Chandra Muzaffar JUST 7/13/09

While the German authorities have shown a certain degree of sensitivity in their handling of the issues arising from the murder of a 32 year old Egyptian woman, Marwa al-Sherbini, in a German court room on the 1st of July 2009, the tragic incident has highlighted once again some fundamental questions in the troubled relationship between European society and its growing Muslim minority.
The murder was perpetrated by a 28 year-old recently arrived Russian immigrant of German descent referred to in public records as “Axel W” who was in court in Dresden to appeal against an earlier conviction for insulting Marwa in a public park where she was playing with her three year old son by calling her an “Islamist”, a “terrorist” and a “slut” without any provocation whatsoever. “Axel W” was a passer-by, not known to Marwa who was wearing a hijab in the 21 August 2008 incident. For insulting Marwa, the culprit was fined 780 euros by a lower court last year. In his earlier trial, Axel W had admitted that he hated Muslims. It was this hatred and the court fine that drove him to stab Marwa in the presence of her son and husband a couple of weeks ago.

It would be wrong to dismiss Marwa’s murder as the work of a ‘lone wolf’.  It is not the first hate crime of its kind to target Muslims in Germany and Europe. UN reports over the last decade or so have revealed numerous cases of Muslims being subjected to humiliation, vilification, discrimination in schools and work places, physical abuse and even murder. Islamophobia is alive and well in Europe.

Of course, there are laws in almost every European country against racially motivated hate crimes and ethnic and religious discrimination. That Marwa was able to bring a case against “Axel W” and that the judiciary defended her right is testimony to the effectiveness of the system. But racial hatred and religious bigotry cannot be overcome through laws alone.  There has to be a holistic transformation of popular attitudes and  popular sentiments through mass education.

In this regard, two institutions which could have played a constructive role in educating Germans and other Europeans about the underlying issues in the Marwa tragedy have failed to do their duty. The German and European media as a whole have been rather muted in their response to the tragedy. According to analysts, there have been few attempts to discuss in depth the Marwa murder in the context of Islamophobia and majority-minority relations in the mainstream media. The only major international news media outlet that reported the incident was the Associated Press (AP) — and that too, three days after the murder! And yet from a news angle, it was not just the incident — a murder in court — that was “newsworthy”. Marwa was four months pregnant and her husband who came to her aid was not only stabbed by  “Axel W” but was also shot in the leg by a court security guard who thought that he was the attacker. That perception itself, it is alleged, is a reflection of the prevailing bigotry. As the dead woman’s brother put

it,  “The guard thought  since  he (the husband) was not blond, he must be the attacker, so he shot him.” The husband, who is on a research fellowship at the Max-Planck Institute in Dresden, is now in a critical condition in a German hospital.

The European media’s treatment of the Marwa tragedy contrasts sharply with the way it dramatized the murder of the Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, by a Muslim fanatic in 2004. Muslim groups in Egypt and elsewhere have made this comparison to emphasise the biasness of the European media and its double standards. They argue that the injustice of Marwa’s death runs deeper for she had not done anything which could be construed as an act of provocation while in the case of van Gogh, he had deliberately and contemptuously denigrated Muslim culture  though it in no way justifies his heinous murder.

Muslim activists and intellectuals are also comparing Marwa’s case with the constant airing of the death of a young Iranian woman by the name of “Neda” during the recent demonstrations in Tehran over all major news networks in Europe. While most of them condemn the shooting of a peaceful protester, they are asking why the brutal stabbing of a pregnant woman, who was the victim of a religious slur, has received so little publicity in a media that claims to protect human rights. It is not just another example of the selective attitude towards human rights and justice that the European media has always been guilty of; it is incontrovertible proof of how the media often serves the larger political agenda of  the powers-that-be.

The other group that has also failed to uphold the tenets of justice and truth in the Marwa tragedy are human rights NGOs in Europe. Quick to expose any human rights violation committed by governments in the Global South, the vast majority of them have been conspicuously silent on the Marwa tragedy. The murderer had crushed the most fundamental of all rights — the right to life — in such a callous manner and yet there has been very little condemnation.

Unless there is a significant transformation in the attitudes of the media and human rights NGOs in Europe, deep-seated prejudices against Europe’s largest religious minority will continue to erupt from time to time. These incidents will make it more difficult to improve relations between Europe and the Muslim world.
However, it is commendable that on this occasion Muslim groups have been largely peaceful in their protests against the Marwa murder. Rational arguments are much more effective in revealing the ugly truth about Islamophobia in Europe.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Unversiti Sains Malaysia.