This article is part of the Dangerous Speech Project’s research brief series, “Examples of Dangerous Speech.”
In early 2016, a cover of the Polish magazine wSieci (“the Network”) showed a blonde white woman screaming in terror as dark-skinned male hands grabbed her body, hair, and the dress she wore, which seemed to be made from the flag of the European Union. Though it was just about impossible to miss the point, the image was emblazoned with text reading, in Polish, “the Islamic rape of Europe.”
The magazine featured a photograph that’s so effective at producing alarm, outraged compassion, and fear about a group of people that it constitutes dangerous speech on its own. It was accompanied by the words, “islamski gwałt na Europie: Nasz Raport: Co Media I Brukselskie Elity Ukrywaja Przed Obywatelami Unii” – in English, “The Islamic Rape of Europe: our report about what the media and Brussels elite are hiding from the citizens of the [European] Union.” This headline redoubled the dangerous effect of the photograph.
Assertion of attack on women and girls.
The magazine’s images and text make two mutually reinforcing claims: that Muslims had assaulted (and wanted to continue attacking) European women, and that Muslims were attacking Europe itself.
This is a classic example of a pattern we see often in dangerous speech regarding women: that women’s bodies symbolically represent the group to which they belong, so that an attack on a woman seems to defile the honor or integrity of the whole group. In this case, a woman’s body stands in for all of Europe.
Muslims living in Europe, or seeking to visit or immigrate there.
There is no identifiable “speaker” or author of the image. The medium, as discussed below, is the magazine.
Readers of wSieci, a right-wing weekly magazine in Poland, are mainly supporters of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, a right-wing populist party that provides financial support to the magazine through advertisements. Most of those who bought the magazine probably had negative feelings about migrants, refugees, and Muslims already. According to a 2016 poll, 71% of people living in Poland were concerned that refugees would increase domestic terrorism and 73% characterized refugees from Syria and Iraq as a “major threat” to their country.
In 2015, more than a million migrants arrived in Europe, most fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Many Poles opposed what they saw as unwise European willingness to welcome the foreigners. Their government agreed. For example, in September 2015, the European Union tried to oblige Poland and other European countries to accept tens of thousands of migrants. Poland accepted none of them, citing national security. The fact that the woman in the wSieci cover photo is draped in a European flag, not a Polish one, reflects the widespread view in Poland in 2015 and 2016 that Europe was going down the wrong path by admitting so many Muslims – and putting the whole continent at risk.
wSieci’s shocking image of brown-skinned men attacking a European woman was published just a month after the well-publicized New Year’s attack in Cologne. Hundreds of men – many of Arab or North African descent – arrived at the city of Cologne’s annual public New Year’s celebration and began cornering and attacking women. Ninety criminal complaints were filed for robbery, sexual assault, and one rape. During the preceding year, 2015, Germany had an open-door policy for asylum seekers from Syria, accepting nearly 1 million migrants. wSieci implied that Germany’s generous immigration policy had led directly to the attacks on women.
When its February 2016 issue appeared, wSieci had a circulation of 76,000. The magazine is quite well-known in Poland, in part because of its ties to the Law and Justice Party (PiS) which won an outright majority in the October 2015 parliamentary elections, just before this cover was published.
The magazine is also notorious for its provocative covers, including several in 2015 that also portrayed Muslims as dangerous threats to Poland and Poles and criticized those who wanted to welcome them. The first showed the Polish Prime Minister at the time Ewa Kopacz, who had argued that Poland had a “duty” to accept refugees,” wearing a burqa and holding bombs along with the headline “Ewa Kopacz urządzi nam piekło na rozkaz Berlina” (“Ewa Kopacz will make a hell for us at the behest of Berlin.”) The second included a photo of three Middle Eastern men, dressed in traditional clothing, waiting at a border crossing. One of them was holding a gun and another was holding a picture of a white eagle on a red background – the Polish national emblem. The headline reads: “Nadchodzą! Niemcy forsują samobójczy plan. Tusk i Kopacz ulegają.” (“They are coming! The Germans are pushing through a suicide plan. Tusk and Kopacz succumb”). Both covers cast aspersion at Germany, which not only took in one million migrants itself but also led efforts to oblige other European countries, including Poland, to accept them.
The February 2016 cover did not initially make news in Poland. It did spark outrage in the international media, and was covered by newspapers in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. That foreign coverage was then reported on by the Polish media, increasing the spread of the original message.
Also, because the image and headline appeared on the cover of the magazine, that message reached an audience much larger than those who bought the magazine: it was seen by many people who walked by a newsstand where wSieci was on sale.
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 Interview with authors, October 25, 2021.
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 Traynor, Ian. 2015. “Germany to push for compulsory EU quotas to tackle refugee crisis.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/23/refugee-crisis-germany-push-compulsory-eu-quotas