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Mohammed Ahmed/AP
Egyptians flash a poster showing 32-year-old
Marwa el-Sherbini, July 6, 2009.

Germany’s Response to the “Martyr of the Headscarf” Incites Outrage in Egypt

July 10, 2009 11:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The German media has given little coverage to the brutal stabbing of Marwa el-Sherbini, a pregnant Muslim woman. Egyptians contend that racist hate crimes against Muslims are often overlooked.

The Murder Dominates Egyptian Media

Thousands of Egyptians congregated in Alexandria, Egypt, to mourn Marwa el-Sherbini, a 32-year-old pregnant Muslim woman living in Germany who was stabbed to death in a German courtroom, The Associated Press reports.

According to The Guardian, el-Sherbini was set to testify in court against her neighbor, a 28-year-old Russian man identified as Alex W. The accused had called el-Sherbini a “terrorist” and an “Islamic whore,” insulting her for wearing the hijab, or Islamic headscarf. As she was giving her testimony, Alex W. attacked her, stabbing her 18 times in front of her 3-year-old son Mustafa. El-Sherbini’s husband, Elvi Ali Okaz, rushed to his wife’s side, but was shot by a German police officer who mistook him for the attacker. Okaz remains in critical condition at a hospital in Dresden.

In Egypt, el-Sherbini has been named the “martyr of the headscarf,” where, according to The Guardian, she has become a symbol “of persecution for a growing number of demonstrators, who have taken to the streets in protest at the perceived growth in Islamophobia in the west.”

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Germany has been criticized for what many see as a lackluster reaction to such a tragic incident, described by The Guardian as “the country’s first murderous anti-Islamic attack.” Thomas Steg, a German government spokesperson, defended the government’s response, however, telling the BBC that Germany has “not been silent” and that the “early details about the case had not been sufficiently clear for a ‘spontaneous reaction.’”

Egyptian Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, on the other hand, said the incident was a “totally unjustified hate crime,” the reflection of a “failure of international dialogue and the dialogue of civilisations.”

Reactions: Muslims speak out; Germany defends itself

German Muslims have criticized the German government, and the Egyptian Pharmacists’ Association called for a boycott of German drugs. According to the AP, “Egyptian commentators said the incident was an example of how hate crimes against Muslims are overlooked in comparison to those committed by Muslims against Westerners.”

The AP reported that Egyptian blogger Hicham Maged wrote: “Just imagine if the situation was reversed and the victim was a Westerner who was stabbed anywhere in the world or—God forbid—in any Middle Eastern country by Muslim extremists.”

On the blog The Arabist, on the other hand, the author had a different reaction, pointing out that as real and tragic as el-Sherbini’s death was, it has been used as a scapegoat to channel Islamic resentment toward the West. “So really we’re looking at more ‘clash of civilizations’ style victimhood. Of course the Marwa al-Sherbiny case is outrageous, it is a racist murder that took place in courtroom. But do we have to compare it to other news stories? And do we have to ask that the mainstream media in the West (which I advise to simply stop watching, at least TV) cover it?”

Magdi el-Sayed, the spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in Berlin, seemed to echo this perspective when he told The Guardian, “It was a criminal incident, and doesn’t mean that a popular persecution of Muslims is taking place.”

Meanwhile, the general secretaries of the Central Council of Jews and the Central Council of Muslims, Stephen Kramer and Aiman Mazyek, tried to explain the “inexplicably sparse” reactions from Germany’s media, telling The Guardian that “the debate in Germany had concentrated more on the issue of the lack of courtroom security.”

Background: Burkas denounced in France

In June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the practice of Muslim women wearing burkas—long loose garments that hide the faces and bodies of the wearer—and supported creating a committee that would consider a potential ban on burkas. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sarkozy said of the burka “[It] is not a religious symbol. It’s a symbol of subservience,” and it is “not welcome” in France.

In a speech on June 4 in Egypt, President Barack Obama, who did not specifically mention France by name, said, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal,” according to Le Figaro.

Related Topic: Tennis star Monica Seles Stabbed in Germany

On April 30, 1993, top-ranked tennis player Monica Seles was stabbed during a match by a fan of rival player Steffi Graf. Initially, some linked the attack to death threats that Seles, an ethnic Hungarian born in Serbia, had received from Croatian nationalists. It soon became clear, however, that the attacker, a German man named Gunter Parche, was motivated by a love of Steffi Graf.

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