Whose martyr?

On occasions, coverage of Marwa El Sherbini’s was influenced by players’ agendas, Hossam el-Hamalawy writes.
The gruesome murder of the 32-year-old Marwa El Sherbini was first reported by the Youm7 website on the 2nd of July, one day after the crime took place, amid little media attention.
The Egyptian blogosphere, already embroiled in a fierce debate over Sarkozy’s call to ban the Niqab in France, picked up on the lead. Some local bloggers, with the help of those who might have had some knowledge of German, searched the net for any information or reports about the murder. It is safe to say, Bikya Masr, a blog run by the Al Masry Al Youm journalist Joseph Mayton was the primary source in English for the Egyptian audience; at least in the first two days. Many bloggers expressed their indignation at both the crime and the lack of media coverage, accusing Western media of racism and the local media of indifference. Blogger Zeinobia, for example, wondered in a posting if the “victim was lesbian” not a Muslim, would the Western media have reacted in a different way.
The Youm7, with an angry blogosphere behind it, continued to have the lead in reporting before other local papers tackled the story. Over three days, the issue snowballed, making strong headlines, and started to feature in the state-owned, independent and opposition press as well as in social media outlets, with varying degrees.
While the independent dailies Al Sherouq and Al Masry Al Youm devoted front page coverage, almost on a daily basis, to the updates about the investigations, reporting local anger and reactions from the street, political and religious figures, Marwa’s murder’s importance was contested by other topics in the state-owned press like President Mubarak’s diplomatic mediation between the Palestinian factions or news about the national high school exams, Thanaweya Amma.
In such heightened atmosphere, another murder of an Egyptian in Italy occurred, raising concerns about whether it was racism, a vendetta or simply just another crime.
The coverage by the state-owned press focused on the Egyptian government’s “interest” in El Sheribini’s case and the “deep concern” of its officials, all the way up to the president, whose reception of condolences from German Chancellor Merkel during the G8 Summit in Italy was highlighted. Even the Foreign Ministry’s efforts in the case were given as much media space as possible. State-run press columns and editorials tended to downplay the significance of the murder and towed more or less the German official line of depicting the case as an “isolated incident,” reflecting the Egyptian government’s dedication to strong bilateral relations with the German state. The strongest editorial in Al Ahram was on July 11th, with Mohamed Eissa El Sharqawi describing El Sherbini’s murder as an “assassination” and her killer as part of the “new barbarians.”
Another interesting note is that Al Ahram’s night edition, (Al Ahram Al Massaei, which in general has lesser circulation) devoted relatively wider coverage to the case than the morning edition. The paper did not forget also to stress “Egyptians’ anger is real and not directed by the regime.”
While the state-owned publications were “self-restrained,” others lashed out in lacerating headlines, like the weekly Al Fagr, which ran El Sherbini’s picture across its entire frontpage, describing her as the “victim of Nazi Germany,” while the opposition’s Al Wafd strongly denounced the German prosecutor’s ban on reporting the case, comparing him to Egyptian prosecutors who also ban press coverage of important cases. The daily Al Dustour gave space to reports of anti-racist mobilization in Germany and the denunciation of the murder by other European governments.
Who first coined the term “veil martyr”? The answer is not clear. But for sure it’s an expression that was used (or misused) by political forces on the ground in Egypt, which manipulated El Sherbini’s cause in a manner similar to the “Danish cartoon” crisis. Islamist websites extensively ran the picture of the child demonstrator in front of the German embassy in Cairo, carrying a banner that read: “Hey Terrorist, I won’t give up my veil.” The Sheikh of Al Azhar, who refrained from publicly criticizing the crackdown on the veil in Europe, saying it was “Europe’s domestic business,” was in the forefront of calls to apply the maximum sentence against the perpetrator of El Sherbini’s crime, forgetting such laws lend their implicit and sometimes explicit support to Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Blogger Tamer Mowafi was one of those who called for the public to refrain from ” fish[ing] in troubled waters,” calling on bloggers not to use the term “veil martyr” to describe El Sherbini. “She was a victim of racism,” he wrote in a blog posting. “The veil was only a symbol. If the racist killer had known she was a Muslim even when she’s not veiled, he would have attacked her.” Mowafi was also quick to highlight the “double standards” of the Egyptian official position towards the veil, pointing out the restrictions on the veil in institutions like national television, airlines, and tourism jobs.
Columnist Wael Kandeel of the daily Al Sherouq echoed some of Mowafi’s arguments, pointing out that the government did not offer the same attention to other victims like those who drowned in the ferry in 2006, or in the 2008 Duweiqa rock collapse.

Back to top button