By Khaled Diab
The life sentence imposed on Marwa al-Sherbini's killer shows that European Islamophobia exists but is not institutionalised.
16 November 2009
While justice can never resurrect the fallen, it can lay them to rest in dignity and help their loved ones better come to terms with their loss.
In the case of Marwa al-Sherbini, the 31-year-old Egyptian pharmacist who was brutally murdered in a German courtroom this summer, the life sentence handed down by a Dresden court to her racist murderer should help ease tensions surrounding the case, which seems to have been hijacked for political point scoring.
First, let me be clear. This was an ugly and disgusting crime and caused the untimely death of an intelligent mother whose loss has undoubtedly left a huge hole in the lives of her husband and her three-year-old son. Her murderer, Alexander (or Axel) Wiens, a 28-year-old German of Russian origin, was certainly a racist and Islamophobe of the first order whose blind, irrational hatred of Muslims is frighteningly common in far-right circles.
But it was the extent and fury of the reaction in Egypt that astounded me. Although it is understandable that public sympathy for al-Sherbini – whose story is set to be turned into a film – and a certain amount of anger would pour out, I was shocked by the fact that she became popularly known as “the martyr of terrorism” and her case was used by some to claim that European Muslims were a “persecuted” minority and Europe was irredeemably Islamophobic.
Rising anti-German sentiment in Egypt even led to calls for sanctions against Germany. For example, the Egyptian Pharmacists' Association, of which al-Sherbini was a member, unfairly called for a boycott of German drugs.
While this over-reaction probably has some roots in the very real discrimination some Muslims face in Europe and the popular anger at US-led western intervention in places like Iraq, and the heavy human toll this has inflicted, Egyptians should not have allowed the actions of a tiny minority to lead them to make unfair generalisations.
As fellow Cif commentator Nesrine Malik said at the time: “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.”
At the time of the murder, I was struck by the ironic parallel between the one-sided self-righteous indignation being expressed by some conservative Egyptian Muslims and the almost identical brand of righteous anger targeted at Muslims by the European far right.
For example, many Egyptians pointed to western prejudice against the hijab and how it was prohibited in government institutions by some European states, such as France, as examples of this alleged persecution. “But what about Muslim prejudice against bare heads?” I asked in an article at the time. “In the interest of fairness, why aren't more Muslims openly outraged by attempts to force women to wear the headscarf against their will, as in Saudi Arabia?”
In Egypt, few protests are raised when the mutaween, the Saudi morality police, routinely arrest and beat Saudi women who are out alone or not wearing a headscarf. In an extreme manifestation of their puritanical attitude, they even caused, in 2002, the death of 15 schoolgirls who were not allowed to flee a burning building because they were not dressed in decent Islamic fashion.
In addition, while European Muslims can and do face discrimination, this Egyptian criticism overlooks the fact that Muslims often have more freedom of conscience in Europe than they do in Egypt, and that non-Muslims can also be the victims of enormous prejudice in Egypt.
Copts have to deal with a lot of unofficial and even some institutionalised discrimination in Egypt, as I highlighted in a recent article.
On hearing that the German courts had given the murderer the stiffest possible sentence – life, without eligibility for early release – my first reaction was that this should help restore shaken confidence, though there have been some complaints that the sentence was too lenient.
Some of the people interviewed on al-Jazeera last night and posting on newspaper message boards today expressed the view that Wiens should have been tried in Egypt and sentenced to death. They are obviously unaware of European laws banning the extradition of suspects to countries where they may face capital punishment.
But the verdict has generally gone down well. For instance, Egypt's ambassador to Germany welcomed the court's ruling, while the independent al-Dostour newspaper called it a “victory for justice“. This should demonstrate to the doubters that, though there may be racist and Islamophobic Germans and Europeans, discrimination against Muslims is not universal nor is it generally institutionalised.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 12 November 2009. Read the related discussion.