The Tariq Ramadan scandal: the stories of domination and intimidation


The prominent Islamic intellectual, scholar and preacher Tariq Ramadan has taken leave of absence from his post as professor at Oxford University after being accused of rape and violent assault by two women who last month filed formal complaints against him in France. Other French women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and domination, and in Switzerland former female pupils of his have accused him of sexual advances, including one who was aged just 14 at the time of the reported events. Ramadan has vigorously denied the allegations, denouncing “a campaign of calumny”. Marine Turchi investigates the claims and the reasons why they have emerged so late after the alleged events.

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Following the first formal complaint for rape filed with French police against the prominent Islamic scholar and preacher Tariq Ramadan last month, several other women have come forward to separately accuse him of rape and sexual assault, and the growing scandal resulted earlier this month in him taking leave of absence from his prestigious post as professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.

"An agreed leave of absence implies no presumption or acceptance of guilt and allows Professor Ramadan to address the extremely serious allegations made against him, all of which he categorically denies," said the university in a statement on November 7th.

Yet other women have now spoken out about having had consenting extra-marital affairs with Ramadan, 55, accusations which, while not subject to eventual legal proceedings, are in stark contrast to his high-profile image as a rigorous Islamic intellectual.

Ramadan, a Swiss national and the grandson of Hassan al Banna, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has vigorously denied the sexual assault and rape accusations against him and dismissed them as being “a campaign of calumny”. 

Ramadan failed to respond to Mediapart’s repeated requests for comment before this article was first published in French. Also contacted by Mediapart, his lawyer Yassine Bouzrou replied: “I do not wish to communicate.”

The controversy now surrounding Ramadan, who holds a number of academic positions in educational institutions around the world, began in the wake of the first accusations of rape and assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.  As the avalanche of claims against Weinstein began appearing in early October, an unprecedented wave of allegations of assault and harassment by various other individuals began flooding social media. The first claim against Ramadan was made on October 20th.

The cases of Weinstein and Ramadan have a common element in as much that they have emerged when both men, widely feted by the media, entered a stage of professional decline and dwindling power.

Ramadan, a tireless conference speaker, a visiting professor at universities in Qatar and Morocco and a research fellow with another in Japan, a polyglot and the author of more than 30 books published in French and 15 in English, has enjoyed a high profile in many media worldwide. His rise to fame and academic recognition during the 1990s was as the figurehead of a new generation of activists and gave him a large audience across the Muslim world, while he also drew fire from critics, notably in the West, who accuse him of holding an ambiguous position with a covert agenda of radical Islam.        

But over recent years, Ramadan began losing his perceived role as a structuring leader of Islamic thought. While some withdrew their support of him, he also came up against attempts to bar him from public venues; former conservative French prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé last year sought to have him banned from attending a conference in the city in south-west France on the basis that he represented a potential risk to public order. “The expressed views of Tariq Ramadan are ambiguous and dangerous,” argued Juppé. After Ramadan announced in early 2016 that he was going to apply for dual French nationality, the then French prime minister Manuel Valls dismissed the idea, saying that the “values” of French society were “contradictory to his [Ramadan’s] message”.

It was within this context of declining sway, and amid the torrent of accounts of alleged sexual crimes addressed via the #Metoo hashtag and its French equivalent #Balancetonporc (denounce your swine), that the first woman came forward with the rape claim against him. Henda Ayari, a former Salafist activist who has since espoused the feminist movement as a non-believer, lodged a formal complaint against Ramadan on October 20th for raping her in a Paris hotel in 2012 when, she said, ‘I thought I was going to die”.

“I am really going to need support my friends,” she wrote on her Facebook page shortly after filing her complaint, “because by denouncing the name of my attacker, who is none other than Tariq Ramadan, I know the risks I am taking.”

Above: a video interview (in French) with Henda Ayari by Le Parisien.

