Tariq Ramadan and the ‘Muslim Exception’

Tariq Ramadan, a world-renowned scholar and would-be mediator between Islam and the West, is one of the latest high-profile male figures to be accused of sexual violence and coercion. But the politicization of Ramadan’s case is overshadowing a more important issue: Muslim women’s ability to speak out safely against harassment and abuse.

Ramadan faces two accusations of rape in France. A number of other women have also told news organizations that they had consensual affairs with the married scholar, or were propositioned by him. His accusers include at least four women who told a Swiss newspaper they were sexually harassed by Ramadan while they were teenage students of his at a high school near Geneva. Women, some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous, described falling under the sway of the renowned public intellectual, whom they approached for advice or guidance. They say Ramadan threatened them if they should ever disclose their encounters with him.

When the accusations of rape first became public, Ramadan quickly denied them, saying they were part of a “campaign of slander clearly orchestrated by my longtime adversaries.”  He has since said that he is remaining silent at the request of his lawyers, but is confident in the justice system.

Earlier this month, Ramadan agreed to take leave from the University of Oxford, where he is a professor of contemporary Islamic studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. His chair there was underwritten by Qatar. He is also director of the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar, and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies there.

Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In the 1950s, his family went into exile in Switzerland, where he was born and grew up. He has been banned from entering multiple Arab countries after criticizing them for being undemocratic: His ability to enter the United States was the center of a long-running legal battle, which he eventually won.

Ramadan is the author of dozens of books on Islam, integration, and religious reform, and is a charismatic public speaker and frequent guest on TV platforms. He rose to prominence in the 1990s when he emerged as a voice and leader for young Muslims in Europe.

He considers it a religious obligation for Muslim women to wear the head scarf. He is a critic of globalization, of Zionism, and of Islamophobia. He has argued that Muslims in Europe can embrace their faith and fully practice their citizenship. He advocates a contextual but conservative reading of the Qur’an.

Well before the current accusations were lodged in France—where the debate over the threat that Islam poses to secularism and national identity has reached a fever pitch—Ramadan was already highly controversial. He was accused of being duplicitous and anti-Semitic, of engaging in “double-speak” while working in secret on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the Republic. (Scholars who have studied his work extensively say Ramadan’s discourse is largely consistent and that if he sometimes appears disingenuous it is the result of his trying too hard to appeal to too many different audiences.)

If the accusations against Ramadan are proven, do they undermine his scholarship and intellectual positions? That’s certainly the argument of Ramadan’s detractors in France, who have viewed the sex scandal as a vindication. They have used it to indict all of Ramadan’s arguments; to denounce the violence and hypocrisy of Islamism; to smear leftist intellectuals who have agreed to debate with Ramadan over the years and have defended his freedom of expression; and to condemn Islam itself.

“In France, it’s as if Islam itself was on trial,” one of Ramadan’s Oxford students told the French newspaper Le Monde.

These kinds of attacks are exactly what pushes many Muslims, and perhaps particularly Muslim women, to be silent about crimes committed against them and problems within their communities. In this kind of debate, nobody truly cares about the female victims—neither the Islamophobes who cynically use the women’s suffering to score ideological points, nor those who pressure women to remain silent to protect their religion and community.

The first of Ramadan’s two accusers in France, Henda Ayari, is a Tunisian-Algerian woman who wrote a memoir about her break with her Salafist background and has become a secular activist. Online, Ramadan’s supporters have accused her of being a liar paid by Zionists to tarnish the scholar’s reputation; others have focused on her appearance, the timing of her revelation, and her “alienation” from Islam.

Ramadan himself, who denies all charges, has said he is the victim of a “conspiracy of calumny” on the part of “his usual enemies.” He is counter-suing his accusers for defamation.

Since a similar scandal erupted in the United States this fall, over sexual-abuse allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein, there has been a widespread conversation in the news media and online about the way men abuse positions of power to sexually harass and abuse women. Yet as far as I can tell, the Ramadan affair has not been covered much in the Arab media. I could find hardly any coverage of the accusations on the site of the Al Jazeera news channel, on which Ramadan often appears as a guest.

What is particularly disturbing about the charges against Ramadan is that if they are true, he took advantage of women’s respect for his religious learning and scholarly authority to victimize them. It is always easier for men to do this within cultures and institutions that punish women for speaking out.

Muslim communities should join the global conversation on sexual harassment, argues Fatima Khemilat, a doctoral student in France.

“Aren’t [Muslim women] women just like others?” she wrote in Le Monde recently. “Aren’t Muslim men like other men? Does patriarchy stop at the mosque doors, entirely contained inside or outside them, according to one’s point of view? We must admit that there is no Muslim exception in matters of virtue or sexual abuse.”

Evidence is abundant that harassment is rampant at Arab universities. I have heard plenty of sad and infuriating stories over the years. But when female students and faculty members try to bring this issue up, it is they who are often criticized and penalized.

In one egregious case, Rula Quawas, a dean at the University of Jordan, was dismissed from her post in 2012 after students in her Feminist Theory class made a short film featuring the kinds of sexist remarks they had to endure every day on campus.

There have been efforts, however, to improve the climate for women on campuses. Al-Fanar Media recently reported on how Cairo University is taking steps to tackle complaints of harassment. What’s certain is that women need to be able to speak out, freely and safely, against religious figures and academics who abuse their authority.


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