The Syrian refugee crisis prompted many European nations to open their doors to those displaced by the raging civil war. Though most regarded the influx of refugees with compassion, there were others who responded with intense anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia. There has been pronounced opposition to the resettlement of refugees across Europe, with protests in Germany, Denmark, Greece, and beyond.
Riding this wave of vitriol, ultra-conservative Polish magazine wSIECI, or The Network in English, released a deeply disturbing cover for its latest edition, featuring a distraught young white woman draped in the flag of the European Union being groped by three men with brown skin. The headline reads, “Islamic Rape of Europe.”
Behind the incendiary cover were even more outrageous stories. With headlines like “Does Europe Want to Commit Suicide?” and “The Hell of Europe,” authors lambasted the refugee policies of European nations as a death wish for Western civilization. As Breitbart (yes, Breitbart) reports:
Outlining the fundamental differences between eastern Islam and western Christianity — “culture, architecture, music, gastronomy, dress” — the editorial explains these two worlds have been at war “over the last 14 centuries” and the world is now witnessing a colossal “clash of two civilisations in the countries of old Europe”. This clash is brought by Muslims who come to Europe and “carry conflict with the Western world as part of the collective consciousness”, as the journalist marks the inevitability of conflict between native Europeans and their new guests.
To be fair, it cannot be denied that large influxes of refugees can and do present security concerns for their host nation. Massive brawls in refugee camps and reports of crime sprees linked to refugee populations have become common stories in the media, generating no small amount of concern among citizens living near camps. On New Year’s Eve, these concerns were amplified by a shocking number of attacks and thefts carried out by 73 men in Cologne, mostly migrants of North African and Arab origin. When reports of these attacks were met by Muslim groups blaming perfume for sexual assault and calling for a ban on alcohol to prevent additional crime, outrage reached a fever pitch.
That said, the headlines are more disturbing than reality. The vast majority of refugees are peaceful and law-abiding. The actual scope of crime committed by migrants relative to total migrant population in a given area is consistently tiny, but that’s not how it’s been portrayed. For instance, though a good deal of the discussion on the Cologne attacks has been couched in criticism of Syrian refugees, only three of the attackers that night were of Syrian origin. Three.
How many Syrian refugees has Germany accepted? Roughly half a million.
The response to what is a relatively small amount of criminal activity is, quite frankly, far more disturbing. Consider the spike in arson and other vicious assaults against perceived refugees, the vigilantes roaming Sweden targeting North African and Arab children, and the rise of political parties with roots in the neo-Nazi movement who call for bans on mosques and rail against the “threat” of multiculturalism. And there’s something truly unnerving in the video of thousands of Germans chanting nationalist slogans in a square that used to be named after Adolf Hitler.
Yes, the magazine cover presented by The Network drives home just how out of control the backlash against refugees has become, but it also reveals just how racially charged it is. The opposition to refugees may use language condemning Islam and extolling its incompatibility with European culture, but when you hear comments from political leaders like, “We want Sweden to stay Swedish,” it becomes clear that this battle has more to do with how people look than how they pray. The invocation of anti-Muslim bigotry has rapidly become a placeholder for overt white supremacy, and these tactics illustrate that in pointed fashion.
The depiction of the dark-skinned man ravaging the light-skinned woman, as seen on The Network‘s cover, is not new, nor is it unique to Europe. Indeed, throughout history, the caricature of men of color as the “brute” has been used to foster fear and discrimination. In America, this characterization was justification for racism and violence against black men in particular. As Dr. David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University, explains:
The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women. Charles H. Smith (1893), writing in the 1890s, claimed, “A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless”(p. 181). Clifton R. Breckinridge (1900), a contemporary of Smith’s, said of the black race, “when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form” (p. 174). George T. Winston (1901), another “Negrophobic” writer, claimed:
When a knock is heard at the door [a White woman] shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal. A whole community is frenzied with horror, with the blind and furious rage for vengeance.
The “terrible crime” most often mentioned in connection with the black brute was rape, specifically the rape of a white woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the black rapist. The claim that black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping white women became the public rationalization for the lynching of blacks.
Lynchings were necessary, argued many whites, to preserve the racial purity of the white race, more specifically, the racial purity of white women. White men had sexual relations — consensual and rape — with black women as soon as Africans were introduced into the European American colonies. These sexual unions produced numerous mixed-race offspring. White women, as “keepers of white racial purity,” were not allowed consensual sexual relations with black men. A black man risked his life by having sexual relations with a white woman. Even talking to a white woman in a “familiar” manner could result in black males being killed.
There were black rapists with white victims, but they were relatively rare; most white rape victims were raped by white men. The brute caricature was a red herring, a myth used to justify lynching, which in turn was used as a social control mechanism to instill fear in black communities. Each lynching sent messages to blacks: Do not register to vote. Do not apply for a white man’s job. Do not complain publicly. Do not organize. Do not talk to white women. The brute caricature gained in popularity whenever blacks pushed for social equality.
Lovely, right? But it didn’t have to be a black man for the sexually deviant brute caricature to feature in white supremacist rhetoric and campaigns. Any man existing outside the sparkling white racial ideal was portrayed as dark and dangerous, particularly in relation to white women. For example, during World War II in the U.S., propaganda showed what was supposed to be a Japanese soldier with a menacing look preparing to assault a white woman. It described the man as a “horror.” But despite the implied nationality, the man was still portrayed with dark skin and many of the features associated with the archetype of the black brute.
Across the ocean, fascist governments invoked similar imagery to support their own causes. As folks on Twitter were quick to point out during the firestorm that followed The Network‘s cover release, their depiction had more in common with Italian and German war propaganda than it did anything remotely resembling civilized discourse.
It’s easy to look at magazines like The Network and the spreading violence in Europe and speak in tones of consternation, but the reality is that these battles are not confined to the continent. We’re living in a time when a presidential front runner in the U.S. has built his support upon similar sentiments.
It’s easy to say this is about opposition to a problematic religion while tying that faith to terrorism or assault, but the reality is that this verbal wrapping paper cannot hide the ugly racism behind current anti-refugee sentiment. Though millions of Muslims around the world are what people refer to as white, they are not the ones being targeted by street gangs or blamed for nonexistent widespread crime.
It’s easy to soothe ourselves with assurances that these hateful opinions are not the norm, but the reality is that their popularity is increasing. And even a small portion of a population can do a great deal of damage to a nation and its people.
This is about more than Syria. This is about more than Islam. This is about whether or not society gives in, once more, to a politics of fear driven by skin color.