Hijab and dagger

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 ?

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 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.

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