Explainer: The Tariq Ramadan affair

Explainer: The Tariq Ramadan affair
Liberté, égalité, fraternité? The case of Tariq Ramadan, accused of sexual assault by five women, has unearthed deeper questions about being a Muslim in the French judicial system.
6 min read
18 September, 2018
Martyr or monster? Tariq Ramadan's case has become the centre-point of debate [Getty]
The case of Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan may be the most polarising saga yet to emerge from the #MeToo movement sparked almost a year ago in Hollywood.

To some, the allegations against Ramadan make him a monster. However to others, he is martyr, his case exposing the racial and religious prejudices inherent in both justice and society in Europe.

Since October 2017, a succession of women have spoken out against the Oxford professor, accusing him of rape and sexual misconduct.

The accusations made by five women against Ramadan are grave, and detail multiple brutal and deeply traumatic attacks. Ramadan denies all criminal wrongdoing, saying the women are all liars.

However, what sets Tariq Ramadan apart from the Harvey Weinsteins and Woody Allens of Hollywood is that the law has come down on him, hard. Perhaps too hard, his defenders argue.

After being taken into police custody in February this year, Ramadan remains in solitary confinement in a notorious high security jail, awaiting trial.

A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, the rapid deterioration of his health has been well documented and has fuelled the anger of his supporters.

The Oxford professor has become one of the most
prominent faces of modern, liberal Islam [Getty]

They say that in Ramadan's case, the presumption of innocence - the backbone of the criminal justice system - simply does not exist.

They argue this has allowed for his "media lynching" in the press and on TV. Some go as far to say he is a political prisoner, punished because he is a successful, outspoken Muslim.

Who is Tariq Ramadan?

Born to Egyptian parents in Switzerland, the 56-year-old academic, philosopher and writer has become one of the most prominent faces of modern, liberal Islam.

He worked as a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, before taking leave from his post after the allegations surfaced.

Ramadan holds teaching positions at institutions across the globe. He has advised the UK and EU on policy issues, and authored over a dozen books in English alone.

A mainstay of news studios and talk shows, Ramadan is willing to discuss issues surrounding Islam and society, and talks frankly on current debates over terror, extremism and immigration. He is a long-time advocate of integration, tolerance and mutual understanding, which has won him supporters and enemies alike.

Despite being the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan denies any connection to the group's modern incarnation and does not hold Egyptian citizenship. He is banned from visiting due to his criticism of the regime.

Some go as far to say he is a political prisoner, punished because he is a successful, outspoken Muslim

Timeline: Five women say #MeToo

In October 2017, Henda Ayari, a 41-year-old French Muslim and feminist activist files charges against Tariq Ramadan, accusing him of violently raping her in a Paris hotel room in 2012. She says she was slapped, spat on and choked during the ordeal. During subsequent hearings, Ayari has faltered over the exact date and location of the incident, however memory loss is common after trauma. Ramadan's defence have latched on to her wavering testimony, demanding the charges must therefore be dropped. Ayari says she has received death threats since she spoke out.

Several days after Ayari spoke out, a second woman, who uses the pseudonym "Christelle", tells French Vanity Fair in an interview she has also filed charges against Ramadan after being violently raped and beaten in a hotel room in Lyon after a conference in 2009.

Henda Ayari was the first woman to file charges against Ramadan in
the wake of #MeToo [Getty]

Christelle, 45, a French convert to Islam, uses a crutch to walk after becoming disabled during a car accident. Her legal case details being beatings over her face and body, repeated raped including forced sodomy, rape with an object and being dragged by the hair to the bathtub and urinated on.

Christelle also told Vanity Fair that Ramadan's followers had harassed her and threatened to kill her, saying that if she continued to make accusations, she would "end up committing suicide in the Seine very quickly". She has since had to move from the city. 

Ramadan has denied the accusations by the two women, saying he met with each of them only once and in public places. 

Ramadan was set to be questioned in the presence of Christelle in French court on Tuesday.

In November 2017, Ramadan took leave from Oxford University by mutual agreement, in order to focus on his defence.

In February 2018, the scholar was taken into police custody in Paris. Despite his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis two years ago, he is placed in solitary confinement and deprived of the specialist medical care he now requires, according to his family.

This September, the French appeals court upheld his detention, deeming him a flight risk despite his offer to surrender his passport and pay 300,000 euros ($350,000) in bail.

While in prison, a third woman files rape charges against Ramadan in March 2018. Mounia Rabbouj, a French Muslim and former escort, accused Ramadan of raping her on nine occasions in hotel rooms across Europe between 2013 and 2014. Ramadan has since said he had a consensual relationship with Rabbouj. The allegations were dismissed by a French court in June. Rabbouj said that since speaking out, intruders have broken into her home and beaten her.

In September, prosecutors in Geneva opened a rape and sexual misconduct investigation against Ramadan, after an anonymous Swiss woman made allegations he raped her in a Geneva hotel in 2008.

Another anonymous woman in the US has also claimed Ramadan raped her in 2013, however the details of the legal case have not yet been released.

Rival responses

A petition demanding Ramadan's release has been signed by 155,000 people, including Noam Chomsky, American Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, and British journalist Peter Oborne.

"There is clear evidence that he was targeted in a politically motivated prosecution masked as a criminal case," the petition states, adding, "there is also little to suggest Professor Ramadan will receive a fair trial."

155,000 people have signed a petition demanding Ramadan's release [Getty]

Ramadan's family members have understandably been some of the loudest voices in his defence. His daughter Maryam, who describes herself as a feminist and supporter of the #MeToo movement, says there has been a "media lynching" of her father.

"My father has always been stigmatised in the French political and religious scene, especially for his discourse on Islam and France, on identity, on integration, on Palestine," Maryam told TRT.

"This is the best way for them to shut him down and silence him."

In the same interview, she said her father had lost 11kg while in prison, could no longer walk unassisted, and could not concentrate, sleep or write due to chronic pain.

The French media have, however, chronicled a different saga.

When the accusations came out, the women's cause was hijacked by many in France who wanted to revel in the schadenfreude of Ramadan's fall from grace. Discourse on the news and on talk shows moved away from the case itself and centred on Ramadan's "Jekyll-and-Hyde persona", and how his "mask" had finally slipped.

The women say they will not be cowed despite the very serious threats made against them.

"It is for the courts to decide," Henda Ayari told The National. "Eventually, if French justice says he is guilty, those people may regret their support."

This exact sentiment is echoed on the opposite pole of the Ramadan affair. Maryam told TRT in August: "In the face of such injustice, history will remember those who stood up to denounce it, and those who chose to remain silent."

Follow Florence Dixon on Twitter @flo_dix