Living in Denial: The Tragic Murder of Marwa el-Sherbini

Living in Denial: The Tragic Murder of Marwa el-Sherbini July 9, 2009

A rally to honor Marwa Sherbini. Image via BBC.
A rally to honor Marwa Sherbini. Image via BBC.

By now many Muslims have heard of the tragic murder of Marwa el-Sherbini, mother, daughter, wife, pharmacist, who lived in Germany while her husband completed his Ph.D. May God give her peace and grant her paradise.

According to the BBC:

Marwa Sherbini, 31, was stabbed 18 times by Axel W, who is now under arrest in Dresden for suspected murder. Husband Elwi Okaz is also in a critical condition in hospital, after being injured as he tried to save his wife. Ms Sherbini had sued her killer after he called her a “terrorist” because of her headscarf.

Sherbini, who was pregnant at the time, had sued and won the case. At this point in time they had been in the courthouse to hear Axel/Alex’s appeal.

According to CNN:

The man, identified in German media as Alex A., 28, was convicted of calling Sherbini, who wore a headscarf, “terrorist,” “bitch” and “Islamist” when she asked him him to leave a swing for her 3-year-old son Mustafa during an August 2008 visit to a children’s park.

Subsequently, Sherbini sued W. for his Islamophobic rant.

Christian Avenarius, the prosecutor in Dresden where the incident took place, described the killer as driven by a deep hatred of Muslims. “It was very clearly a xenophobic attack of a fanatical lone wolf.”

He added that the attacker was a Russian of German descent who had immigrated to Germany in 2003 and had expressed his contempt for Muslims at the start of the trial.

The Islamophobic and racist nature of the attack is clear. If one follows the events as reported by the media, it appears clear that this man was driven by a hate of Muslims. He initially referred to her in Islamophobic ways and was thus sued and lost. He then attacked her again, though the nature of the attack is unclear, which resulted in prosecutors seeking a jail term for W. He then murdered Sherbini in the courtroom, yelling “[y]ou have no right to live.”

The Hijab Martyr

Sherbini is being hailed by many Egyptians, as well as others, as the “Hijab Martyr” as she lost her life because she was Muslim, a part of her identity made obvious by her hijab.

Newspapers in Egypt have expressed outrage at the case, asking how it was allowed to happen and dubbing Ms Sherbini “the martyr of the Hijab”.

BBC News

Anger about Sherbini’s death smoldered online, as Twitterers and bloggers pushed the cause.

“She is a victim of hatred and racism,” tweeted Ghada Essawy, among many other Arab twitters and bloggers. Essawy called Sherbini “the martyr of the veil.”


According to numerous interviews in Egyptian local papers with el-Sherbini family, the man who stabbed al-Sherbini used to accuse her of being a “terrorist,” and in one incident, he tried to take off her head scarf. Mourners at her funeral called her the “martyr of the head scarf.”

Huffington Post

Some have stated that claiming her to be a hijab martyr is inappropriate as W. did not state that he hated her because of her hijab or that he killed her because of it. But what they forget is that the hijab is what made it obvious that she was Muslim. It is the hijab which led to the initial harassment. Had she not worn the hijab, perhaps she would not have faced Islamophobic comments. Additionally, Sherbini died defending her right to wear the hijab without fear of harassment as a result of it. Therefore, the term “hijab martyr” seems appropriate in this case. The hijab, in this case, serves to function as the proxy for being Muslim.

It’s about Egyptians, not Sherbini

As Maggie Michael of the Huffington Post mentions this story has received little attention in German and Western media. However, the attention that has been given to the case has focused on the anger Egyptians in Egypt, as well as other Muslims and Arabs, have felt over the case.

BBC News entitled their piece “Egypt mourns ‘headscarf martyr‘”. Additionally, they describe the murderer’s initial actions toward Sherbini as “insulting her religion” – an inaccurate statement, as W. insulted Sherbini herself, not her religion. Making such a statement skews the reality of the case and paints the story as the “Muslim angry over insult to Islam” trope. Stating this lie trivializes Sherbini’s very real experience of personal hate and Islamophobia. It diminishes W.’s hateful actions toward a Muslim woman. It ignores the fact that it was human being who was hurt, not a religion.

CNN reported “Egyptians angry over German court slaying“. The article focuses on the anger that many Egyptians are feeling as a result of the incident providing such quotes as

Many shouted hostile slogans against Germany and called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to take a firm stand on the incident. Egypt’s grand mufti, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, demanded the severest punishment to be issued against Alex A.

Berlin witnessed angry protests on Saturday, when hundreds of Arabs and Muslims demonstrated after a funeral prayer that called her killing an outrageous racist murder against Muslims.

