Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 July 2009
Issue No. 956
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Footnotes on Marwa's murder

The correct and humane response to the tragic murder of Marwa El-Sherbini is not falling into the same morass of bigotry and hatred that killed her, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The tragedy of the murder of Marwa El-Sherbini in a courthouse in Dresden is no less significant than the crisis of the offensive anti-Islamic cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper. Both events triggered a series of reactions that are indicative of the new type of upheavals that threaten to rock the third millennium, upheavals bred from cultural divides and clashes between peoples and nations of differing identities and traits. These crises will have nothing to do with colonial empires squabbling over spheres of interest in order to secure sources of raw materials to feed national industries, as was the case in the 19th century. Nor will they be associated with an ideological conflict over how to run the world and divide its wealth, such as that which underlay the Cold War between the eastern and western blocs. Now the fault lines and flashpoints are located wherever cultures and civilisations meet and mingle, which could be anywhere by virtue of the modern communications technologies and the age of rapid transport that land peoples of different ethnicities, cultural outlooks, value systems and perceptions of the other in the same vicinity. Cultures are grounded on an underlying notion of distinction that defines itself with respect to the other and that sometimes reinforces itself through hostility to the other. In the past it was possible to solve cultural clashes by geographically separating the two. In today's world this has become virtually impossible.

This does not mean that there are no solutions. One cropped up, one day, during a visit to Berlin. My driver had a book with him, which he would read while waiting. Eventually I learned that it was by a famous philosopher, and this got our conversation going. I was particularly struck by this intellectual driver's attitude to the huge Turkish minority in Germany. He pointed out that the Turks not only rebuilt Germany after World War II but that they give Germany different kinds of food, music, customs and traditions, all of which make Germany much richer and beautiful than it would be without them. His faith in diversity is the solution. The man who murdered Marwa in Dresden does not subscribe to this solution or to the humanitarian logic behind it.

The murder was appalling in every detail. Her assailant had previously subjected her to abuse for wearing a veil, prompting Marwa to sue. It was during a subsequent hearing when the court ruled in her favour that the man attacked her, stabbed her repeatedly with a knife, and stabbed her husband who had rushed up to defend her. Not only did she die, but also her husband ended up being shot and critically wounded by security guards who had mistaken him for the assailant. To compound the tragedy, all this took place in front of the innocent eyes of a three-year-old child who has lost his mother and may also lose his father. The primary cause of this horror was rabid xenophobia, a condition that can afflict individuals or whole groups, and affect individuals or whole groups. Several months ago a crude bomb went off in Hussein Square in the heart of Cairo killing a French tourist. Another bomb had been planted in front of a church with the purpose of killing religious "others", even though they are members of the same Egyptian culture.

However, the aftermath of the murder triggered something larger. The events surrounding the arrival of Marwa's body in Egypt and her funeral in Alexandria ignited passions that seemed designed to precipitate a confrontation between cultures and civilisations. When news of Marwa's murder broke I received many letters of sympathy from friends in Europe and the US, all deploring not just the madness of the murder but also the fanatical xenophobic groups with which the West abounds. Soon I began receiving letters of a different sort, all conveying concern at the build-up, here, of a tide of hatred for the other that could erupt into horrific murders targeting foreigners and Westerners in particular. We, or at least some of us, tend to forget that much of what we say and do here is translated, reported and published abroad.

In all events, it seems that many of Marwa's mourners were determined to outdo the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatreds in the West. There were those who cried that the West will never accept us and will continue to hate us until Judgement Day. As though this were not enough, others charged the climate further by asserting that the pro- Western "fifth column" was responsible for Marwa's murder because it always pushes the idea of interacting and drawing closer to the West. So Egypt now has at least two types of potential victims: those coming from the West and those Egyptians who, for some reason or other, have an affinity for such Western concepts as modernism and civil society. The golden rule at work here is that since the West rejects us we must respond in kind, and that since Marwa was murdered because of an Islamic symbol -- the headscarf -- we must reject all Western symbols.

The fact is that even if these rules were desirable, they are unrealisable in the face of various facts and figures. First, there are millions of Arabs and Muslims living in Europe and North America. Among the reasons they immigrated there were poverty in their countries of origin, lack of civil liberties and equality, and not infrequently religious and sectarian persecution and strife. Second, we have hundreds of thousands of scholars receiving advanced knowledge in various fields of science and other disciplines at their source. Marwa El-Sherbini was one such scholar whom we shall miss very much. But that does not mean we should sacrifice all the others. Third, the first prayers over the body of the deceased took place in a mosque in the centre of Dresden. As the cameras panned across the scene, you would have thought these ceremonies were taking place in a mosque in Cairo. Islam and Islamic civilisation have reached the heart of Europe, and Europe now must recognise these as essential components of contemporary European civilisation. At the same time, Islamic civilisation must learn how to co-exist with European civilisation and to protect itself from the extremist elements in it by adhering to its noblest values.

The incident in Dresden was unquestionably terrible and condemnable by all standards. However, to turn that incident into a bitter conflict between civilisations would be tantamount to killing Marwa, the human being and academic scholar, twice: once by an evil hand and a second time by the hysteria that leads to the death of others and the severing of relations that should remain unbroken. On the other hand, the incident could become a starting point for something positive, so that Marwa's blood will not have been shed in vain. In her name, people could create Arab- Muslim-European fronts, together with other faiths, to stand up against fanaticism, bigotry and discrimination on both sides. This would also serve as an important lesson to the media. While it is natural for the press to condemn this tragedy and call for justice, it should not fan the flames of blind vengeance and feed the forces intended to drive peoples of the world apart, for that would condemn our societies to eternal backwardness.

Our people and the European people are in a single boat. When the US and European countries sneezed because of an economic crisis we felt the effects from Iraq to Morocco. Simply look at how Dubai thrived and then plummeted in tandem with the West. But the boat is not just an economic one. On the issue at hand in particular, the boat is the search for authentic common human values while condemning that killer who could not tolerate a veil that offends or harms no one. Throughout much of history, Christian women were obliged to wear veils and the veiling of women is also a fundamental tenet of Judaism. More importantly, the decision to wear a veil falls squarely within the rights of freedom of belief and freedom of expression. Surely all sides can agree on such matters without getting at each others' throats?

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