Islamophobia is wrong, and so is sexual violence: response to Tariq Ramadan’s sexual assault cases

Pre-post: I’ll be posting a brief statement tomorrow, related to this, in support of the women whom Tariq Ramadan has sexually assaulted and raped. Stay tuned. It’ll come with some signatures of support.

Qur’an 4:148: “God does not like the public mention of evil/accusation except by one who has been wronged.” (لَا يُحِبُّ اللّٰهُ الۡجَـهۡرَ بِالسُّوۡٓءِ مِنَ الۡقَوۡلِ اِلَّا مَنۡ ظُلِمَ​ؕ)

In October 2017, Tariq Ramadan was outed for sexually assaulting a woman—a Muslim woman named Henda Ayari. Within weeks, other Muslim women came forward with similar allegations, at least one of them involving a disabled woman. These women were raped in various countries (some of them multiple times), including France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States. Initially, Ramadan denied ever having had any encounters with these women, especially sexual, and claimed the accusers were “compulsive liars” and he is being targeted for no fair reason. But in October 2018, he changed his story and admitted to having had “consensual” sexual relations with the women, BDSM style where they supposedly “consented” to aggression and violence during sex. Investigators found text messages and other evidence between him and the women he raped; one such text message from him to Christelle (a disabled woman whose rape was one of the most brutal we know about so far) reads: “I sensed your unease … apologies for my ‘violence.’” So here’s how it goes: first he denies knowing or having been in contact with any of these women. That’s proven false, so he denies ever having any sexual contact with them. He’s caught lying again so he says, never mind, I did have “consensual” sex with them while I was married to my wife. When the text messages of him admitting to the violence are found, he changes the story again and say, “Well, they liked it rough!” So the violence, too, was “consensual.”

In November 2017, he was also accused in Switzerland of sexual misconduct of teenage female students of his in public schools in Geneva back in the 1980s and 1990s when he was teaching French there; one student reported that he molested her in his car. He is also charged for rape in Switzerland. While reports claim that Qatar, which funds his professorial position at Oxford University (where he’s currently “on a leave of absence,” not fired) and where he heads the Islamic Law and Ethics Research Center, has declared him a persona non-grata, these reports are not verified, and he probably lives in Qatar with his family right now. In November 2017, a French official revealed that he had knowledge of Ramadan’s “violent and sexually aggressive” behavior towards women, “but denied hearing anything about rape.” According to Godard, the official who knew of his sexual aggression towards women, Ramadan “had many mistresses, that he consulted sites, that girls were brought to the hotel at the end of his lectures, that he invited them to undress, that some resisted and that he could become violent and aggressive, yes, but I have never heard of rapes, I am stunned.” It makes no sense that Godard was “stunned” that Ramadan had been accused of rape, as though violent sexual behavior has no connection to rape, as though his aggressive sexual behavior was no indication of possible rape as well.

Then there’s this article (from March 2018), which mentions two survivors who have come forward – one is a complaint by a woman who’s using the name Marie and who claims to he raped her multiple times in France, Brussels, and London between 2012 and 2014; another is a U.S. woman who says he placed “his genitals against her chest” against her will.

France charged Ramadan in February 2018, putting him in solitary confinement without any information on bail at the time. Ramadan’s family initiated a crowdsourced fund for him to cover his legal fees; they gathered at least $100,000. I can’t find links to that anymore, but here’s one where they have collected €85,053EUR (~$97,000) of €150,000. He may or may not need financial support, but the point is about the support he is receiving – even from people claiming be to be “neutral” in this ordeal. No such support exists for the survivors.

In November 2018, he was released from prison on a bail of $340,000. I don’t know about any details of the trial yet. He has Multiple Sclerosis, and his health worsened with all this, leading many to empathize with him and using his health to defend him. His Muslim identity is the most conspicuous factor in the support for him, with those supporting him claiming that he is innocent and this is all an Islamophobic smear campaign against him.

