Germany's Muslims Wary After Headscarf Martyr Trial

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AP Photo / Tarek Fawzy

Egyptian protesters shout during a demonstration in Alexandria, Egypt in support of Marwa el-Sherbini, a 32-year-old pregnant Egyptian woman who was stabbed by a German in a courtroom in eastern Germany.

Dozens of reporters from Germany, Egypt and other Muslim countries packed into a Dresden courtroom last week to hear the verdict against the Russian émigré accused of stabbing to death a pregnant Egyptian woman who's since been dubbed the "headscarf martyr" by much of the Arab world. It was a far cry from the attention the killing itself received in July — the crime was scarcely reported by the German media, leading to massive protests in Egypt and the Middle East.

That Alex Wiens was convicted of murdering Marwa el-Sherbini and sentenced to life in prison was not surprising — el-Sherbini was stabbed in front of numerous eyewitnesses in a dramatic attack just after she finished giving testimony in the same Dresden courthouse where Wiens was tried. His trial seemed a mere formality. It was nonetheless closely watched by Germany's 4 million Muslims, as well as the wider Muslim world, as a way of gauging how serious Germany was about confronting what Muslims see as a rising tide of Islamophobia and racism in the country.

The crime was shocking as much for Wiens' brutality as for his brazenness. During the trial, prosecutors said el-Sherbini, 31, was attacked after giving testimony against Wiens in a defamation case — el-Sherbini had accused Wiens of calling her an "Islamist" and a "terrorist" on a playground after she asked him to make way so her son could play on the swings. As she finished testifying, Wiens suddenly lunged at her with a kitchen knife he had smuggled into court and stabbed her 16 times. Her husband, Elwy Okaz, 32, was also repeatedly stabbed before being shot by a police officer who mistook him for el-Sherbini's attacker. El-Sherbini, who was three months pregnant at the time, bled to death in front of the couple's 3-year-old son.

Not only was the crime barely reported by the German media, but German politicians were accused of deflecting questions about it in order to avoid having to discuss the problem of the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany organization, says the verdict no longer makes that possible. "Islamophobia exists in Germany and we have to get to grips with it before it's too late," Kolat warns. "Politicians shouldn't stigmatize Muslims."

Other Muslims were also pleased by the verdict. "I think getting the maximum possible sentence says a lot. ... It means the family can feel justice has been done," said Egypt's ambassador to Germany, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy. The Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, meanwhile, quoted an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hossam Zaki, as saying that the sentence could deter other racially motivated attacks in Germany and would strengthen Egyptian-German relations.

But not everyone is as positive about the impact of the conviction. The victim's brother, Tarek el-Sherbini, said that because of German laws, Wiens could in theory be released after 15 years. "In Egypt, a life-long sentence means life," he told the daily Bild paper. (Due to the brutal nature of the crime, the judge said that Wiens had little chance of early release.) And Kolat disagrees with the assumption that the verdict will help deter future attacks on Muslims. Some believe the trial may have actually made them more vulnerable. "Muslim women who wear a headscarf in Germany still run the risk of being attacked," Kolat tells TIME.

German newspaper commentators, meanwhile, said more work needs to be done integrating Muslims into German society and exposing racism. An editorial in the daily Die Tageszeitung said Thursday that Germany's image took a hit because of the lack of sympathy for el-Sherbini from the public and the absence of reaction from politicians after the killing. "When thinking of Muslims, many Germans think first of forced marriage, honor killings and Islamist terror," the editorial read. "An entire faith is placed under general suspicion. It is important that we as a society combat this suspicion. The murder of Marwa al-Sherbini placed the problem of Islamophobia in the public spotlight. The public must now attend to the problem."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has placed a greater priority on reaching out to the Muslim community over the past four years, trying to facilitate better integration by hosting special conferences aimed at tackling the issue. But many Muslims believe the German media have a role to play, too. They claim that many TV networks perpetuate the idea that all Muslim women wear headscarves and tend to link Muslim men with terrorists. "German TV channels should cooperate with Arab broadcasters and swap entertainment shows or develop joint formats to break down the barriers between Germans and the Muslim world," says Michael Mangold, an integration expert from the Centre for Arts and Media Technology in Karlsruhe.

"There's been progress in integrating Muslims, but there's still a lot more to do," he says. "The government needs to improve educational opportunities for Muslims, but also teach [them] basic values of tolerance and democracy." Whether this will prevent an attack similar to the one that ended el-Sherbini's life remains to be seen. If anything, though, it may at least help bridge the gap between two distinct worlds.