The racist murder of an Egyptian woman in a Dresden courtroom on 1 July 2009 has aroused widespread shock and anger, particularly in the Muslim world. The murdered woman has been dubbed a ‘headscarf martyr’, and Germany stands accused of Islamophobia. MUT correspondent Karen Margolis surveys the German and international media reaction.
“Egypt mourns ‘headscarf martyr'”, was the headline of BBC News Online on 9 July, two days after Marwa El-Sherbini’s funeral in her home city of Alexandria. The report described the “outrage” expressed by Cairo newspapers, which had dubbed Ms Sherbini ‘the martyr of the Hijab (Muslim veil)’. The BBC contrasted the top-level concern and widespread coverage in the Muslim world with the apparent indifference of the major German media and leading politicians. In the days after Ms. Sherbini’s death, Germany’s public TV channels passed over her murder in silence, while the influential daily Die Welt discussed it with the headline “Dead Egyptian woman: Islamists demand revenge”.
The facts of the case are horrifyingly clear. Marwa El-Sherbini was 31 years old, a qualified pharmacist, mother of a three-year-old son and pregnant with her second child when she died. Her husband, Elwi Ali Okaz, aged 32, is a doctoral student in genetic engineering at a branch of the renowned Max Planck Society in the east German city of Dresden. The events that destroyed their lives began in a Dresden playground. Marwa El-Sherbini asked Axel W. to let her son sit on a swing. Axel W., a German of Russian origin, replied by abusing her as a “terrorist” and an “Islamist whore” because she was wearing a headscarf. She sued him for defamation, and in 2008 a Dresden court awarded her damages.
Axel W.’s appeal against the verdict was heard on 1 July 2009. Marwa El-Sherbini’s husband and 3-year-old son were with her in court. During the hearing, in full view of the judge, lawyers and court officials, Axel W. pulled out a knife and stabbed Ms. Sherbini 18 times. Her husband tried to protect her, but was shot and critically wounded by a court policeman who later claimed to have mistaken him for the attacker.
Germany’s “first murderous anti-Islamic attack”
Outside Germany, the media was quick to grasp the significance of Marwa El-Sherbini’s murder. On 7 July the British daily The Guardian described it as Germany’s “first murderous anti-Islamic attack”. Reporting on the prompt and humane solidarity shown by leaders of Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities, the article highlighted the “sluggish response” of Angela Merkel’s government:
“The general secretaries of both the Central Council of Jews and the Central Council of Muslims, Stephen Kramer and Aiman Mazyek, who on Monday made a joint visit to the bedside of Sherbini’s husband, spoke of the “inexplicably sparse” reactions from both media and politicians.
“They said that although there was no question that the attack was racially motivated, the debate in Germany had concentrated more on the issue of the lack of courtroom security.”
Like the Guardian, BBC News Online and BBC World radio covered the story extensively over several days. On 10 July the BBC website featured an article by Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi focusing on angry Egyptian and Muslim reactions to Sherbini’s murder:
“Her mother told reporters that her daughter had paid a price for being a proud Muslim wearing the Islamic headscarf.
“On Tuesday, the day after her funeral, angry demonstrators gathered outside the German embassy in Cairo denouncing Western civilisation as brutal and anti-Islamic.
“A young woman at the demonstration told the BBC: ‘This is anti-Islam and our blood is not cheaper than any others. This is about identity. (…)’
“Assurances from German officials that this was an isolated incident and that justice will be done have done little to assuage the anger.
Islamophobia and political exploitation
The accusation of German prejudice against Muslims has been widely echoed in numerous internet blogs. On 6 July the international blogger site Global Voices devoted a special section to Egyptian comments on Marwa el-Sherbini’s death, including this from a blogger named Sadafat:
“If a Jew was hurt, in Germany, even with a word or a joke, the prime minister would have done everything (…) and would have even declared war on anti-Semites. But no one will cry over the Egyptian woman who died there.
“The German government should know that this act affects Muslims, and should put in its constitution for the second majority of its religions, who are Muslims, that their rights protect them from hatred towards Islam.”
Given the circumstances of the crime, and the recognition by many commentators that Islamophobia is a serious and growing problem in Europe, this strength of feeling and the allegations of western media bias against Muslims are predictable. But seasoned commentators like the BBC’s Abdelhadi warn against political exploitation of Marwa el-Sherbini’s murder. He ended his BBC Online article quoted above on this note:
“… the theme of ‘Islam under attack’ is a popular one. It is exploited by Islamist activists, in the media and society at large, as well as by the governments they oppose across the region for different ends.
“For the Islamists, it is an effective rallying cry to mobilise the masses against a pro-Western regime.
“For the governments, it is a useful ploy to deflect public anger or local frustrations onto an external enemy.”