Appeal for TR.png

Some of those who signed a petition supporting him (full list of signatories here)

The reaction to both the allegations and Ramadan’s imprisonment and treatment while in French prison has been of four types in the Muslim American community. Some Muslims, including many academics and scholars of Islam, unconditionally support Ramadan, arguing that he is innocent and whether or not he is innocent, some of these people say, he does not deserve the treatment that France has shown him. Another group of Muslims argue that he is innocent, and he could absolutely never have done something like raping or assaulting anyone because he is a “good” Muslim and a scholar of Islam who has written widely on Islam, ironically even on gender. Both of these groups have little to nothing to say about the women whom Ramadan assaulted. A third group of Muslims do not support Ramadan and insist on more support for the survivors. You’d think it’s possible to oppose Islamophobia and support his survivors, but it turns out, apparently, that’s taking sides and supporting the survivors somehow automatically means you support Islamophobia. The fourth type of response is to let’s withhold “judgment” until due process for Ramadan, that he’s “innocent until proven guilty.” But those who argue this actually also add: the women are all liars. Case in point: this appeal for due process, a petition signed by many prominent scholars of Islam (a fuller list of the signatories is here), that also claims that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the accusers’ statements. In other words, these appeals would be fair if they stopped at simply demanding a fair trial. But they insist on the innocence of Ramadan and the guilt of his survivors. Besides, the “inconsistencies” that the petition speaks of are actually not inconsistencies after all. In one case, for example, whereas Ramadan had claimed that he was on flight at the time that one of the victims said she was raped, the conference organizers came forward (after interrogation, not voluntarily) and said that he had taken an earlier flight and that he was at the site where the victim said the rape took place, which means no lies detected. So it’s not his survivors who are lying; it’s Ramadan himself who has repeatedly changed his story with every new piece of evidence against him.

At that time, though, Ramadan was still claiming he had never touched these women, and months later changed to “yeah, we had sex, but it was consensual, and if it was violent, it’s cause they liked it rough.” So this appeal itself also needs to be updated to include his newer statements where he retracts old ones. 

Those claiming that Ramadan is incapable of harming anyone because he, apparently, has a “good name,” forget that Ramadan himself admitted to having had sexual relations (i.e., committed adultery) with at least the third woman who accused him of rape—and confessed to having had sex with five women. You see, in a patriarchy, a woman’s expression of sexual agency or her sexual interest in a man with whom she has a relationship apparently entitles him to raping her or otherwise assaulting her; apparently, her interest in a man is permission for him to do whatever he wants to do to her. In other words, because one of the women may have had a consensual relationship or sexual encounter with him at one point, she had no right to withdraw her consent or she was deserving of whatever violence may have been inflicted upon her. This is because most people don’t understand how sexual assault works and they pretend that consent is complicated. It’s really not. Besides, sexual assault can and does occur even within marriages, since rape and sex are not the same thing: the former means that one partner’s consent was not sought. And we know that Ramadan knows this because of the text message where he admits he “sensed” one of the women’s “unease” and “apologizes” for the violence he caused her.

Yet, Muslims who support Ramadan conveniently ignore Ramadan’s own admittance of adultery. We hear comments like, “That’s between him and God,” or “That’s something personal.” In a patriarchy, only men, and especially men in positions of power, have the luxury to behave in such Islamically unacceptable ways. In a patriarchy, a man has the privilege to have a complicated relationship with his faith so makes “mistakes” (like adultery – rape and assault are never a mistake). A woman, however, is never afforded that same luxury; she only has to show her hair or, worse, her arms, to not be taken seriously, especially on all things Islam. She also just has to say something about Islam that the status quo doesn’t like to be denied legitimacy forever and ever. Rape, assault, murder, etc., na, that’s fine. Living with your partner before or outside of marriage? That’s fine, too, if you’re a man. But the hypocritical way women are treated is no surprise.

Some Muslims also believe that by discussing this subject, they are “exposing” another person’s “sins,” which Islam discourages. But sexual assault is not just a “sin”; it’s also a crime. It’s not “personal” because it affects the entire community. It is the Muslim community’s obligation to protect its members from violence like this, so we must talk about this. Not even the adulterous affairs of Tariq Ramadan’s are private sins anymore, since the women he claims to simply have had adulterous relations with are saying that he raped them. Supporting and believing him and not the victims/survivors means that women, all women anywhere, are liars. We’re not being “neutral” and “objective” when we believe the accused. In all cases of injustice, the Qur’an expects us to take sides – sides with the victims, not the perpetrator.

