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Let’s pretend it’s curry wurst dripping through her scarf?

Sometime in 2008, a Muslim woman clad in a hijaab (head scarf) was verbally abused in the East German city of Dresden by a German-Russian named Axel W who called her an Islamist, a slut, a terrorist and some other politically erroneous nonsense. Marwa el-Sherbini, an Egyptian national who was married and working in Germany, sued him for defamation and won the case after Axel made clear his contempt “for people like her”. Axel was fined €780 for being a toss. But Axel filed an appeal and at the hearing in the first week of July 2009, he stabbed and killed el-Sherbini inside the courtroom.

El-Sherbini’s husband, Elwi Ali-Okaz, tried to intervene but he was also overpowered and stabbed. Their three-year-old son, watched in horror as both father and pregnant mother were each stabbed about 18 times.

The Polizei, or German police, so used to chasing bicycle thieves and Hollywood Hitlers, opened fire in the courtroom, and just when you thought the drama had reached its climax; el-Sherbini’s husband was shot in error.

Axel was finally whisked away and charged for manslaughter, while el-Sherbini’s husband was taken to intensive care in a critical state.

The German government remained silent for a week, while the German media focused on safety issues in German courtrooms since this was the second court case in a year that involved some uninvited gunfire, whips and chains.

It was a rather peculiar response.

If el-Sherbini was in court because of a dispute over a car sale or a break-in, and was then murdered, of course both government and media focus should naturally fall on safety issues in German courtrooms.

But this had hate plastered all over it; this was no ordinary murder by some Bavarian hillbilly.

In fact, if one considers that the same German media, just a month earlier, printed a press release from the Fundamental Right Agency (FRA) about a new report dealing specifically with the discrimination of Muslims in Europe, the response from both the state and the media becomes less peculiar and more ominous.

This report clearly demonstrated that Muslims were suffering enough discrimination in Europe to make them cranky citizens.

Crucially the report indicated that victims of hate crimes were not reporting such crimes to the authorities because of a lack of access and trust in the system.

Based on interviews with more than 8 000 Muslims across 14 European countries, the FRA found that 31% of all interviewees claimed to have suffered some form of discrimination in Europe between 2008 and 2009. Of these, 79% said they did not report it to the necessary authorities. It was further revealed that 80% of all respondents said they didn’t know how to report such abuse when it happened while 59% believed that nothing would change if they went ahead and actually did report the incident.

These are startling statistics, especially for a continent often too quick to point out human rights violations in other people’s backyards.

By default, it was the perfect opportunity for both the German government and the local media to put a human face to these heinous statistics and make it clear that such crimes were not going to be tolerated.

But both government and media performed a perfunctory piss on the issue.

In the victim’s home country, Egypt, the local Muslim population was naturally outraged by the incident and their response was unashamedly Muslim in character. They protested against the hate crime, Germany’s pathetic response and the impotency of their own Egyptian government in failing to adequately challenge Germany’s response. Not to be undone, citizens in Iran, still kitted in their tweeting-protest outfits, also rushed to the streets and demonstrated against the heinous crime.

El-Sherbini was immediately dubbed the “headscarf martyr”; her murder becoming the symbol of Muslim women’s struggle to wear hijaab in Europe.

It was a typically impulsive response from the Islamic world, lacking coordination and guile. As usual their passion drowned out the point of their passion.

Some Muslims do really strange things.

If you draw a cartoon depicting their Prophet Muhammad as a violent internationalist, they will burn down your embassy. If you say that Islamic schools are grooming terrorists, or that madressas are parochial they will threaten to kill you. Ironic really — especially if you consider that Islam really does mean peace — and some Muslims are just so prepared to kill you — to make you understand.

Every religion comes with a few loose canons.

Nevertheless, while calling El-Sherbini the “scarved martyr” is lyrical, even endearing, it shifts the focus away from engaging with Islamophobia as a social disease to the debates on the scarf in Europe.

So used to publishing Muslim stories about honour killings or husbands beating their docile wives for stepping out her cage after-hours or poor immigrants battling it out with unemployed Germans, German media appeared out of their depth in trying to deal with a story outside the easy stereotype of Muslim women being passive doormats.

Here was an educated Muslim women (a pharmacist) married to a PhD scholar studying at the Max Planck Institute, exercising her legal rights to defend herself using German law and yet she pays with her life (as well as the lives of her family) for her efforts.

In a media-obsessed country, not more than three publications picked up on the hypocrisy of Germany’s poor handling of the case as well as its failure to protect minorities.

Perhaps their silence was really a SOS message screaming of a severe machine dysfunction: “How do we report, or heaven forbid, analyse such an issue? No one has trained us to cover how a Western state failed a hijaab-clad-working-Muslim-woman who was actually ‘normal’. What is the angle exactly? Honour killings, enslaved women and burka stories fit the agenda. But what purpose would this story serve?”

But I tried to find out why they had been so quiet.

I mailed some of the biggest newspapers in Germany, bidding their editors to tell me why they didn’t give the issue its full due, and if this question was unfair, why so. And to ensure that they didn’t think I was some radical with a belt around my waist demanding answers, I explained that I had already done some work on the issue before the murder and I was merely doing a follow-up. I asked them to explain why the link between the FRA report (compared to a report printed on papyrus in Osama’s cave) and why this particular incident was not exploited by the media to motivate further debate towards taking a decisive stance against such hate crimes.

No one responded. I know my mail was circulated in Deutsche Welle (the BBC of the German world), only because of a contact, but even then, it got dumped on a freelance journalist who made it clear that her responses were her views and were not be attributed to Deutsche Welle.

So to Die Welt, Die Zeit, The Local, Berlin Online and a host of other German publications — thank you for not replying.

I mailed the FRA and asked them why they thought German media had failed to make the link between their report and the woman’s murder — especially since one of the key findings of their report was that victims of abuse chose not to report the crimes — 79% to be precise — and here was one who did report and ultimately lost her life.

I suppose they need mass murder to make a statement.

To be fair, Muslims aren’t mauled at every street corner, and wearing a scarf isn’t like talking on a cellphone in Hillbrow.

But even though violence is rare, the frequency of racist and Islamophobic incidents are increasing and the perception of some sort of persecution is on the rise.

Crucially, there is blanket denial that any of this even exists.

This doesn’t mean that there is going to be an Islamic holocaust in Germany or in Europe, for that matter. The Europe of the European Union, ie those places a Schengen visa would take you without much bother (and obviously not forgetting holes like Bosnia or Chechnya) is a very different place to the Europe of the twenties and thirties.

Today, Europe doesn’t believe in war mongering. Today it isn’t politically correct to wage war. You won’t meet a German who subscribes to the invasion of Iraq or any of the rhetoric around Iraq needing a democratic whipping. But German troops are nevertheless still in Iraq Afghanistan to “support” the war; their businesses quite happy to apply for tenders to rebuild “democracy” and the “market” in tatters.

And this is not hypocrisy?

But if you asked the Roma people (the minority who suffer the most discrimination in Europe), Muslims, blacks and other sub-humans about living in Germany, they will tell you about being spat at, of workplace discrimination, of being denied housing or being asked to pay unreasonable amounts to secure a flat and of being targeted like lepers in trains and trams.

What do they do about these not-so-serious crimes? Wait until they become a tad more passionate?

This is the new Europe. It is tacit in its prejudice and crafty in its zeal as it carefully brands itself as the vanguard of human rights and human dignity and bids the world to aspire to its standards.

You would have thought things would have changed by now.

But they haven’t.

Meanwhile, let’s pretend that its curry wurst dripping through her scarf?


  • Azad Essa

    Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.