Abdelhadi’s words carry all the more weight since Iran, which seizes any opportunity to bang the Islamist and anti-Semitic drum, has now joined the chorus of condemnation. The international daily Tehran Times of 12 July 2009 described a student demonstration against the German embassy with slogans like, “Death to the Zionist racist”. The paper added that “Tehran citizens held a symbolic funeral” for Marwa el-Sherbini on 10 June.
Dresden – a special case?
On 10 July, BBC World radio interviewed the murder victim’s brother, Tarek el-Sherbini, who had taken her coffin back to Egypt from Germany. Obviously bitter and grieving, Sherbini repeated many of the public allegations being made in his native country. Describing the Dresden police as “not helpful”, he went on to assert that, “all German people don’t like Muslims”. After the interviewer objected to this “sweeping statement”, Sherbini qualified it by saying, “Dresden is a town in the east of Germany – it’s not like Berlin or other places in Europe”. He claimed that because of her headscarf his sister had not been able to get a job as a pharmacist in Dresden, “even though she had no problem with German or English, and good qualifications”.
Invited by the BBC to comment on these criticisms, the deputy mayor of Dresden, Dirk Hilbert, responded with the kind of smooth denials that are unlikely to assuage Tarek el-Sherbini’s grief or reassure Muslims and anti-racists. “Dresden warmly welcomes foreign people from all over the world,” insisted Hilbert, who is responsible for the city’s industry. “We’re not a racist town. Foreign people work in the high tech institute here. We need qualified people and we’re open-minded.” He ended by pointing out that the city was planning a demonstration in remembrance of Marwa el-Sherbini the following weekend.
Hilbert talked as if he were on a recruiting spot for skilled technicians from abroad. He blithely ignored the fact that Dresden is the capital of Saxony, where the extreme-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) secured 5.1% seats on regional and city councils in local elections in June 2008. As Liz Fakete wrote in a well-researched article about Marwa el-Sherbini’s murder on IRR News, website of the British Institute of Race Relations:
“It is in Saxony – of which Dresden is the state capital – where the NPD is strongest, trebling its seats to a total of seventy-six. In February 2009, 6,000 neo-Nazis marched through Dresden in the largest far-right demonstration in Germany in recent times. Researchers (…) believe that the downturn in the economy and unemployment are factors playing into the hands of the NPD which, in some areas of eastern Germany, is attempting to create ‘national liberation zones’ where no foreigner would dare to go.” (http://www.irr.org.uk/2009/july/ha000016.html)
This comes as no surprise to anti-racist organisations such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation and local action groups that have been campaigning for years for a decisive political strategy against racism in Dresden and Saxony as a whole. Yet it would be wrong to point the finger only at Dresden. Nationwide surveys of Germany in 2008 by the US Pew Institute and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation revealed alarmingly high levels of general xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim attitudes throughout the country, and there has been serious racist violence in towns and cities in both east and west Germany.
“Xenophobic murder in Germany”
The spokesman for the Dresden public prosecutor, Christian Avenarius, seems to have no doubt about the motives of Axel W., the 28-year-old man accused of murdering Marwa el-Sherbini. The French daily Le Monde based the title of its article by Clara Dupuis, “Xenophobic murder in Germany” (9 July), on Avenarius’ statement: “This is a xenophobic murder committed by a fanatical xenophobe.” In fact, Le Monde is one of the few papers that gave the known facts about Alex W., who comes from the German-speaking minority in Russia: “Born in Perm, in Russia, he arrived in Germany in 2003 and has been living on social welfare (‘Hartz IV benefits’) ever since, in a city where the unemployment level is twice that in the rest of the country…” Unlike some commentators, Dupuis declined to speculate on the possible motives or psychology of the assailant, and moved on swiftly to the wider issue, quoting Peter Widmann, researcher at Berlin Technical University’s research institute on anti-Semitism: “This murder should be seen in the context of a rise in Islamophobia in Germany.” After mentioning recent examples like the anti-Muslim movement in Cologne and linking this to the rise of anti-Muslim political parties in Belgium and Austria, Dupuis summed up with another quote from Peter Widmann: “There is little interest in anti-Muslim xenophobia. We should take it more seriously.”
This was repeated in Today’s Zaman, a Turkish English-language online daily, in a 10 July interview with Hülya Şekerci, chairwoman of The Freedom Association (Özgür-Der), a Turkish rights group. “Şekerci said explaining Sherbini’s murder in front of her 3-year-old child as the fanaticism of a racist German youth cannot satisfy the world. ‘It is clear that the German government has to take some action (…). This incident, which seems to have taken place under the eyes of the German state, should make the government realize the result of racist and discriminatory policies against Muslims in the country,’ said Şekerci.”
A similar reaction by Germany’s leading Muslims was reported on 9 July on the English website of DW, the German World Service: “A council representing Germany’s four main national Islamic bodies called Wednesday for silent vigils to mark el-Sherbini’s murder, saying: ‘Marwa’s death has made us all both scared and horrified. Politicians in our country have to start dealing seriously with hatred of Islam’.”
