Solving the hijab and dagger case

By Khaled Diab

Egyptian outrage at the brutal of Marwa Sherbini, the ‘hijab martyr' is understandable. But If Egyptians want better justice for Muslims in Europe, then they should demand more justice for non-Muslims at home.

7 July 2009

Marwa el-Sherbini, 32, died a tragic death – tragic because it was so pointless and so unnecessary. The tragedy was multiplied by the fact that the young Egyptian expat was three months pregnant and leaves behind another child.

el-Sherbini, a pharmacist and the wife of an Egyptian academic on a scholarship in , was murdered by her 28-year-old Islamophobic neighbour, identified by the authorities only as Axel W, an unemployed Russian of German descent.

The murder took place in a courtroom in Dresden where Axel was appealing a fine he had imposed on him for insulting el-Sherbini – in 2008, he had called her “a terrorist” because she wore a headscarf. “It was very clearly a xenophobic attack of a fanatical lone wolf,” said Christian Avenarius, the prosecutor in Dresden.

In Alexandria, where el-Sherbini's body was repatriated, hundreds of mourners turned up to the funeral of the “martyr of terrorism” on Monday 6 July. Many carried placards asking: “What crime was she killed for?”

The murder has prompted anti-German sentiment in and, like with the Danish cartoon controversy, some Egyptians are calling for sanctions against Germany. For example, the Egyptian Pharmacists' Association, of which el-Sherbini was a member, called for a boycott of German drugs.

Egyptians have been outraged not just by the murder but by the relative lack of attention it has received in the European media, especially considering the amount of space dedicated to hate crimes perpetrated by Muslims. Hicham Maged, an Egyptian blogger, 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.” Other commentators pointed to the uproar that followed the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.

While the media attention grabbed by the Van Gogh murder was partly a function of his notoriety and celebrity, there is a point to be made that this brutal murder should've attracted more media attention.

But to play the same ‘what if' game as Hicham Maged above, I also have a hypothetical question: “What 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?”

Yes, there is prejudice in Western countries against the hijab, and Muslims are understandably incensed by this, especially when it is institutionalised in law. But what about Muslim prejudice against bare heads? In the interest of fairness, why aren't more Muslims openly outraged by attempts to force women to wear the headscarf against their will, such as in Saudi Arabia?

The ‘mutaween', the Saudi morality police, routinely arrest and beat Saudi woman out alone or not wearing a headscarf, and have been known to pester Western women and arrest them up on trumped up charges of “prostitution”. In an extreme manifestation of their puritanical attitude, they 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 and barred male passers-by from rescuing them.

Respect for local mores and customs, I hear some say in defence. Well, if that's the case, surely then there should be nothing wrong with the reverse occurring and European countries banning the hijab because it goes against their customs? Personally, I believe in freedom of conscience and freedom of faith, so I don't think that any government has the right to tell people how they can or cannot worship.

Egyptians rightly criticise the and discrimination against Muslims in Europe. But this criticism overlooks two pertinent facts: 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 prejudice and even some institutionalised discrimination in Egypt, while converts to Christianity are ostracised and sometimes even persecuted, as the current case of Maher el-Gohary illustrates. This does not mean that all Egyptian Muslims are anti-Christian – in fact, most are pretty tolerant. The same can be said of European attitudes towards Muslims.

I'm as outraged as any Egyptian by the ugly murder of Marwa el-Sherbini. But if Egyptians want better justice for Muslims in Europe, then they should start at home and demand more justice for non-Muslims in Egypt.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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9 thoughts on “Solving the hijab and dagger case

  • I totally agree with you .. I am an Egyptian and not veild
    and I face alot of discrimination at my work because of that
    to the extent that I had to leave My job .

  • Dear Khaled, this is a nice article and I understand what you mean but I think focusing on the ‘lone wolf’ became a bad habbit played on the both sides which means stereotyping.

    Nevertheless, I found reports pointing to my article highlighting only on the “what if” game and ignoring the rest of the post and thus the meaning of it was lost. Hereby, I invite you to read my new post that follows up this event and it’s entitled “De-Stereotyping the Image?”

  • Yasmine, my article is basically a call for introspection. Egyptians have every right to be upset and sad at this tragic murder but people must not blow it out of proportion – it is an isolated event. Although it is rooted in a resevoir of Islamophobia, this should be put into context, i.e. many Europeans are not Islamophobic. In addition, as the saying goes, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. If Egypt treated its Christians in an exemplary fashion, then it could afford to take the absolute moral high ground.

    Sir Percy, thank you for your sensible words. Indeed, there are a lot of question marks surrounding this case that need to be answered. Europe also has to be careful of the danger of scapegoating Muslims.

