The tragic death of Marwa El Sherbini

Marwa Sherbini, Elwy Okaz and their son Mostapha

Marwa Sherbini, Elwy Okaz and their son Mostapha

***Updated: see below***

Probably most of you by now read about the tragic story of Marwa El Sherbini. If not read this:
WORLD BULLETIN- TURKEY, MUSLIMS, ISLAM, BALKANS, CAUCASUS [ German killing of headscarved woman at court raises fears in Europe ]

Marwa Sherbini, a 32-year-old Egyptian national was suing her attacker after he insulted her for wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Sherbini stood in court to give evidence against court appeal before German man took out a knife and stabbed her 18 times.

Marwa took her 3-year old son Mostapha to play in a Dresden park. A German man, identified only as Axel W, insulted her because of wearing headscarf and called her a “terrorist”. She filed a case against him in German courts after the incident.

When she won the case and the court fined him the €780 for having abused her. But German man appealed against the verdict, German media said.

Also, her husband and her son were present in the court room. When the assailant attacked Marwa her husband ran to rescue her. But the assailant stabbed him 3 times. Meanwhile, a German security officer in court shot the husband in the leg too.

The husband Elwy Okaz lapsed into a coma and was taken to hospital suffering from serious injuries to the stomach and liver.

That should be enough to make you very angry and upset. For many it does and, so it seems, for many it doesn’t.
Who was Marwa Sherbini?
She was a ‘star pupil’at El Nasr Girls’ College, an old and very prestigious school for girls in Alexandria, Egypt. Between 1992 and 1999 she was a member of the Egyptian national handball team. After she got married to Elwy Okaz the couple moved to Germany where he became a genetics post-doc researcher at the Max Planck Institute (which issued a press statement about the case). The couple had one child, a boy, and Marwa was pregnant with their second child at the time she was murdered.
The court case
Alex W., a Russian-German citizen, called Marwa in a Dresden playground “Islamist”, “terrorist” and “bitch” in a dispute over a swing that his niece wanted to use but was taken by Marwa’s son. After the initial case the public prosecuter appealed because of the xenophopic nature of the incident that became even more apparent when Alex W. during the initial trial declared that Marwa “[does not] have the right to live here”. When Alex W. stabbed Marwa he was, as has been reported by some witnesses, shouting “you don’t deserve to live”. A police man was called to the scene but mistakenly shot Marwa’s husband in the leg (apparently the officer thought the husband was the perpetrator) while he was trying to defend and protect his wife and was already critically wounded by the attack. She has been buried in Egypt.
Media Reports
On Dutch webfora, weblogs, and Egyptian blogs there is a lot of discussion about this tragedy and in particular about the alleged lack of media attention.
Egyptian chronicles: What If She Were A Lesbian

This is for sure a hate crime but unlike other hate crimes like homophobic crimes or anti-Semitic crimes ,it did not make the headlines abroad and I do not know why !! This is a racism crime , a woman is shot down like that so simple in the court room for God sake and it is not important to be covered in the media as it should !! She was a mother who was a pregnant for God sake !!

Yes it is very tempting to play the ‘What if game’
I hate everything about You! | Hicham Maged’s blog

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 Heaven- in any Middle Eastern country by Muslim extremists, or even what the media used to call ‘minorities’ in Egypt! You definitely would have heard the world’s buzzing and the internet goes down too!

Now of course the media will deny that there is anything such as Islamophobia on their part. They usually resort to pragmatic legitimizations of their decisions to publish or not to publish. Take for example the Dutch’s decision (my translation)

[…the] report about the controversy has not been included in the newspaper simply because their is not much space for foreign news. The foreign office editors has to make choices. Anti-Muslim sentiments do not play a role in that. Furthermore the fact that in Germany there is hardly any debate at a high level was a reason for this decision. There wasn’t even a debate about stricter rules for entering a court house.

