Germany's worrying undemocratic trends

The reactions to an Egyptian woman's murder in a courtroom and the nomination for a medal of a lawyer accused of being virulently anti-Israel have placed Germany in the spotlight.

August 17, 2009 22:07

Twenty years after German reunification there is still much that separates east and west Germany. There are hardly any immigrants in the eastern part of the country and in turn there are many more neo-Nazis who influence politics through municipal and state parliaments. In the west, democracy has had a longer history, immigrants are part of everyday life and the reactions to social and political events are more varied and nuanced. And yet, there is still much that connects east and west, such as a lack of political intuition and empathy as well as much vacuous cynicism evident in two separate events that occurred over the summer in Germany. IN JULY, a young pregnant Egyptian woman was murdered in a courtroom in Dresden in front of dozens of people, including her three-year-old son and husband. The attacker stabbed her 18 times while those present observed in shock (try counting up to 18 to get an impression of how much time that attack took). The woman's husband was also stabbed as he tried to help his wife, and then shot by police officers who mistook him for the attacker. The very slow media response to the event focused on the fact that the Muslim woman with a degree in pharmaceuticals wore a headscarf rather than on the fact that such a murder had taken place during proceedings in a German court. Headscarf or not, some considered Marwa el-Sherbini a victim of Islamophobia and tried to abuse the circumstances of the incident to advance their ideological battle as proof for the notion that Islam is oppressed or to show that it is dangerous. And there was cynical speculation about what a public response might have been like if a secular Arab woman had been murdered, or a Jewish woman, or a black one, or a "proper German" woman. The attacker's background also became part of the debate. Was he a "real" German or one who doesn't really belong here? He was identified as Alex W., a Russian-born man with German roots who clashed with el-Sherbini last year at a children's playground, calling her a "terrorist" and a "slut." Alex W. was in court that day facing a fine for verbally abusing her. Reports have circulated that el-Sherbini's attacker had taunted her in the courtroom, asking her if she "had a right to be in Germany at all" and then threatened her with "when the NPD [National Democratic Party - an extreme-right party that gained ground in last year's council elections in Saxony whose capital is Dresden] comes to power, they will put an end to that. I voted NPD." There are many reasons to not show empathy in Germany and in this case, just about everyone had a different reason. And were where the politicians? As usual, they reacted very late, coolly, and "under pressure from abroad," as tensions with Germany from across the Islamic world and beyond escalated throughout July and into August. This is especially the case with the CDU mayor of Dresden, a city that in the times of east Germany had achieved some fame for turning a blind eye to neo-Nazism for the sake of true mourning. Every year, Dresden holds a memorial service for the lives lost in the Allied bombings. Most Dresden residents don't want the occasion to be disrupted by people who point in horror to the thousands of marching neo-Nazis in their midst; neo-Nazis who have made Dresden their biggest parading ground in Europe. But now it is summer (February is the Dresden mourning month) and so, one day after the murder of el-Sherbini, the mayor went on vacation. "For that reason," she couldn't return either. It seems as if the she "had not expected that the murder would have made such headlines in the Arabic states and elsewhere as well." If that isn't a reaction to stop you in your tracks, what is? But such a reaction is typical of conservative Christian Democrats - and it is not unusual for many in the east, as studies have shown that xenophobia was on the rise there. MEANWHILE, IN the western German state of Baden-Wüttemberg, the callous decision of a mayor from the left-leaning, alternative Green Party in the university city of Tübingen to honor Felicia Langer - an Israeli human rights lawyer known for her anti-Israel views - showed a further collapse of democratic rule. There we've recently had another case of empathy and intuition gone AWOL. Langer was put forth as a candidate for the Federal Cross of Merit, the only general state decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany. She has been accused of "consistently support[ing] the forces that promote violence, death and extremism." She works consistently against Israel, and she does this particularly in Germany, where she finds an approving audience. Her view of humanity, praised highly by Israel's enemies, and particularly by the mayor of Tübingen, corresponds wholly to the view propagated once in east Germany. In the 1980s, Langer was sent a personal invitation by the head of the German Democratic Republic, Erich Honecker, to visit East Germany, a country which refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. The fact that a Green mayor, representing widespread opinion on the Left, praises Langer as a symbol of humanism and that the German president awards her the Cross of Merit is yet another example of a particular, cynical conception of empathy and of history. In that respect this case is similar to the reaction to the murder of the young woman in Dresden. From an ethical, human and political standpoint, it would have been the right thing to do for those who protested against racism and neo-Nazism and who criticized the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini to also protest against the award to Felicia Langer. And friends of Israel, who rightly decried the award to Langer, should have shown their readiness to recognize the situation of Muslims in Europe and to react with empathy to the murder rather than engaging cynically in a discussion about whether it may be labeled Islamophobic. That this didn't happen in both cases shows how far both east and west Germans have come in terms of the German virtue of cold-heartedness. Or how little separates the two now. The writer is founder and chairwoman of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation ( which monitors neo-Nazi activity in Germany.

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