06/01/2016 11:15 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Cologne: How Should We React?

It's almost impossible to fathom the scale of what happened in Cologne on New Year's Eve. Details are emerging slowly about what appears to be coordinated sexual attacks and muggings in the city centre by a group of around 1000 men, with similar incidents on a smaller scale reported in other German cities.

Cologne is a fantastic city. I know this because I lived there as a university student from 1998 to 1999. Historically very liberal, with a reputation as Germany's 'gay capital', Cologne has been a melting pot of cultures for decades. What happened on the night of 31st December has shaken the city, and indeed Germany, to its very core.

While the facts surrounding the incident remain only partially established, the picture that has emerged from police and witness statement so far suggests the following; that a large group of around 1000 drunk, aggressive men 'of Arab or North African appearance' descended upon the area around Cologne Cathedral. Over the course of a lengthy rampage, it is reported that at least one woman was raped, many more groped, including a volunteer police officer, and several others mugged. Other reports suggest fireworks being used as weapons and scenes of chaos with women and girls openly crying in distress and the police struggling to control a scene of utter lawlessness.

Of course, it is difficult to avoid viewing the incident through the lens of events of the last year. Germany has welcomed around one million refugees and asylum seekers in recent months, a staggering number by anyone's standards. Confident in its ability to successfully absorb this mammoth addition to its population, Germany has emerged as the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Heartwarming scenes of Germans greeting new arrivals at rail stations the length and breadth of the country were beamed across the globe. Germany, it seemed, was a bastion of humanitarianism.

With this increased immigration came the almost inevitable rise in popularity of groups such as Pegida. Suddenly, images were broadcast of large protests attended not just by the usual testosterone-fuelled skinheads but also by your everyday German man, woman and child. At the heart of their concerns, they claimed, was a very realistic prospect that Germany would be irreversibly changed, socially and culturally, by such intense movements of people. That Germany would be transformed was uncontested. The degree to which this transformation would be positive for the country was - and still is - a subject of much debate.

It's important to make some points very clear. First, it goes without saying that organised attacks on women are not confined to non-white men. It should also be pointed out that there will undoubtedly have been victims of a whole range of backgrounds. To seek to portray this as 'dark-skinned perpetrators and white victims' is as disingenuous as it is dangerous. However, it is equally as counterproductive to evade some of the crucial conversations that must be had in the aftermath of such savagery.

There has been no definite link established between the recent influx of people from the Middle East and Africa, despite early reports of 'asylum seekers' having been apprehended, complete with identification papers. If such a connection is confirmed, then Germany, and Europe as a whole, will need to urgently reconsider and revise its strategy for integrating those of different cultures into a 21st-Century Europe. Questions must also be asked regarding police competence. How can it be that a modern police force finds itself completely overwhelmed on a night where security should have been painstakingly planned and implemented to protect the throngs on the city's streets?

It is regrettable in the extreme that Cologne's mayor, Henriette Reker, has responded to the unprecedented attacks by urging women to abide by a 'code of conduct'. The suggestion that female residents ensure that they stand 'an arm's length away from strangers' is ludicrously offensive. It patently places the onus on women and girls to 'avoid' being attacked, rather than on men to behave like decent human beings in control of their own conduct. It also effectively discourages women and girls from attending large-scale events such as Cologne's annual carnival with the implicit admission that the police are unable to guarantee their safety. General security advice given to those participating in organised public events is appropriate. Asking women to physically isolate themselves effectively absolves their male counterparts of their moral responsibility to keep their hands to themselves.

Of course, there is an understandable fear that these abominable attacks will fan the flames of the xenophobia already simmering in a great many German communities. Yet, the response from Germany's authorities is a crucial factor in this. The highly organised nature of these assaults could potentially warrant charges of terrorism against the perpetrators. If a link is established between Germany's open-door policy during the crisis of the last twelve months and what took place on New Year's Eve, it is in no way racist or xenophobic to objectively evaluate the government's success in integrating the new additions to their population. All other governmental decisions are held up to scrutiny and the relevant ministers made accountable when something goes awry. Immigration policy should be no different.

In an age of rampant Islamophobia, it is entirely responsible of politicians to reject arbitrary anti-Muslim rhetoric, seek to insulate oppressed communities from the adverse impact of runaway prejudice and emphasise equality before the law, regardless of a person's origin. Conversely, we liberals must be resolute in our opposition to both Islamophobia and misogyny. To prioritise one struggle over another is to play into the hands of those on the extreme right-wing who would paint us as appeasers. If social liberalism precludes the mere possibility of addressing the potential challenges of seismic social change directly, honestly and openly, for fear of misinterpretation and to the detriment of women's safety, it is not a theory that I, or many other instinctively liberal citizens, can subscribe to.