What this statement makes clear is that such a decision, whether or not influenced by ‘anti-muslim’ sentiments, is not neutral? A person accused of a crime manages to sneak a knife into the courthouse is not a matter of debate? And this lack of debate is not news? Meaning that this is normal? In the process of making decisions of what to include and not to include several aspects play a role:Agenda Setting Theory

# Agenda setting Agenda setting is giving priorities to alternative policy issues. Whereas early communications studies had shown a mixed picture about the ability of media to influence opinions on a given issue, Cohen (1963) and others showed that the media had much greater capacity to influence which issues were perceived as important. That is, the media agenda (policy rankings by importance in the media) influences both the public agenda (rankings in opinion surveys) and the policy agenda (rankings in legislative bodies).

# Salience transfer refers to the capacity of the media (or other actors) to influence the relative importance individuals attach to policy issues. A notable study proving the existence of salience transfer was that by Iyengar, Peters, & Kinder (1982), where experimental groups gave baseline priorities, then were exposed to different news broadcasts with different policy emphases over four dayst, then rated priorities again. The authors found subjects’ issue rankings realigned to match the media agenda.

# Gatekeeping refers to how media content is controlled. Gatekeeping determines the content of salience transfer.

# Framing. The importance and interpretation people attach to potential items on the public agenda are strongly influenced by how the media present news stories (Chyi & McCombs, 2004). Entman (2004), for instance, attributes differential foreign policy perceptions to how the media cheered American victories in Grenada and Panama but took scant note of success of far more difficult missions in Haiti and Kosovo. Another example cited by Entman is the media labeling an incident in which a U.S.S.R. aircraft shot down a civilian aircraft as an “attack,” while labeling as a “tragedy” a similar incident in which an American aircraft shot down a civilian Iran Air airplane. Earlier work by Entman (2001) focused on framing examples related to racial issues in the U. S.

# Priming. Where framing centers on political loading of the presentation of news, consciously or not, priming has to do with drawing attention to certain issues even in a neutral manner. For instance, priming survey respondents with information about street crime may affect the views expressed on crime policy as compared to the same survey administered without priming.

What matters here is in the first place agenda-setting. There are two basic assumptions underlying most research on agenda-setting:
Agenda-Setting Theory « Jen1nat’s Blog

Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting:

1. the press and the media do not always reflect reality; they filter and shape it

2. the concentration of the media on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

It is important to remember that although the influence of the media agenda can be substantial, it alone does not determine the public agenda.

While agenda-setting influences what topics are high at the agenda, the overall attention for violence perpetrated by Muslims (or people calling themselves Muslims or are categorized as such) may account for a lack of attention for this topic. Nevertheless it is difficult to determine what is sufficient media attention. There are several reports in the Dutch newspapers NRC, Telegraaf, Trouw. Also German newspapers have covered the issue such as Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Welt, Frankfurter Algemeine, and Der Spiegel and also for example the BBC, The Guardian and Daily Mail. It is impossible to decide if that is enough or not and very difficult to assess even if compared with other similar cases. What is interesting in the reports of this event is the issue of framing.
Framing « Iowa Journalism

Framing is based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in news reports can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences. (Scheufele, 2007) This gives reporters a lot of power depending on how they want to swing their story, but it also defines the good and bad reporters based on whether the story they are reporting is truthful or not.

Now there are a number of ways in which this event can be framed. We can talk about a terrorist attack at the German constitutional state, we can talk about an act of heroïsm: the husband who tries to save the woman he loves and/or the mother of his children, we can talk about how Russian culture influences Alex’s decision to kill her or how German culture is to blame. We can talk about it as proof of a serious breach in the safety procedures of the court room. But this doesn’t happen. In general we see two frames: headscarf-martyr and the angry Muslim. Let’s have a closer look at both.
The headscarf martyr
This is most clear in the article of the GuardianThe headscarf martyr: murder in German court sparks Egyptian fury at west’s ‘Islamophobia’ | World news | The Guardian

While the horrific incident that took place a week ago tomorrow has attracted little publicity in Europe, and in Germany has focused more on issues of court security than the racist motivation behind the attack, 2,000 miles away in her native Egypt, the 32-year-old pharmacist has been named the “headscarf martyr”.

Now the controversy of course to a certain extent has to do with the headscarf as a public symbol of Marwa Sherbini’s Muslim identity and religiosity. The racist background of the murder aimed against her religion and against her as someone defending the right to wear the headscarf, make this framing understandable and it probably resonates among a wide audience; those focusing on the racism issue and those who have problems with a public display of Islam.
The angry Muslim

We are the angry mob
We read the papers everyday day
We like who like
We hate who we hate
But we’re also easily swayed

This excerpt from a Kaiser Chiefs’ song adequately sums up this frame. Muslims who are angry about almost everything easily influenced by media reports. This frame is apparent in almost all of the reports.

