BERLIN // Groups representing the four million Muslims living in Germany have complained that Islamophobia there is widespread and accused the government of being too slow to express its sorrow over the killing of a pregnant Egyptian woman, Marwa al Sherbiny, in a courtroom on July 1. The case has led to mass protests in Egypt where demonstrators chanted "down with Germany" at Ms al Sherbiny's funeral last week, and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the United Nations should condemn the German government and justice system.
Ms al Sherbiny, 31, the mother of a three-year-old, was stabbed 18 times by a German of Russian origin. The 28-year-old man who moved to Germany in 2003 was in court in Dresden to appeal against a ?780 (Dh4,000) fine for calling her an "Islamist", "terrorist" and "slut" when she asked him to make room to let her son go on the swings at a playground. During the courtroom attack he also stabbed Ms al Sherbiny's Egyptian husband, a research scientist at a German institute in Dresden, who was then shot in the leg by a police officer who had rushed into the courtroom and mistook him for the attacker.
Muslim groups in Germany said the murder highlighted everyday hostility to Muslims, especially to women like Ms al Sherbiny who made their faith easily recognisable by wearing headscarves. "Marwa is the most tragic victim so far among our Muslim sisters who suffer humiliation, suspicion and discrimination," the Co-ordination Council of Muslims said in a statement. "It's high time that the government takes Islamophobia in our country seriously." About two-thirds of Muslims in Germany are of Turkish origin.
The government did not respond to the killing for almost a week. Thomas Steg, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on Monday, July 6, five days after the murder, that the government was reluctant to make a statement before the circumstances behind the killing had been clarified. "If there is a xenophobic, racist background to this case, there's no question that the government of course condemns it to the utmost and expresses its abhorrence and disgust," said Mr Steg. It was a surprisingly cautious reaction given that the killing was almost certainly motivated by racial hatred.
Mrs Merkel finally expressed her condolences to the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, at the end of last week on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Italy, after demonstrations in Egypt had sparked concern that the case could lead to the same sort of violence that followed the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in Danish newspapers in 2006. Opposition parties, media commentators and Muslims in Germany say that was too little, too late, and that while the murder was an isolated case, hostility towards Muslims and other immigrants is endemic in Germany.
Sevim Dagdelen, a politician of Turkish descent who is a member of parliament for the opposition Left Party, said the government kept making the mistake of dismissing racism as being confined to the far right. "But racism reaches into the centre of German society and racist incidents are part of everyday life in this country," she said. The German public's reaction to the stabbing has been muted. Initial news reports did not mention that the victim was Egyptian and focused on the fact that the murder happened in a courtroom. Most newspapers ran the story in their inside pages the next day, and there was no response from any German politician.
"How would the public have reacted if an Egyptian had killed a pregnant German woman, mother of a small child, who had been deeply insulted by the attacker beforehand? The roar of outrage in Germany would have churned up the Nile," the Berliner Zeitung, a Berlin newspaper, wrote in an editorial. Assaults on immigrants and foreigners in Germany by members of the far-right fell to 395 in 2008 from 414 in 2007, according to police figures. The likelihood of being attacked is higher in the former communist eastern Germany, where Dresden is located, than in the west, a phenomenon attributed to the region's higher unemployment and social upheaval in the wake of unification in 1990.
The statistics do not include the abusive behaviour many immigrants in Germany say they face in their everyday lives. One in three foreign students at Dresden's Technical University have been insulted, threatened or attacked because of their ethnic background, according to a survey of carried out last winter. Among students from the Middle East, the rate was 50 per cent. "Dresden - the city administration and the citizens - still hasn't understood what this issue means for the city, what damage it does and what the causes are," Wolfgang Donsbach, a professor at the university, said in a local newspaper editorial.
"We have a clearly recognisable element of openly xenophobic citizens, a majority who don't care about the issue and a few upstanding people who want to change things. That's not enough." Last Saturday, more than 1,000 people gathered in Dresden's city centre for a public ceremony to mourn Ms al Sherbiny. White roses were laid on the steps of the town hall but neither the mayor of Dresden nor the governor of the state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the regional capital, attended the ceremony.
Alarmed by the international reaction to the killings, German officials have become increasingly vocal in their expressions of sorrow. "In the last few days, all government representatives have made very clear there is no room in Germany for xenophobia or Islamophobia," Ulrich Wilhelm, Mrs Merkel's chief spokesman, said on Monday. Muslim groups have accused Mrs Merkel of doing little to aid their integration. Her comment in 2007 that mosque domes must not be built higher than church towers, widely seen as a bid to pander to the right wing of her conservative Christian Democrats, was not helpful, Muslim representatives said at the time.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, a centre-left newspaper, pointed out on Monday that Ms al Sherbiny's successful prosecution of a man who had insulted her showed that the courts take xenophobia seriously. "The justice system didn't protect her in the courtroom. That is the scandal," the newspaper wrote. email@example.com