Tree of Eden

Marwa Sherbini: too much furor over nothing or warranted uproar?

Posted in Uncategorized by T.Salami on August 2, 2009

Though the protests over Marwa Sherbini’s death elicited images of a frustrated Arab world reminiscent of the Danish cartoon saga, the mistake must not be made to dismiss the Egyptian protest as just another example of “why they hate us in the West.”

Rather, an effort at understanding the Egyptian anger and protests against the incident could go a long way towards reducing the rift between ‘the West’ and ‘Islamic world’.

To the Egyptians protesters in particular, demonstrating such an understanding would serve to soften/moderate the image that Islam is under attack – an image which was chanted at the protests against Marwa’s death and the denunciations of “western civilization as brutal and anti-Islamic”.

The sense that Islam is under attack has been especially prevalent since 9/11. This view has further been buttressed by the following namely, perceived biased media coverage of Van Gogh’s death at the hands of a described fundamentalist, the rise of right wing parties and individuals like Geert Wilders and most recently, by Marwa Sherbini’s death, the role of the German police in harming her husband and the perception that Europe has given litter coverage to Marwa’s death than Van Gogh’s.

Van Gogh and Marwa

While it is perfectly arguable that Marwa’s death is still fresh and that it is too early in the day to adequately compare media coverage of her death to that of Van Gogh, it is widely evident that for some reason, the jury is still out on the subject of ‘fair coverage’.

Moreover, would it be correct to say that Marwa’s death has received equal coverage when European officials – especially the more right wing ones – seemed to have failed to raise the public profile of her death as they had earlier done of Van Gogh’s death?

Correspondingly, should there be the expectation that Marwa’s death would receive equal coverage in the Western world if Van Gogh’s death did not elicit an equally wide denunciation in Egypt or if the Islamic world did not condemn strict fundamentalist interpretations and its role in bringing about Van Gogh’s death?

In observing the subject of media coverage, it would seem that in Europe the view is maintained that Marwa’s death has been given a relatively equal coverage. Unfortunately, this may not be the perception in the Arab and larger Muslim world.

While this tragic and yet similar experiences of the horrors of intolerance by the communities of Marwa and Van Gogh could be seized as a golden opportunity to heal a relationship that is obviously damaging and going increasingly downhill, sadly, this opportunity is not being taken as Marwa’s death seems to have further reinforced the view –especially in Egyptian eyes- that Islam is under attack.

This raises the questions as to why the differences in treatment of both tragic circumstances. The answer to this, I would suggest in three words: identity, politics and perception.

Politics: martyrs for a cause – but whose cause?

It was certain as it continues to be today that Van Gogh’s death became a heated political issue in the Netherlands and Europe. Not only was his death covered by the media but so was its politicization. It is possible that the media’s wide coverage of Van Gogh’s death was influenced by the fact that it made a hot topic for those who used it for political motives and to make gains at the ballot boxes. It is most probable that these political officials – mostly right wing ones – politicized Van Gogh’s death and made its continual media coverage a necessity. Politics thus most likely played a major role in heightening the presence of Van Gogh’s death in the media and it will also play a role in Marwa’s death.

“This is about Identity”

I would have to agree with the Egyptian protester who said “this is about identity”. Identity is implicit but ostensibly unaccounted for in explaining the different responses to both tragic deaths. Yet a good reason why these deaths elicited outburst within their respective communities is and will remain related to ‘identity’. As evident, Marwa’s death did not elicit mass protests in Germany or the Netherlands and neither Van Gogh’s death in Alexandria, Egypt.


Just as these communities identifies with the victim, so are their perceptions easily identifiable with the victims to the point that it becomes almost easy for the victims’ communities to internalize the attack on the victims as an attack on their communities.

Such traumatic experiences urge a simplification of the world along the lines of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ akin to Bush’s anecdote that “you are either with us or against us” reflecting the perception that it is not just the victim who suffered but that their respective communities have internalized the suffering of the victims as theirs.

Back to coverage

This results in a spill-over effect on the media coverage issue. Such internalized perception also plays a role in the observation of media coverage.

As the Egyptian editor of the independent daily Al-Shorook, Abdulazeem Hammad, put it, “I could not prevent myself from comparing how the German media ignored the Dresden incident – as if it had happened on another planet… with the excesses of the same media when a Muslim commits such a crime, or even a lesser one.”

“All German television channels, newspapers and other media broadcast for months on end reports pictures and investigations about the killing of the Dutch film director, [Theo] Van Gogh, at the hands of an extremist Muslim, even though this director had produced what was by all accounts an anti-Islamic film, while Marwa had not committed any offence.”

Perhaps, it could be argued that such a perception of biased media coverage was aided by a lack of European media proliferation in Egypt making it hard for Egyptians to observe the whole spectrum of media coverage of Marwa’s death.

Even if Egyptians and Dutch Europeans had full access to the whole media spectrum of the other, there still remains the potential obstacle that the victim’s community would believe that balanced media coverage is given by the perpetrator’s community.
This obstacle arises from the difficulty in making objective judgments about media coverage of any issue as such judgments are open to perception.

Moreover, where the victim’s suffering is internalized by his/her community, it is hard to foresee a situation –barring the development of a credible form of objective comparison of media coverage- where perception of media coverage of a victim by the perpetrator’s community will be considered satisfactory by the community of the victim.

Generalizing is easier

In such emotional situations, it is far easier for the community to feel under attack and make generalizations against the community of ‘the other.’ It is this point that perhaps applies more to Marwa’s community especially with the role of the German police in harming Marwa’s husband. It is almost too easy to conclude that a sinister plan was responsible. It is at this point that the caution given by Abdulazeem Hammad, against making generalized judgments is crucial.

Irrespective of their rationalist aims to win votes at the ballot boxes and of their fear of awarding more votes to right wing parties, it is also critical that European governments continue to speak against xenophobic acts. The spill over effect of political tactics that condone prejudice for political gains is unforeseeable and potentially dangerous.

Likewise, those governments with Islamic majorities should continue to speak strongly against those who have politicized and will politicize the deaths Marwa and against fundamentalist intolerance.

As emotions run high, those who identify with the victim and internalize the suffering of the victims can be easily manipulated by politicking that will only further reinforce intolerance. In our post 9/11 world, the brim over effect of any manifestations of intolerance in any form is unpredictable and imminently precarious.

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