The society here has been worrying about the refugee issue for quite a while. There was a big split within German society. After Cologne's incident the worries have doubled," Sherif El-Sabbahy, an Egyptian student residing in Mannheim, Germany working in a refugee camp told Ahram Online in a web interview.
A string of mob sexual assaults took place in Germany’s Cologne as well as other European cities such as Zurich on New Year's Eve, with reports claiming that the perpetrators were of North African origin. The number of victims reached 730, according to the latest figures.
This comes at a time when Europe has been facing a growing migrant crisis, with the influx of thousands of refugees from the atrocious Syrian conflict--which has forced more than four million to flee the country--in addition to the influx of migrants from the MENA region in general.
After the attack, Pegida movement protested in Cologne, claiming that there is a direct connection between the assault incident and the government's "open door" policy towards refugees.
Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, is a far-right anti-Islamic movement founded in Dresden, Germany in 2014 before spreading across Europe.
On the rise of anti-Islamization movements in Europe, Anthony Messina, Professor of Political Science at Trinity College, said that “there is definitely a surge of these movements and popular support for them across Europe.”
However, Messina explained that this surge is uneven in the major countries of Muslim immigrant settlement. Some countries have demonstrated a less hospitable environment for these movements than several of the newer countries of immigration in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary.
Eslam Sabee, a 26-year-old Egyptian working in Berlin, said that he was treated with hostility by an airport official who explicitly and bluntly told him that it was because he is not an EU citizen.
Sabee, who has been living in Germany for almost three years, said that this kind of behaviour was unprecedented.
Falling into Xenophobia: Us vs. Them
"Xenophobia has been on the rise in Europe for several years now. At the same time, we are witnessing a rise in extreme right political parties and populist tendencies in many mainstream parties too," said Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in an online interview.
According to European Union reports in early 2015, there has been an increase in fear and insecurity among the Muslim communities in the EU, especially in the past two years, as reports provide growing evidence in many European countries of very high rates of anti-Muslim actions, including instances of verbal and physical violence.
"There is a distinct risk of xenophobia rising more, as some actors on the political spectrum will no doubt use incidents such as those in Cologne and the wave of refugees to make political benefits," he went on.
European states have begun to adopt more restrictive and even discriminatory practices against migrants and refugees, as several eastern European countries have sealed their borders. Danish authorities actually ratified new law allowing the seizure of refugees’ cash and valuables.
Germany, which once had the warmest welcome for refugees and received around 1.1 million asylum-seekers and irregular migrants in 2015, witnessed rising support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
An AfD leader said in an interview published on January 30th that border guards should shoot at refugees to prevent them from illegally entering the country, Reuters reported.
Building on Pierini, Messina, who is an expert on politics of migration to Europe, attributes the rise of these movements to ”a confluence of objective negative events such as the recent acts of terror in France coupled with the political exploitation of these events by illiberal, far right political entrepreneurs."
In November 2015, a series of attacks left at least 140 people dead and 352 injured in Paris as seven IS militants launched gun attacks at cafes, detonated suicide bombs near France's national stadium and killed hostages inside a concert venue.
“These acts give more credit to the extreme right wing anti refugee groups, ultimately causing a steep rise in the number of people opposing refugees,” El-Sabbahy said.
“Such assaults will have an impact on [society's] view of Arabs and refugees' and will eventually affect their acceptance and integration into society.”
On the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 7 January, when 12 people were killed by militant gunmen, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicted drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi as a grown-up sexually harassing women in Germany, which triggered strong criticism on social networks.
Charlie Hebdo's cartoon on the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. (Photo: Social Media)
The cartoon shows a pervert chasing a woman, with the caption asking: "What would have become of small Aylan if he grew up?" "Someone who gropes asses in Germany," referring to New Year's sexual assaults.
In France, there has been a 53% increase of individual attacks against Muslims from 2012 to 2014 and at least 153 Islamophobic incidents against individuals and places of worship have been documented in 2015.
Hate crimes against Muslims increase with terrorist acts linked to Islamist extremist militant groups such as the Paris attacks claimed by ISIS.
At the beginning of January 2016, the European Union hired an anti-Islamophobia coordinator as part of the protocol adopted in October 2015.
“The EU appointment is a move in the right direction but the task is immense because it touches many different aspects of life and politics: politics, security, education, human rights, civic dialogue, and mediation.
The job of a coordinator might help in integrating these different aspects into a consistent framework,” Pierini remarked.
The Colloquium called for joining forces to encourage a culture of inclusive tolerance and respect in the European Union.
Nonetheless, Messina contends that “the coordinator and the EU are too far detached from local and national events and conditions that are feeding anti-Muslim hatred.”
“Even if they were not [detached], it is far from clear that governments can effectively combat such hatred,” he explains.
“That said, through their policies and speech, mainstream political actors can influence the social environment within which such hatred finds political exposure and, in this sense, they can undercut popular anti-Muslim sentiment.”
Future of Muslims in Europe
The future of Muslim migrants and refugees in Europe remains unclear with anti-Muslim tendencies on the rise.
"Refugees are worried that the incidents could create a stereotype about them all being harassers or rapists, which would slow down their acceptance in the society," says El-Sabbahy.
"The refugee camp I work in started having lots of more security checks on all the gates and usually they'd search all the bags and keep records of who's going in and out. It wasn't that strict before," the 23-year-old said.
Pierini agrees, asserting that "there is indeed a distinct danger of generalisation of negative and hostile feelings against refugees and of an exploitation of the outrage caused by these attacks by some political forces in Germany and in Europe more generally,"
Czech President Milos Zeman, known for his fiery anti-migrant comments, said mid-January that it was almost impossible to integrate the Muslim community into European society.
Zeman has previously stated that the Czech Republic is willing to take only Christian refugees fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.
However, El-Sabbahy, who is working in a refugee camp in Germany, is optimistic.
“Many of the refugees I deal with are very friendly and willing to adapt to their new society. Many, including the children, are taking big steps to understand the culture and learn the language, which makes communication a lot easier and so there are fewer misunderstandings,” he highlighted.
"They have already been transferred to their permanent residences and started merging into normal everyday life. So, as much as the tension increases, time will loosen it up and they will understand each other more to get along better," concluded El-Sabbahy.