“The martyr of the hijab” is what Egyptians are now calling Marwa al-Sherbini. The 31-year-old veiled Egyptian wife of a postgraduate student in Germany was fatally stabbed – in court – by a German man identified only as Axel W, who had been prosecuted for calling her a terrorist (among other things) while she was playing with her three-year-old son in a park. Marwa’s body was interred in Cairo yesterday and her wake was attended by thousands, some of them chanting: “There is no God but God and the Germans are the enemies of God.”
The case has sparked anger in the Arab world and Egypt in particular for its perceived under-reporting in the western media and a belief that the attack, described by German authorities as an isolated one perpetrated by a “lone wolf”, is the culmination of consistent nurturing and legitimisation of Islamophobia in Europe. The victim’s husband was also stabbed as he tried to protect her and was then shot and critically wounded by a police officer who mistook him for the attacker – a fact that compounded the racist dimensions of the story.
Bloggers and commentators have played the “what if” game, reversing the race and nationality of the victim and attacker in order to highlight the muted response from Germans (and Europeans more generally). The murder of Theo van Gogh has also been invoked as an example of the unequal value attached to the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims. The outcry has sparked calls for severing links with Germany and even declaring a “world hijab day” to honour Marwa’s memory. The fact that the murder was committed by a reported neo-Nazi in Germany does little to temper a perception that Muslims are the targets of racial hatred.
In an article for the Huffington Post, Firas al-Atraqchi expands on the “creeping threat” of Islamophobia in Europe and states that “given the racism many Muslims endure in Europe, the murder of an Egyptian woman because she wore a hijab should not be dismissed as the act of a lone man who many are now calling insane”. The IslamOnline website goes so far as to ask whether killing veiled Muslims in Europe is a “forthcoming trend”.
The murder and its fallout are indeed disturbing. Three days after the event, the only major western news source that carried reports of the incident was the Associated Press – leaving Egyptian bloggers to carry the torch. Crimes perpetrated by Muslims, and the sensationalist coverage of them, undeniably contributed to a creeping normalisation of language and discourse that may spill over into xenophobic incidents where Islamophobia serves as a vehicle for racism. When some moral/economic/social panic button is pushed, people are looking for someone to blame and, as the European Muslim Union noted, “Muslims are sometimes seen as a viable option”.
However, it’s a big step from that to the image of comprehensive, conspiratorial, institutional discrimination against Muslims in Europe that is gaining ground in Arab countries and spurring calls for the severance of diplomatic relations and boycotting of products. Muslims (me included) constantly protest that the actions of a few extremists should not be allowed to denigrate Islam and its adherents as a whole – but this is exactly what they are doing themselves in connection with Europeans and the actions of Axel W.
The irony of the outrage against Marwa al-Sherbini is that the assailant was in court appealing against a fine of 750 euros for insulting her in 2008. The authorities were clearly not complacent about the incident and it the court’s earlier verdict that provoked the attacker’s wrath last week. Despite Marwa’s hijab and religion, she was empowered enough to bring a case against Axel W and received official support in doing so, but this has generally been overlooked amidst all the indignation in the Arab countries.
Yet, these are stones thrown from Arab/Muslim glasshouses and two can play the “what if” game, as Khaled Diab does when he asks: “If a western or local woman were attacked or murdered in a Muslim country for not wearing the headscarf, would her case attract much attention in Egypt or other Muslim countries?” He also mentions prejudice against Copts in Egypt and cites the case of Maher al-Gohary, a Christian convert who has been denied identity by an Egyptian court, as an example of the discrimination against Christian converts. This legitimate argument, however, should not be used to suggest that Muslims hail from a backward civilisation and are thus not deserving of equal rights.
Of course, Marwa’s killing has occurred against the backdrop of President Sarkozy’s recent comments on the burka and the resurgence of far-right groups in the latest European elections which further intensifies the feeling of a minority under siege. Marwa’s “martyrdom of the hijab” has become a symbol of the risks of standing out as a Muslim in the west and has raised serious concerns. However, it seems the German authorities, alleged media blackout notwithstanding, are dealing with the affair sensitively. I hope that those who have been making inflammatory remarks in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world do not succumb to a rage that will only plunge us further into a vicious cycle of hostility.
Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese-born writer.