Ways to build tolerance after El Sherbini's murder

by Ibrahim El Houdaiby
21 July 2009
Cairo - Fury and outrage at the murder of Marwa El Sherbini in a German courthouse at the hands of a German fanatic two weeks ago is understandable and justifiable, but should not be exaggerated. Thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike have expressed their concern over the rise of racist crimes and discourses perceived as targeting Muslims in the West, and claim that very little has been done so far by Western governments, media and civil society to pre-empt such attacks.

Anger was not targeted solely at the murderer for understandable reasons.

Critics pointed to the deafening silence of the vast majority of Western media outlets that they say would have used the story for their headlines had the roles been reversed – if the Egyptian Muslim woman was the murderer rather than the victim. This long-standing bias, and the trigger of the recent lack of coverage, provoked anger from activists around the world and caused many to blame media that they perceive as routinely stereotyping Muslims as terrorists.

Muslim activists also cite what they consider disturbing intolerance within several Western countries. As a 2008 Gallup poll indicated, around one-third of the total populations of Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom could be classified as “isolated”, defined as believing in the truth of their perspective above all others. According to Gallup, they do not want to know about other religions. Less than a quarter of these populations feel fully integrated with other faiths. In Germany alone, only 13 per cent feel integrated while 38 per cent identify themselves as isolated.

While on point with their complaints, critics of interfaith intolerance coverage did make sweeping generalizations. El Sherbini’s murder, alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments on the niqab, an outfit that covers not only the body but also the face, sent alarming signals regarding Muslims’ status in some European countries. Still, these comments by no means signify a Western “war on Islam” as some suggest. It is worth nothing that, contrary to the results in Germany, only 13 per cent of Americans could be classified as isolated, while 33 per cent feel integrated in interfaith activities in their societies, results similar to those of Canadians.

In the midst of this wave of anger, the immediate question should be: what can be done now, especially in Europe? The answer is first to punish the criminal and second to decrease the chances for possible recurrence of such crimes. While the former is clearly a responsibility of the German judiciary in coordination with Egypt's judiciary (because El Sherbini was an Egyptian citizen), the latter is a multi-dimensional task that involves several stakeholders.

To move forward on this front, Germany must reconsider the policies it has adopted, following in the footsteps of the French, which have contributed to decreasing religious tolerance. It has banned schoolteachers and government employees from wearing the hijab, or headscarf, negatively impacting the way hijab-wearing Muslim women are viewed by society, and making them more vulnerable to verbal and physical assaults.

Lifting the ban on the hijab in countries such as Germany and France would encourage Muslim women to further integrate in the societies in which they live and also enrich those cultures, thereby helping resolve the Muslim minority "problem" across Europe.

Civil society must also take an active part in creating positive change.

It is through its efforts that intercultural and interfaith tensions can be resolved. Student exchange programmes with Muslim-majority countries, cross-cultural conferences and seminars, and interfaith activities have proved to be key to improving understanding and bettering relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Civil society should focus on promoting tolerance, diversity appreciation and celebration, human rights and religious freedom. Governments and international donors alike should support activities that serve these ends, such as an annual award for organisations or individuals furthering religious freedom, in commemoration of El Sherbini’s murder.

Finally, German Muslims – and Muslims in other Western countries – must also work to humanise the cultural climate. They should not passively wait for their societies to accept them; they should actively engage with their societies, participate in social activities, learn about other faiths, traditions, customs and culture, and educate their neighbours about their own. They should reject the minority ghetto attitude which victimises them and isolates them from the people they are living with.

Instead, adopting a "citizenship attitude" – which prioritises equal rights and full integration – would honour El Sherbini, who responded to her murderer’s verbal assault by taking him to a German court, where she won the case before being stabbed to death. Ultimately, El Sherbini’s legacy for all of us is not her death, but the type of citizenship that she modelled.


* Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a freelance columnist and researcher working toward an MA in Islamic studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies in Cairo. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 July 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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