BERLIN — At Christmastime in 2007, two young men accosted an elderly man in a Munich subway station, beating him so badly he landed in the hospital in critical condition.
Less than two weeks ago, a 32-year-old woman, four months pregnant, was testifying in a Dresden courtroom when the defendant approached the witness stand and stabbed her 18 times. She did not survive.
The two grisly attacks, 18 months apart, elicited two very different reactions in German society. The first incident became an overnight scandal, fodder for tabloid headlines and the cause of a months-long political controversy. The second incident earned cursory attention in the media and disappeared from the public imagination shortly thereafter.
The difference between the reactions reveals a double standard that Germany struggles with but has yet to confront. In the subway attack, it was the perpetrators of the crime who were Muslims, of Turkish descent. In the courtroom attack, the victim was Muslim, an Egyptian. Germans have a ready narrative to apply to the first situation, but not to the second.
The German tabloids, normally sure-footed when it comes to spinning gory real-crime headlines, would normally be expected to milk the recent attack for newsstand sales. The details are certainly horrific enough. On July 1, Marwa al-Sherbini, a pregnant 32-year-old Egyptian pharmacist, was testifying at a trial against a man, known as "Alex W.", who had hurled racial insults against her and her son at the playground near her home.
When the defendant attacked her on the witness stand with a knife, the only person to come to her aid was her husband. He was also stabbed several times before police entered the courtroom and mistakenly shot him, thinking he was the attacker. He is now in critical condition in a German hospital.
But Germany seemed largely unmoved until the outside world urged it to reconsider. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spontaneously took to the streets when al-Sherbini’s body was returned last week to Egypt for burial, along with her 3-year-old son, who witnessed the entire attack.
The Egyptians were protesting her death and the prejudice that caused it, displaying outrage, absent in Germany, that such an act of barbarity could take place in a hall of justice. But German politicians were quick to spring to action when they sensed that they would soon be confronted by a diplomatic crisis.
One week after the attack, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed its pro forma condolences and announced that it would seek to discuss the matter with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on the sidelines of the G-8 conference in Italy. Not to be outdone, the head of the rival Social Democratic party, Franz Müntefering, announced he would attend a memorial service for al-Sherbini scheduled for this weekend.
It would not be fair to say that al-Sherbini’s murder is a reflection of a society that is fundamentally hostile to Muslims. But it does shed light on a relationship — between the majority of German society and its Muslim minorities — that is often fraught with tension.
Aiman Mazyek, secretary of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, disputed on Thursday the government spokesman's claim that the facts of the murder were unclear. "The evidence of an Islamophobic crime is overwhelming," he said. "Caution is fine, but that sounded close to wriggling out."
Earlier, at the bedside of al-Sherbini's husband, Mazyek spoke of the "inexplicably sparse" reaction from both the media and politicians.
Germany has hosted a significant population of Turkish residents since the 1960s. The problem is that in many instances the Germans are still, decades later, playing host, because they declined to welcome the new arrivals as fellow citizens. The original immigrants from Turkey were accorded the status of guest workers and expected to return when they were no longer needed in Germany. German citizenship laws have hindered even second- and third-generation descendents from earning a German passport.
There was no provision made for the fact that they might stay and bring their families along with them. Nearly 3.5 million Muslims now live in Germany — about 4 percent of the population — and often their political and emotional connection to Germany, and vice-versa, is nebulous.
Other immigrant groups have escaped the legal limbo encountered by the majority of Muslim Turks. Al-Sherbini’s attacker was himself born in Russia, but he had been granted a “right to return” to Germany as a German citizen because he could trace family members from hundreds of years previous that had direct ties to the German state. He faces no risk of deportation for his crimes.
While Russians have immigrated to Germany at a steady clip since the fall of the Soviet Union — about 200,000 per year arrived in Germany during the 1990s — they do not draw the same ire that Muslims do for being insular and isolated, for being uninterested in contributing to German society, for failing to learn the language.
The German government has recently tried to ameliorate the deficit, convening a council of prominent Muslims over the course of the past year to explore ways that the religion might be better integrated into society. Some school districts are introducing a class on Islamic theology, an alternative to the Christian courses that are a standard part of the curriculum.
But Muslims continue to be an object of muttering in the population and a convenient target of populism for politicians. Though Berlin tabloids had little ink to spare for the events in Dresden, they gave cover-page status to a decision by the city council, in the interest of the city’s Muslim population, to ban the cooking of pork products on a single grill in a public park. And whatever the merits of Merkel’s resistance to Turkish entry to the European Union as a matter of policy, it also serves as a shrewd dog-whistle to her conservative constituency.
German Muslims have now begun pointing to the government’s delayed reaction to the murder as a sign of the second-class treatment they receive on a daily basis. Indeed, the case of al-Sherbini is so clarifying for many because she so clearly defied the common German stereotype of Muslims. She was an educated and employed contributor to German society. She had immigrated not to leech from Europe, but because her husband had been invited to work for a prestigious research institute.
But still many Germans held their sympathy in reserve. Hate crimes take place everywhere in the world, and Germans are right to bristle at the accusation that these sorts of incidents are widespread or accepted in their country. Sometimes, though, indifference is its own sort of crime, and German society clearly has a ways to go in combating it.
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