Marwa el-Sherbini, 32, 3 month pregnant, stood in a Dresden courtroom last Thursday, testifying against a man charged with racially insulting her. Then the defendant leapt across the courtroom, and stabbed her with a knife, no fewer than 18 times. As her husband, Eliv Ali Okaz, ran to her aid, he was shot by police who mistook him for the attacker. Now Okaz lies in a critical condition in intensive care at a Dresden hospital. Mustafa, their three-year-old son, witnessed the entire ordeal.
This hideous incident all started with a headscarf. Last August, in a local park, Sherbini, an Egyptian, who has lived in Germany with her young family since 2003, working as a pharmacist, got into an argument with ‘Alex W’, an unemployed stock controller from Russia. Their dispute concerned whose turn it was - his niece or her three-year-old son Mustafa - to have a go on the swings at the playground there. The Russian then called her a “terrorist” and an “Islamist whore”, for wearing a hijab.
Alex W was initially fined 780 euros for the incident, but after he told Sherbini, “You don’t have the right to live here” at the first trial, the prosecutor sought to get a harsher sentence for his xenophobic tirade.
Despite the dramatic nature of this anti-Islamic attack, this case has received very little attention in the western press and has provoked Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world to strongly condemn Germany’s “muted” response to the incident. There, much of the debate has centred on the technical details of courtroom security.
The attack comes only weeks after President Sarkozy publicly condemned the burka as a “sign of subservience” and encouraged parliamentary discussions to ban Muslim residents in France from wearing them in public.
France has Europe’s largest number of Muslims, approximately five million people. But the Muslim population in Germany, many of them the Turkish workers who came in the 1960s and their children, is now close to four million - much greater than originally estimated. According to German law, four out of 16 of the country’s states currently have the right to ban teachers and governmental employees from wearing Muslim headscarves in the workplace. Understandably, the attack on Sherbini and these increasing restrictions on Muslims in France and Germany have only further convinced the Muslim community of the tide of western and European intolerance waged against them.
Only a week before the attack, the UN Special Rapporteur for racism, Githu Muigai, had visited the country, and stressed that Germany “needs to turn its attention to the problems of daily racism and discrimination”.
Muigau is not a lone voice. In the run up to the 2006 World Cup, Uwe-Karsten Heye, a former government spokesperson, was quoted by Der Spiegel saying that there were parts of Germany where he “would advise a visitor of another skin colour to avoid going to.” In the radio interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur, Heye went on to add that, in such areas, there was the possibility that dark-skinned people “wouldn’t get out alive.”
Now this racism has been tragically highlighted by Sherbini’s murder. Dubbed the “headscarf martyr” by the Egyptian press, Sherbini, who played handball for the Egyptian national team, has become a symbol of how Europe treats Muslims. When she was buried in her native Alexandria, leading politicians joined thousands of mourners, many of whom chanted “Germans are the enemies of God.”
Since then, there have been discussions about naming a road after Sherbini, and calls to picket the German embassy. And the organisation of Egyptian pharmacists have proposed a week’s boycott of German medicine.