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Germans and the murder of a Muslim

Germans' apathetic response to the murder of an Egyptian woman in a courtroom reveals a double-standard.

A placard that reads, "Cologne not Konstantinopel" is displayed during a rally by ultra far-right wing supporters of the anti-Islamic group 'Pro-Cologne' in Cologne, May 9, 2009. Pro-Cologne called a rally to oppose a decision to allow the construction of a mosque with a high dome and minarets. Konstantinopel is the historic name for Istanbul. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

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.