What’s especially ironic also, though, is that most of these people who support Ramadan oppose other known rapists, like Kavanaugh. This makes no sense, but their idea is that because Ramadan is Muslim, this is an attack on all Muslim men, all Muslims, and Islam. The support for Ramadan is clothed as opposition to Islamophobia, the supposed “persecution” of “ Islamic scholars and intellectuals” (as in the case of this statement by the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California). They are more interested in his “reputation” than in the dignity, justice, and welfare of the women whom he raped. If what Ramadan has experienced is humiliation and violence, what exactly is it that that the women experienced at the hands of this “Islamic scholar” Ramadan?

While Ramadan receives support from Muslims of various ideological leanings, including some feminists, the current conversation lacks support for his survivors. Besides the victims/survivors  who have come forward, there are others who have not, and given the shame and humiliation the survivors are currently subjected to, it is understandable why many other survivors don’t come forward. Mosques and Muslim community centers around the country have expressed their support for Ramadan, and the message they’re sending out to survivors of sexual assault is that they (these mosques) are not safe spaces for survivors. They’re watching, they’re paying attention, and they’re nothing who does and does not support them, who will and will not believe them when/if they speak up.

Certainly, Islamophobia is at play here, since it thrives on the destruction of Muslims, but why is it always forgotten that the women he has assaulted, too, are Muslims? Muslim women are not only subjected to Islamophobic/racist violence, but also to patriarchal violence – in this case, at the hands of another Muslim. As Maliha Aqueel explains it, “The prevalent patriarchal order dictates which forms of violence against Muslims are more urgent and demand activism on our part. Under this order, anti-Muslim racism wins many times over before patriarchal oppressions are even discussed. The system that protects male privilege and gender hierarchies goes into overdrive when the reputation at stake is that of prominent Muslim men, such as clerics.”

This is precisely the predicament of Muslim women in the west. We are expected to set aside one form of oppression in order to address another one, and Muslim men and the larger Muslim community treat patriarchy as a non-issue that can be dealt with at a later time, such as once Islamophobia has been rid of. I discuss the politics of this predicament here, where I theorize that the relegation of the violence that affects primarily women, in Muslim or non-Muslim communities and spaces, to “bigger issues,” such as racism or Islamophobia in this case, happens because patriarchy treats women as collateral beneficiaries. In other words, in all fights against oppression, women matter only when their rights, their security, their dignity, their humanity come as part and parcel of men’s rights, security, dignity, and humanity…. Women’s rights are not in and of themselves entitled to security; women are merely to serve as collateral beneficiaries of a larger, men’s rights struggle…. So long as struggles for justice “for all” (read: men) benefit men, they matter.

But the two “choices” that we are given—opposing either Islamophobia or patriarchy—are not real choices. We reject this. We choose to fight both, and all Muslims are implicated in the struggle for both. In fact, Muslim women lie at the intersection of both so we should never be expected to choose just one. Let’s not forget, in fact, that Muslim women, too, very often are victims of Islamophobia. The assumption that Islamophobic violence happens to Muslim men only is false. Muslim women have to deal with both Islamophobia and patriarchal violence, so if we are comparing trauma here, the trauma of Ramadan’s victims is double-fold. But this isn’t oppression Olympics, and it’s not okay to compare whose violence is worse, although male academics of Islam are incapable of having this conversation about Ramadan without insisting that the Islamophobia that Ramadan has experienced is far worse than what any of his victims have experienced or will experience.

We can, and should, therefore be against Islamophobia and the Islamophobic ways that western nations treat Muslim men, Muslim women, and “Muslim-looking” people, while also fighting against patriarchy. It’s our moral obligation to speak out against injustices in all its forms, not just the ones against people we admire and who have a “good reputation” publicly. The Muslim community has an obligation to protect survivors of violence of any form, but especially sexual assault survivors because of the frequency with which sexual assault happens and because of how long these survivors have been ignored.

2 thoughts on “Islamophobia is wrong, and so is sexual violence: response to Tariq Ramadan’s sexual assault cases

  1. Pingback: Islamophobia is wrong, and so is sexual violence: response to Tariq Ramadan’s sexual assault cases – Keep Your Good Heart

  2. Pingback: Statement in Support of Survivors of Sexual Violence by Tariq Ramadan (Le français suit) | Freedom from the Forbidden

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