On 1 July, Marwa al-Sherbini, an Egyptian woman who wore the headscarf and was three months pregnant, was brutally murdered in a Dresden courtroom by a German man of Russian descent who declared ‘you have no right to live’. Liz Fekete of the Institute of Race Relations investigates the climate of tacitly sanctioned bigotry within which this murder happened.
Marwa al-Sherbini was stabbed eighteen times in the space of thirty seconds. It was a frenzied attack, clearly motivated by racism and Islamophobia. Yet the German state and media, have been in a state of denial. The press reported it as a neighbourhood dispute, with headlines such as ‘Murder over quarrel over swing’. Amidst widespread anger in Egypt, the press officer at the German embassy in Cairo declared the murder an isolated case and a ‘criminal act. It has nothing to do with persecution against Muslims’.
As the funeral of Marwa al-Sherbini took place in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria and attracted huge attention in the Middle East, the German public and media have woken up to the anger that the murder, and its apparent denial, was causing in the Muslim world.
Facts speak for themselves
Marwa al-Sherbini was married to an Egyptian academic Elwi Ali Okaz who is a pharmacist studying at the internationally renowned Max Planck Institute. Al-Sherbini, also a pharmacist, was suing the man who went on to attack her (formally identified only as Alexandre W) after he insulted and threatened her in a local playground, calling her an ‘Islamist’, a ‘terrorist’ and an ‘Islamist whore’. Marwa al-Sherbini, who wore a headscarf, wanted to legally challenge this insulting behaviour. In the first instance, a district court convicted Alexandre W for his actions and ordered him to pay a fine of 780 Euros. However the behaviour of Alexandre W towards Marwa al-Sherbini during the course of this trial was so threatening and insulting that the prosecuting attorney deemed that he had learnt nothing from the conviction and ordered a second prosecution which would probably have resulted in a prison sentence.
At the second trial, and as al-Sherbini was finishing her testimony, Alexandre W leapt up and, in a frenzied attack, stabbed her repeatedly while shouting ‘You have no right to live’. Marwa al-Sherbini’s 3-year-old son was in court and witnessed his mother’s brutal murder. In the bedlam that followed, and as court guards fired shots, several bystanders were injured, including al-Sherbini’s husband, Elwi Ali Okaz, who was shot by a security guard and seriously wounded. He is now in a stable condition.
Jewish and Muslim communities united against Islamophobia
Stephan Kramer, the Secretary General of the German Jewish Council, has been one of only a handful of non-Muslim voices in Germany willing to describe the murder as motivated by Islamophobia. Kramer gave his solidarity to the Muslim community and alongside Aiman Mazyek, Secretary General of the Central Council of Muslims visited Elwi Ali Okaz in hospital, ‘We want to send a signal against Islamophobia’, said Stephan Kramer, adding that the ‘meagre’ reaction of the authorities to the murder was ‘absurd’. Muslim and Jewish leaders are due to meet with the Saxon prime minister and the Intercultural Council has called for a public demonstration of solidarity with the victim’s family.
Anger in Egypt
The Egyptian ambassador, Ramzi Ezzeldin Ramzi, and Marwa al-Sherbini’s brother attended mourners’ prayers at the Berlin Dar el-Salam Mosque, after which her body was flown to Egypt for burial in Alexandria which was attended by several Egyptian government officials. Al Jazeera’s Rawyeh Rageh, was at the funeral and noted that ‘The local council here in Alexandria, the victim’s hometown, has decided to name a street after her and the press is describing her as the “Hijab Martyr”.’
Indeed, throughout Egypt, there is widespread popular anger. While much of this is being exploited by the government to feed its own agenda, this cannot be used to obscure the fact that the German authorities have too long ignored the rising Islamophobia and prejudice towards women who wear the headscarf. Over half of Germany’s states ban women teachers and civil servants from wearing the headscarf which is widely seen as a sign of ‘holding onto one’s own culture’ and a ‘refusal to integrate’. Nabil Yacoub, who previously directed a local council for immigrant affairs in Dresden, points out that abuse of Muslim women who wear the headscarf is widespread. Many women are attacked or discriminated against on account of religious clothing, but do not report attacks to the authorities. Marwa al-Sherbini was different and decided to fight back. She was due to go back to Egypt in three months and, tragically, must have believed it would be safe to take a stand.
Who is to blame?
Kathrin Klausing, a researcher on Islamic issues who compiles the website Musafira, says that all eyes are now on the prosecuting authority, to see what charges are brought against Alexandre W. Kathrin Klausing does not see the prosecuting authority, which has instructed the police to start a murder investigation and has described the killer as clearly ‘driven by a deep hatred of Muslims’, as the real culprit. ‘The real responsibility for this awful case lies with the increasingly anti-Islamic and racist climate in society, an atmosphere in which politicians and public intellectuals and celebrities have played a great part.’ It is a view reiterated by Sulaiman Wilms, head of communications at the European Muslim Union, who told Al Jazeera that the murder was linked to ‘public-media discourse’. ‘People are looking for victims and Muslims are sometimes seen as a viable option.’
As both the police and prosecuting authority confirm that Alexandre W was a ‘notorious xenophobe’ attention will also turn to the actions of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) which in June local elections in several federal states secured 176 seats on regional and city councils. 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 Olaf Sundermeyer and Christoph Ruf spent two years infiltrating the NPD for their book Reisen in der National Befreite Zone, they interviewed many ex-members who said that NPD members hoard weapons at their party regional headquarters in Jena and dream of rebuilding Hitler’s Third Reich. The writers 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.
The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, in conjunction with the journal Stern, provides a regular web-based update of some of the most serious far-Right related racist incidents that take place in Germany. In its compilation of thirty incidents which took place in Germany in May, over half the incidents (eighteen) took place in Saxony, many in Dresden and its surrounding towns. Migrants, those deemed foreigners, have been targeted, as have trades unions, members of left parties and alternative youth groups. It remains to be seen what part of Alexandre W’s warped and psychotic thinking was shaped by organisations like the NPD and what part the Islamophobia inherent in public and political discourse – which targets in particular Muslim women who wear the headscarf – has played.Many thanks to Kathrin Klausing in the preparation of this article, and to Elliot Perkins for translating the Amadeu Antonio Foundation list of neo-nazi violence. (An English-language translation of the list can be obtained from IRR, email: email@example.com.) Facebook pages have been set up for Marwa al-Sherbini, see Facebook. Further information from Musafira. or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.The regional employment and integration office, RAA Sachsen, which offers advice to victims of racism, has also issued a statement condemning the murder as Islamophobic. See RAA Sachsen or email: email@example.com, tel: 00 351 88 94174. The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.