Egyptian Fury at Dresden Murder: Protestors Accuse Germany of Racism – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International

Fury and sorrow in Egypt: the murder of a pregnant Egyptian woman in a German courtroom last week has sparked protests in Egypt with mourners chanting “Down With Germany.” The woman was stabbed to death in a racist attack.

A brutal murder in Germany last week has caused shockwaves in far-off Egypt. Thousands of mourners took to the streets of Alexandria on Monday to protest at the funeral of a pregnant Egyptian woman who was stabbed to death inside a German court in a crime that has provoked fury in her home country.

Egyptian newspapers have given strong coverage to the death of Marwa al-Sherbini (32), describing the veiled woman as a “martyr in a headscarf” and suggesting the killer was motivated by a hatred of Islam.

Related to this frame is the aforementioned accusation that there is not enough attention in Western media about this case and not enough moral outcry by Westerners, in particular Germans. The ‘angry Muslim’ is a sort of pet frame in the media and often references are made to earlier case of Muslim rage such as the killing of Theo van Gogh and of course the Prophet Muhammad Cartoons Controversy. Wilders film Fitna has build its notorious reputation almost solely on the expectation of Muslim rage.

Now what do these frames do? This is perhaps most obvious when we look at a very clear combination of both frames:
The Jawa Report: “Headscarf Martyr” Marwa Sherbini Incites Muslim World

“Headscarf Martyr” Marwa Sherbini Incites Muslim World

(Dresden, Germany) This story out of Germany is creating shock waves throughout the Muslim world while the Western mainstream media are slowly catching up.

Marwa-El-Sherbini.jpgIn the summer of 2008, a 32-year-old pharmacist and native Egyptian, Marwa el-Sherbini, was insulted by an unemployed worker from Russia, 28-year-old Alex W. (aka Alex A.) for wearing the hijab. He had screamed that Sherbini was a terrorist and an Islamist whore.

In November 2008, Alex W. was found guilty of insulting and abusing Sherbini and consequently assessed a fine. Alex W. appealed the verdict.

Last week, while the case was being heard on appeal, Sherbini, now pregnant, and her husband, Elvi Ali Okaz, appeared in the Dresden court along with Alex W.

While Sherbini was testifying about the incident of insult and abuse in the summer of 2008, Alex W. walked across the courtroom and plunged a knife into her 18 times. As Mr. Okaz ran to save his wife, he was shot by a police officer who mistook him for the assailant. Sherbini died and Okaz is currently under intensive care at a Dresden hospital.

The death is being blamed on anti-Muslim hatred with outrage echoing across the Muslim world. The situation is being compared to the turmoil created by the publication of the Mohammad cartoons. Expect more on this story.

Besides by creating Muslim rage as a matter of fact (expect more on this story) it also makes the whole story a foreign one. No Egypt is not angry about Sherbini, but angry about the attack. This is by the way not an Egyptian story, but a German one. It produces images of strangeness, foreignness, exoticism, and fanaticism in the imagination of the public that serves to distance readers from sympathy for the victims, or outrage toward the injustice, the lack of safety in the courts, the lack of safety for Muslim women in public, and (to a certain extent) the racism in European societies. The victim has almost no agency and is reduced as a symbol of Islam and as objects coming from outside. For the Egyptian newspaper this frames produces yet again the idea of a racist Europe that is hostile to Islam as has been ‘proven’ earlier by the publishing of the insulting cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the lack of attention among Europeans. To be clear it is not entirely true that there is no moral outrage among Germans but it is also mentioned that he is Russian, guided by hate and was a loner. He was therefore not a product of a European culture that has became increasingly racist or intolerant towards Muslims, but also an exotic byproduct. While often in the case of Muslims (and the angry Muslim frame is an example of that) an explanation is often sought in the Islamic traditions or patriarchal cultures of their homecountries. Whether it is the Egyptian newspaper or the European newspapers the issue is reduced to an attack on an Islamic symbolic object.