The headscarf debate
DW Online also mentioned a detail other commentators seem to have missed, but which is crucial to the issue of Marwa el-Sherbini’s murder and Muslim women’s identity. The German Islamic council “charged that she was a victim of hate websites that had sprung up after Germany had tried to prevent teachers from wearing headscarves.” If this is true, it certainly merits further investigation, because the headscarf debate is closely linked with issues of Islamophobia and integration facing every European country with a large Muslim population. Western political leaders seem divided over the headscarf question. Not least because the debate is differentiated: Muslim women from different countries and branches of Islam wear many different kinds of traditional clothing, and in some western countries distinctions are made between what is “acceptable” or not, and between private wear and what is appropriate for public service employees.
In June 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the practice of Muslim women wearing burkas – garments that hide the faces and bodies of Muslim women – and advocated a committee to consider a potential burka ban. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sarkozy said that the burka “is not a religious symbol. It’s a symbol of subservience,” and is “not welcome in France”. Sarkozy sees himself as defending France’s time-honoured constitutional separation of religion and public life.
Meanwhile, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro, in a speech on 4 June in Egypt, US President Barack Obama did not specifically mention France, but said, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal”. Obama clearly sees himself as defending the US constitutional right to freedom of religious expression. Since the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini, the headscarf debate has taken on a new and more urgent aspect.
The German media – not all bad
While the widespread criticism of the German government’s muted reaction to the killing of Marwa el-Sherbini is wholly justified, in their criticism of the German media foreign observers seem to have focused largely on major outlets, and ignored many regional and local papers and broadcast media that have offered good, serious coverage. Foremost among these is the Berlin daily, Tagesspiegel. On 8 July it ran an opinion piece by Andrea Dernbach titled “Islam, Islamist, Terrorist” that opened with a series of tough questions to the authorities about how such a murder could take place in a German courtroom, and went on to ask: “Could it be that this death –which is being investigated as murder – doesn’t fit into our scheme of things? A young woman, a Muslim, a professional, a qualified pharmacist, doesn’t give in to massive insults at a playground (“whore”, “radical Islamist”, “terrorist”), but defends herself instead: she goes to the police and files charges against the man.”
The anger and sorrow Andrea Dernbach expressed here is unusual in German journalism. The huge stream of online comments that her article provoked contradicts ideas about Germans’ lack of interest in this case. These comments cover a wide range of views, from political and religious solidarity to expressions of sympathy, from outrage at racist and anti-Muslim violence to nit-picking legalism and blatantly hostile diatribes against foreigners. This online debate offers a revealing insight into readers’ perspectives on this tragic story.
In another article on 8 July, Tagesspiegel reported that Marwa el-Sherbini’s accused murderer, Alex W. had asked her in the courtroom: “Do you have a right to be in Germany at all?” Then he threatened her: “When the NPD comes to power, there’ll be an end to that. I voted NPD.” While the Dresden police said they had no record of Alex W.’s involvement in neo-Nazi activities, by 10 June the Tagesspiegel was stating with certainty that “the accused is thought to have links to the NPD”. Some sources have tried to link Alex W. with recent NPD efforts to appeal to German immigrants from Russia, but as Holger Kulick warned in his article on the German page of this website, without evidence it would be wrong to respond to this racist murder by casting suspicion on another minority in Germany. (See http://www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de/news/meldungen/mord-in-dresden-aus-antiislamischer-motivation/).
“You don’t have to be Muslim…”
On 11 June 2009 a memorial ceremony for Marwa el-Sherbini was held in Dresden, organised by the Council for Foreigners, religious organisations and the city council. Around 1,500 people joined the demonstration against racism and xenophobia, laying white roses before a picture of the murdered woman. Among them were the Egyptian ambassador to Germany, Ramsi Ess Eldin Ramsi, and the chairman of the German Social Democratic Party – but not a single high-ranking member of the German government.
Of all the many media reports and opinions on the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini, two stand out for their clarity in a situation where adequate response is very difficult. The first is a sharp but sensitive article by Muslim activist Tarafa Baghajati, co-founder of the Action Group of Austrian Muslim Women and board member of Platform for Intercultural Europe. Writing on 7 July in the Austrian online paper Die Presse, Baghajati posed questions directly to German chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier: “What has to happen for politicians to understand that racism and Islamophobia can even kill? What does the murderer have to reveal for politicians to grasp what kind of serious social problem is building up here?” (See http://diepresse.com/home/meinung/gastkommentar/493283/index.do)
The last word here goes to Stephan Kramer from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, quoted in Spiegel Online (7 July 2009): “You don’t have to be Muslim to oppose anti-Muslim behaviour, and you don’t have to be Jewish to oppose anti-Semitism,” said Kramer. “We must stand together against such inhumanity.”
© Karen Margolis for mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de
12 June 2009
Reprinted by permission of the author.