Desperately Seeking Intercultural Sensitivity
The case of Marwa El-Sherbini is a prime example of mass-media miscommunication between cultures. The media in both countries were incapable of mastering the cultural balancing act without major slip-ups, and failed all over again when it came to building bridges towards solving the conflict.
Yet this very case called for a high level of intercultural sensitivity, which the media appear not to possess. And it has also revealed an urgent need for reform of existing structures in the global media.
The Western media, for example, often introduce a negative tenor on the subject of Islam and Muslims. There are numerous academic papers indicating this fact – the basic structure of reporting on Islam in the German media is usually distorted and often draws a link to violence.
Normality and everyday Muslim life play an extremely subordinate role. This misperception leads to an image of Islam in the public eye as a threat – constructed by the media.
Looking at the structural characteristics and parameters of the German media, the reporting on the case is marked by a focus on politics, conflict and crisis, along with strong personification.
Section 10 of the German Press Code states that religions, philosophies and moral positions must be respected: "The Press will refrain from vituperating against religious, philosophical or moral convictions."
Yet rather than attesting respect and making an effort to show the finer distinctions of the faith, standard reporting on Islam in the mainstream media regularly accumulates characteristics such as terrorism, violence and oppression.
It comes as no surprise then that an opinion poll carried out among Germans by the respected Allensbach Institute in 2006 found that 91% of interviewees associated Islam with discrimination against women and 83% regarded Islam as a fanatical religion.
As the media are one of the main sources of this misperception of Islam, they cannot evade indirect co-responsibility for the murder of Marwa El-Sherbini. It is highly unlikely that the killer Alexander W. has direct contact to Muslims, meaning his image of Islam is constructed above all by the media – combined with his extreme right-wing convictions.
The killer's extremely negative and disrespectful attitude to Islam is reflected in his behaviour towards his victim. In direct confrontation, he initially insulted the young Muslim woman, then became violent – and finally killed her in a Dresden courtroom.
Just as the German public sphere is correct to reject blanket accusations of an "Islamophobic Germany" – individual anti-Islamic voices do not equate to an anti-Islamic society as a whole – the Muslim has public been equally horrified for years by certain media phrases such as "Islamist terrorism".
Labels of this type were advanced by George Bush's dualist rhetoric and alleged "war on terror", increasingly trickling down from the political sphere to the media.
Confrontation in place of rational debate
The burning question is: why did the media fail to carry out a rational debate on this sad and shocking case? The interpretation of the events in both the German and the Egyptian media revealed clear deficits. According to fundamental media ethics, the media are supposed to help break down conflicts, not stoke them up.
Yet the exact opposite occurred – in the Egyptian media through exaggeration and in the German media through playing down the events. In this polarised media reality, both sides showed a lack of rationalism and intercultural understanding.
In some cases, this insufficient intercultural competence even testifies to a lack of responsibility and respect towards cultural difference. It is above all the media themselves that have strengthened the dualist paradigm of the "clash of civilisations" by means of their reporting.
In the specific case of Marwa El-Sherbini, there is an intercultural discrepancy in the reception of the murder in both societies.
In Egypt, Marwa El-Sherbini's murder in a German courtroom is seen as a grave violation of human rights, taking place within a Western democracy that has always insisted on respect for those rights.
The presence of the judge – a representative of the German justice system – intensified the feelings of shock and horror even more. And the policeman's accidental shot at Marwa El-Sherbini's husband as he tried to save his wife was another aggravating factor.
To add insult to injury, a false story was circulated in the Egyptian media about a German political party allegedly willing to pay the defendant Alexander W.'s legal costs.
Plus, the Egyptian media neglected to point out that not only Muslims of various origins are a target for extreme right-wing attack, but also people of other faiths from Asia and Africa, Jews – and German nationals who work towards understanding between ethnicities or belong to marginal groups such as punks or homeless people.
The average Egyptian knows little or nothing about the numerous anti-Nazi initiatives in Germany and government-level efforts on the subject.
Mirror images of threat
An image of the 'Other' as a threat exists only once it is constructed; it is ultimately an image, not necessarily reality. This image does not mean that the 'Other' is actually a threat or an enemy. Thus, the Egyptian media reacted to the aggressive image of Islam in the Western media with a counter-image of the West as a threat.
The Egyptian media and some demonstrators attempted to apply the terrorism label to Marwa El-Sherbini's murderer. The imprecise and inflationary use of the term "terrorism" in the Arab discourse in this context can be understood as a counter-reaction to the equally inflationary use of the same term in the West, as applied to Muslims.
Yet the problematic reporting on the Egyptian side would not have been sufficient for the mass-mobilisation, had the general mood in the Arab states not provided the ideal breeding ground. Emotionally loaded and populist reporting on the victims of Western politics, and above all of US policy, had already laid the ground for anti-Western resentment.