Several readers have send me interesting comments from others. Below you find a few:
Marwa El Sherbini Did Not Die For Her Hijab, So Please Stop Saying That She Did « Muslimah Media Watch

In Germany the Muslim community is ethnically homogeneous, with the vast majority being of Turkish ethnicity. Even without her headscarf, her coloring and ethnicity means that Marwa would have still looked like an ‘Auslander‘ and a Muslim one at that.

Yet, all over the media she is dubbed as the Headscarf Martyr or the Hijab Martyr, meaning that the focus is once again on Muslim women’s clothing and whether they should wear certain items or not. The case is even being conflated with Sarkosy’s proposal to ban the burqa.

Again, Muslim women’s bodies are being discussed only in terms of the clothes they wear and again the world offers its opinion without listening to Muslim women.

The problem with this talk of martyrdom and clothing, both in the Muslim and non-Muslim press, is that it allows focus to slip away from the true actor of the piece: Alex W., the murderer.


By having the same tired clothing discussions, this opportunity to address Islamophobic and racist violence is being lost in the spin of the “Hijab Martyr”. The truth is buried as deeply as Marwa’s body.

The truth being: Marwa did not die because she was wearing a hijab, she died because a racist murderer killed her.

Europe, Islamophobia and Lone Wolves « Nuseiba

So racism in Europe and America must be understood within a historical context. The ideological justification for racism has been maintained for centuries. The Enlightenment provided the colonial powers with an explicitly racist justification for the colonial project. The period allowed the colonial powers to justify the dehumanization of colonial subjects. And that they did extremely well. Racism today might not be so strictly ‘race-based’ anymore, but like John Solomos and Les Beck point out race today is “coded as culture.” This is the new racism – defined by George Fredrickson as “a way of thinking about difference that reifies and essentializes culture rather than genetic endowment, or in other words, makes culture do the work of race.” The institutionalized structures of racist ideology remain operative, but they now stigmatize cultural or religious groups as dangerous and foreign. And the fact remains: hostility and discrimination against Muslims “represent a reversion to the way that the differences between ethnoracial groups could be made to seem indelible and unbridgeable.”

Muslims as ‘cultural objects’ « Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist

More and more we can find examples in which Muslims are reduced to their material culture and religious culture: Muslim women reduced to their hijabs, niqabs, burkas, chadors; Muslim men represented as repressive, violent, fanatic and irrational and so on. Just read some commentaries about Muslim women, or about Muslim life in general, and you will be able to understand why I say that Muslims are reduced to their ‘material culture’.

The main element of this grievous fallacy, as I have explained in The Anthropology of Islam, is the idea that Muslims are shaped by culture and in particular by their own religion: Islam. If you think that this cultural objectification of Muslims is innocuous, it is time to rethink and read the story of a woman in Germany who was killed because of her hijab.

Contrary to the expectations of many, the killer is not her husband or father trying to defend their honor or Islam, but rather a white German neighbor whom the victim had brought to court for slander. Indeed, for this killer, what he wanted to offend, and then ended in murdering, was not the victim as a human being, but rather her dress, her hijab, the cultural material expression of what he hated: Islam.

Back to the so-called ‘veil’, burka, hijab and women. It is clear that the reason for wearing one has multiple motives, both internal and external. Each case is different and personal and to try to discuss an ‘epistemology’ of ‘veil’ is not only a useless exercise but also an objectifying one. The danger is particularly high in anthropology and sociology, since these disciplines have a methodological tendency to deny individuality. […]

To reduce the individual to society is a misleading analytical approach, but to reduce the individual to his or her material culture and (stereotyped) religious beliefs is not only intellectually dishonest but also extremely dangerous. An example of the dangers of this approach can be observed in the objectification of Jews that occurred in Nazi Germany, and the Final Solution planned for the Jewish culture, and consequently the entire Jewish population, as the ‘Jew’ was believed to be merely an expression of Judaism.