    Mohamed, you are both right and wrong. Yes, many westerners live well in Muslim countries but there are also ocassional horror stories. Which, if you think about it, is like in Europe: most Muslims live well (in fact, have better lives than in their home countries) but there are ocassional horror stories. And that is what my article is about: putting it into context.

    In addition, you miss the most pertinent point I make: Marwa is being called the ‘Hijab martyr’ because she was attacked for wearing a headscarf. How about those Saudi and Iranian women who are arrested for not wearing a hijab, are you not angry for their human rights?

  • Pingback: Marwa Sherbini : 'The Hijab martyr'. - Page 17 -

  • Mohamed Egyptian

    What an unbelievable argument! Westerners are all living and working safely in Muslim countries implementing their own cultures in our own countries. Have you not heard about the British women who were caught numerous times having sex on the beach in Dubai. It’s a muslim country and such thing is not allowed probably even in Britain! What happened to them? They are all safe and sound back home.

    So to say that westerners could possibly be killed by Muslims in a Muslim country for not wearing hijab!!! This is an unbelivable argument. Westerners live in Muslim countries and never bother to learn a word of the local country while earning 10 times what they would have earned back home (example: the Gulf: Qatar, UAE, Bahrain). I know this for a fact because I work with them. They drink, get drunk and do everything their culture does and doesn’t accept, yet they are never touched even when they break the law!

    So please, stop this silly argument as when westerners come to Muslim countries, they neither dress, nor behave nor talk the language of the native people. They impose their culture on them! Let alone be forced to wear Hijab! Where do you get your facts from? have you ever been abroad?

    Imagine this pregnant Muslim was a Jew killed in Germany, what would have happened? What coverage the media would have done? What would the german counciller have done?

  • Pingback: Is Europe really Islamophobic? « Islamophobes United

  • Dear Mr.Khaled Diab,
    it sounds wisely to me of what you say. I especially appreciate the that you do not blame one side – eastern nor the western.
    I am german and I heard about the murder in Dresden in our tv-broadcasting at that night. I was terrified and shocked. The newscast is somewhat unemotional and hard-headed in Germany, sometimes this is what’s needed sometimes not. So I got to know the details of the case form the internet, what made me even more shocked and very sad. And it leaves many questions unanswered, why got the knife in the courtroom, why did the courtsecurity failed so much as he shot at Marwa’s husband.

    I read in different blogs and websites in the last hours, and my thoughts go to Marwa el-Sherbini`s husband, child and her kin.

    About the news coverage, I hope to hear more when the attacker gets his sentence. I agree with some opinons that the statements from german newscasts were unbalanced and did not comply with the undeniable problem of prejudices against islamic fellow citizens in Germany. Tue be true I catch myself sometimes pondering about hijabs, but I fear
    ongoing suspicions of muslims in western society. We don’t need such but we do need to be aware and and try to see very clearly what muslims await from christians and

  • Yasmine El Behiery

    While I agree with many points raised in this article, it ends with what comes across as a defensive statement: “But if Egyptians want better justice for Muslims in Europe, then they should start at home and demand more justice for non-Muslims in Egypt”. You are asking Egypt to set an example of how individuals should be treated in order for Germany to reciprocate. Egypt does not incur responsibility for the unjust treatment afforded to Muslims in Germany.

    The injustice perpetrated against Non-Muslims in Egypt is wrong and the same goes for the injustice against Muslims in Germany. A case of a woman who is killed for not wearing the hijab is not any different from the case of a woman who is killed for wearing the veil. These are two extreme examples that show religious/identity intolerance on the part of both Egypt and Germany. Maybe if youhad stated that clearly in your article, you would have come across as genuine.

    You also overlook talking about how the Egyptian lady’s husband was treated. How can, in a court of law, a psychopath get away with stabbing a person eight times with the German police only reacting by shooting the Egyptian lady’s husband: the only person who came to her rescue? This detail was conveniently ignored but it shows how Germany has a long way to go; maybe the Germans too should take a step back and reflect.

    Via Facebook on 8 July 2009

  • Mona Eltahawy

    Khaled – great points you make in your article.

    I got into an argument yesteday with a young man berating me for being harsh on fellow Muslims.

    I told him that to do otherwise is to expect Europeans/westerners generally to be superior grade humans to us, which I reject. … Read More

    He made the analogy of expecting more from a German-made car than a Chinese-made car.

    And the argument went on for too long.

    But when it comes to our fellow Egyptians, this is indeed turning into the Danish Cartoon crisis part one hundred. It’s an absolutely tragic murder and Axel W is a racist bastard, no doubt. But our fellow Egyptians are too far along the rage line right now for self-criticism and introspection. Too bad.

    May she rest in peace and may we learn something constructive from such a tragic waste of life.

    ViaFacebook on 7 July 2009


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