Reporting in the Arab media is now nourished by of a staple diet of images of suffering civilians in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ambiguous and tactless statements and actions on the part of Western politicians exacerbate the situation, creating an image of an "Islamophobic fortress Europe". Two of the most prominent examples are the cartoon controversy and the ban on headscarves.
Many Muslims regard this media-transmitted reality of "intercultural conflicts" as an assault on their own freedom to express their identities within a multicultural Europe. And academics are now also addressing the shift from multiculturalism to unilateral integration.
Even intellectuals who are familiar with western societies are asking to what extent the West accepts Muslims. In a provocatively titled piece, "Does the West hate Islam?", the well-known Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswani outlines the misunderstandings between the cultures. The poet Farouk Goweida even comes to the conclusion that the "West will never accept us".
No-one can deny the fundamentally good relationship between Egypt and Germany, especially in the fields of science and culture. The day-to-day interaction of Germans and foreigners works much better than is generally assumed and is portrayed by the media.
Those in Egypt who know Germany already assume that the sentence handed down by the judge will be a fair one and that the outrage will gradually die away. However, it is difficult to make the masses see reason in the current heated climate.
"Martyr of the headscarf"
Amr El Shobaky, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, uses strong words to criticise the reactions of the Egyptian public. He roundly rejects the title "martyr of the headscarf" with its Islamist overtones that has been created by the media and applied to the victim.
Abdel Azim Hammad, a long-serving correspondent for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram in Berlin, tries to deconstruct the image of a supposedly "anti-Islamic Germany" with an analysis of right-wing extremism. Moreover, Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is writing his doctorate at the FU Berlin, concludes that: "We must be outraged, but our reasons must be rational!"
It must be said that a large part of the unbridled rage in the Egyptian media discourse relates to the country's own plight. The collectively perceived "Arab plight" symbolises the difficult situation and deficiencies in politics and society.
There is also a feeling of powerlessness regarding how Egyptians should pull themselves out of this crisis. Stories about the maltreatment of Egyptian citizens, especially those working abroad, have been hitting the headlines in recent years in Egypt. This state of affairs explains the tense attitude of the Egyptian public and also explains why the protests in the case of al-Sherbini have been so vehement.
Another reason for the Egyptian outrage was the unjustified fear – widely propagated by the Egyptian media – that the murderer would not be held responsible by the court because he is "mentally ill" and would not, therefore, be punished severely enough.
Moreover, the Egyptian reactions were influenced by the prevailing domestic political structures between the political regime and the opposition groups. The Islamist opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, has used the case to heighten its profile.
Even the Iranian regime used the case to divert attention from its domestic problems and to legitimise itself. However, when the demonstrations in Egypt went too far, those parts of the Egyptian media that are close to the government, and in particular their talk shows, stopped addressing the issue.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that al-Sherbini's father spoke to the pan-Arab broadcaster Al Arabiya last July of his disappointment that no high-ranking Egyptian politician had expressed their condolences to him.
Mistakes on the German side
Does this mean that exaggeration on the Egyptian side was exclusively responsible for the escalation of the situation? No, because it was the very symbolism of the actions of German politicians that gained in importance and raised high expectations in Egypt.
Two memorial services were held in Germany for Marwa al-Sherbini: one in Berlin and ten days later, another in Dresden, which was attended by German politicians and was broadcast on German television. However, it was this ten-day delay that characterised the indecisiveness of German politicians.
In the ten days that separated the two memorial services, the outrage felt by the Egyptian and Muslim public grew to such an extent that some of the Egyptian population got the impression that the second memorial service was nothing but a crisis management and public relations exercise.
Moreover, the Egyptian media began asking how rapidly the German authorities would have reacted if the murdered woman, the injured man, and the traumatised child had been of another nationality; a nationality that is closer in cultural and geographical terms to German society.
While the tragedy triggered outrage and consternation in Germany, there was no great emotional identification with the victims.
Not in the interest of the media
Furthermore, the delayed reaction in media reports of the murder in Germany was perceived by Muslims as discriminating. In this way, the case of Marwa al-Sherbini is one of the very few cases where what remained unsaid (as opposed to what was said) triggered feelings of powerlessness and discrimination among Muslims.
Another question relates to the media economics of the case. In a media landscape that is dominated by competition and the pursuit of profit, the media tend to exaggerate, dramatically stylise and emotionalise stories.
Nowadays, hints of tabloidisation can be seen even in reputable media. In view of this fact, the question arises as to why the majority of German media only demonstrated limited interest in Marwa al-Sherbini's story although as a human interest story, it should have been a top seller.
The dramatic details that are characteristic of stories of honour killings were entirely left out of reports. For example, it was never reported that Marwa al-Sherbini had been a member of the Egyptian handball team, that she threw herself on her three-year-old son in the courtroom in order to protect him, and that she was looking forward to returning to Egypt once her husband had completed his studies.
© Qantara.de 2009
Hanan Badr is a media and communications scientist at the University of Erfurt. Before receiving a grant from the DAAD for her doctorate, she worked as a communications scientist at the University of Cairo.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Aingeal Flanagan