14 thoughts on “The tragic death of Marwa El Sherbini

  1. @Izz ad-Din,
    Ik ken het ja, een erg goed boek. Zowel op micro- als op macroniveau legt hij heel precies uit wat de relatie is tussen (geinstitutionaliseerd) racisme en de media. Het blijft wat zwak als het gaat om het leggen van verbindingen tussen micro- en macroniveau maar dat is ook erg lastig, misschien zelfs onmogelijk. Dat is ook de reden dat ik hier toch nog redelijk voorzichtig blijf. Aan de andere kant blijkt dat deze entry op mijn blog enorm hoog scoort in google. Dat ligt niet zozeer aan dit blog, maar wel aan het achterblijven van andere media en grote blogs. Vergelijk de (terecht) grote aandacht voor de anti-semitisme zaak in Frankrijk waar nu de veroordeling gevallen is, met deze zaak.

  2. Blind eyes of major western media like BBC and CNN in Marwa al-Sherbini case raised many question about their role in conducting such event. Many Muslim believe that they are main responsible for extending racism against Islam. Removing images of this anti human case from internet had a clear message for human rights fans. THERE IS NO RESPECT TO HUMAN RIGHT IN WESTERN COUNTRIES!!! The important issue which all Muslim people should concern about it is, why we should consume western countries product?!! Doesn’t consuming German product mean ignorance about denying obvious human rights?
    When BBC and CNN want to be honest to people? Why they think that others have low intelligence and can not find the truth hided behind their false broadcasting?

  3. Why don’t you stop whining about this Marwa accident? I don’t hear any muslims protesting and agitating when non-muslims get killed by muslims (thousands and thousands every year all over the Western world). And secondly, is it so surprising that a man, tired of this muslim arrogance, takes the law in his own hands? This is an exception, but I expect that there will be more and more vigilantes in de near future. And don’t blame the West, blame this intolerant doctrine called islam.

  4. Very tragic indeed, but i am irritated by the outrage in Egypt about ‘European racism’, while they treat their own minorities (like Kopts) like shit. Very hypocritical…

  5. And also, ‘racism’ is about races, not about religion. So this word shouldn’t be used in this case.

  6. Slam to all muslims:
    All of my muslim brothers and sisters and all muslim countries should should take strict action against germany court and the security who has fired on Marwa’s husband and the person who has killed Marwa.
    Islam is just one religion who have the most rights for muslim women.
    Islam has always respect woman.
    May God show his anger to whome who hates muslim InshaAllah.
    Islam Zindaabad

  7. For the person who said not to make such a big deal about this case since so many westerners die at the hands of muslims all over the western world, you obviously have some lack of morals. Regardless of the fact of whether she was muslim or not, do you have no sense of pity and anger that in a court of justice, where people are supposed to be safe, a pregnant women was stabbed 18 times and her husband stabbed and shot at while her three year old son watched her die? The fact that she is muslim adds even more woe to the muslim community who, unlike christians and jews, have a certain connecting ummah. A tragedy for one muslim deeply moves and affects another more than a tragedy of a christian affects a christain (though both are very very strongly affected).
    Westerners are killed by muslims only in terrorist attacks on western soil; these receive HUGE amounts of publications. I hear more stories of a homosexual man getting beaten up by another man outside a gay bar than a muslim hurting a western man in America. If you want to extend your argument to not just be limited to western soil, what exactly are westerners doing on Arabic soil? Most of them are fighting as soldiers against the countries, so the people are naturally and quite obviously going to fight back.
    If you are too close minded and greedy in your emotions to not have a sense of sympathy toward Marwa El Sherbini since “westerners get more pain” (give me a break), then you really don’t have much of a conscience. Salam

  8. Islam is not intolerant; people’s ways of twisting it and using it for their own political purposes and powers has made it seem that way. Islam encourages women to cover themselves so that they are not thought of only for their beauty but rather for other things they do (modesty, hard work, dilligence), condemns the killing of innocent people (those who have done nothing to you), demands a certain percentage of income to go to the poor, upholds modesty, protects the orphan and children, creates certain behaviors that will protect against disease (ex. no liquor and no sex or touching before marriage), etc. Those who bomb innocent people, beat their wives, force their daughters into marriage even if they do not want to marry a person (THis is prohibited, girls have the right to say no to someone’s hand in marriage), do honor killings (prohibited since it is haram to kill another muslim unless in self defense), etc. are breaking the rules of Islam. please do not think that these poor examples of Islam represent true Islam!

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