The Guardian entitled their piece “Outrage over Muslim woman killed in court” and continued to explain

Many in her homeland were outraged by the attack and saw the low-key response in Germany as an example of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

“There is no God but God and the Germans are the enemies of God,” chanted mourners for 32-year-old Marwa el-Sherbini in Alexandria, where her body was buried.

“We will avenge her killing,” her brother Tarek el-Sherbini told the Associated Press by telephone from the mosque where prayers were being recited in front of his sister’s coffin. “In the west, they don’t recognise us. There is racism.”

The rage that many feel over her death is not just about the loss of an innocent life. But it also reflects an anger at the hate that many Muslims are facing around the world. Sherbini’s murder, and subsequent silence on the part of Germans, appears to demonstrate a disregard for the experiences and lives of Muslims. Therefore, although many could take those statements out of context and attribute them simply to “those angry Muslims”, one must consider that such anger is not just about Sherbini’s murder. It is about the complicity of many Western nations in Islamophobic beliefs and actions, and about the frustration of Muslims regarding this lack of respect for such traumatic experiences faced by Muslims living in Muslim minority countries.

From the Huffington Post:

A German Muslim group criticized government officials and the media for not paying enough attention to the crime.

“The incident in Dresden had anti-Islamic motives. So far, the reactions from politicians and media have been incomprehensibly meager,” Aiman Mazyek, the general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims, told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel daily.

Egyptian commentators said the incident was an example of how hate crimes against Muslims are overlooked in comparison to those committed by Muslims against Westerners. Many commentators pointed to the uproar that followed the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-born Islamic fundamentalist angry over one of his films criticizing the treatment of Muslim women.

Also from the Huffington Post:

“What we demand is just some attention to be given to the killing of a young innocent mother on the hands of fanatic extremist,” he wrote in his column.

An Egyptian blogger Hicham Maged, wrote “let us play the ‘What If’ game.”

“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,” he said.

Yes, imagine. The news would have spread like wildfire and all Muslims would be being condemned.

From  the articles, one would assume that it is only Egyptians and/or other Arabs and/or Muslims who are the ones outraged by this Islamophobic murder. And one could assume right. No outrage has poured out from Germans. No outrage from any other Western nations either.

It is here I will ask the same question asked of Muslims every time a Muslim some place in the world commits a crime. Where are the moderate Germans I ask? Where are the moderate Westerners? Where is their outrage at the acts of hate by one of their own? Why is the burden of being outraged at the actions of “one of our own” only placed on Muslims? Why can we not expect fellow Germans as complicit in some manner as all Muslims are assumed to be complicit?

We are thought to be one monolithic entity, barbaric to the point of being complicit in all acts of violence. White Westerners on the other hand are viewed as diverse, understood to not condone violence, therefore not required to express their condemnation of violent acts committed in their name. Of course they would not condone such violence, we are expected to believe. But Muslims, and other minority groups, are not given that luxury. We must prove that we condemn violence. Such condemnation of violence cannot be assumed or expected of us. We are after all barbarians, we are expected to believe.

And this leads to my next and final point.

The Lone Wolf

In one above quote W. is described as a lone wolf. In this Racialicious post regrading the shooting at the Holocaust museum, a discussion ensued in the comments section regarding the problems with painting a white supremacist criminal as a lone, crazy killer acting on his/her own. The fact is that such white supremacist beliefs and attitudes do not exist in a vacuum. They do not occur in isolation. They require nurturing and a complicit society. W.’s use of the terms “terrorist” and “Islamist” were not creations of his own imagination. The association of Muslims with terrorism and Islamism was not his creation. His hate of Muslims and derogatory views of Muslims were not his own creation, but rather a creation of the world he lives in. His actions were not that of a lone wolf, but rather of one living in a society full of Islamophobia. This of course does not shift the blame from him, but rather places his behavior in context and demonstrates how, when one is the powerful group in society, if not the world, then that power means a greater ability to perpetuate hateful views and to cause more damage as those words and actions become just another method of oppression.

Additionally, if one views this portrayal as the one lone criminal in contrast to the ways in which people of color, including Muslims of color, are portrayed as guilty by association, one sees the ways in which people of color are viewed as violent barbarians whereas white, non-Muslims as civilized individuals who would never condone violence.


Sherbini’s tragic murder has reminded us once again of the violent nature of Islamophobia and the lack of regard for a Muslim life. From the ways in which the media reports this tragedy, one would assume that Sherbini’s murder has disturbed only those who share her religion. Not many others have expressed any outrage. Even a “German government spokesman, Thomas Steg, said that if the attack was racist, the government ‘naturally condemns this in the strongest terms’ ” (emphasis mine). Although many more should be outraged, there seems to be a denial among those who have allowed for such hateful views of Muslims to perpetuate of the severity of this case.

Let’s hope she gets justice, Insha’Allah.

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