One week after Ayari lodged her complaint with police, a second woman, identified only as Christelle, came forward with a similar accusation that she had been raped by Ramadan, this time in his hotel room in the French city of Lyon in 2009. Christelle, a French national who converted to Islam, detailed in her complaint to police that Ramadan had slapped her about the face, on her arms and breasts, and also punched her in the stomach, before forcing her to perform fellatio and sodomising her. She said that after that he again beat her and raped her with an object. In her statement to police, revealed by French dailies Le Monde and Le Parisien, she said: “I didn’t understand anything, I had tears in my eyes […] I cried out in pain, shouting ‘stop!’.”

The accounts of the two women are both detailed and similar. They have subsequently been separately questioned by police in a preliminary investigation opened by the Paris public prosecutor’s office.

Also at the end of October, French daily Le Parisien published an interview with a woman, whose identity it protected under the false name of Yasmina, who claimed she was the target of sexual harassment and threats by Ramadan.

Six days later, in early November, francophone Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève published claims by four former pupils of Ramadan that they were invited by him to have sexual relations during the 1980s and 1990s when they were aged between 15 and 18. One of them described sexual acts that were “consented but very violent”. Another said: “My head was filled with confusion […] He said it was our secret”. Another, who said she was aged 14 at the time, spoke of Ramadan’s anger when she refused his advances, describing a “twisted man, intimidating”, who was “possessive and jealous”, who used “relational and perverse strategies” and who “abused the confidence of his pupils”. 

Tariq Ramadan has vigorously denied the accusations, filing four lawsuits in Paris and Geneva; two of these are for “calumnious denunciation”, another for “defamation” and another for “corrupting a witness”. In several statements, he has described the claims against him as “anonymous allegations”, and a “campaign of calumny” launched by his “longstanding enemies”. In a statement dated October 28th, he said: “The law must now speak […] we are ready for a long and bitter combat”.

On November 11th, he published a message in English, French and Arabic on his Facebook page saying his lawyers had requested he stay silent “far from media deadlines and excesses”,  while he deplored a “deleterious climate”.

“From all sides, whether anonymous or not” he continued, “we read comments that are excessive, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, dismissive of women, and worse. For more than thirty years I have called for balance, for careful listening, for respectful dialogue and for open and critical intelligence.”

On November 15th, Ramadan’s lawyers sent the Paris public prosecutor’s office the contents of a private conversation between him and Henda Ayari, which was held 15 months after the date of her alleged rape and assault by him. Ayari has said that she had continued to correspond with Ramadan in writing, but that the exchanges ended in insults after she refused to send him a photo of her naked.       

Meanwhile, over the past year, a team of lawyers have benevolently acted as legal counsels to several women who have denounced the behaviour of the Swiss scholar. “They are Muslim women, in social and spiritual disarray, who he hooked on Facebook,” said Calvin Job, one of the lawyers. “They were under influence and believe they were victims of sexual predation. He proposed marriage to some, while lying about his real matrimonial situation, while to others he spoke about sexuality and covered the stages more or less quickly. A priori there is not a case of criminal offence, but there could have been a dimension of taking advantage of vulnerability.”

Job said he and his colleagues were certain that “the Ramadan affair is a ‘chest-of-drawers’ case” and that to “encourage and accompany the liberation of speech, to be listening” is required. “There is serious caution on their part, because they dread the potential of trouble-making by Tariq Ramadan and those close to him, but also because it is very complicated to prove harassment.” Over the past year, the lawyers have recorded the statements of the women and elements that support their case, Job said, “if ever they move beyond the point of fear and decide to talk openly”.

“The justice system is a world of the rich, of Whites, which they don’t know about,” added Job. “Our message was to tell them that we were accessible, that we weren’t the lawyers of the powerful, but those of the just.”

The pool of lawyers are backed up by Thomas de Gueltzl, a French lawyer specialized in cases of online harassment. “If these women decide to speak out in public, a wave of hate could be released, with harassment, comments, threats, and which would not be necessarily directly linked to Tariq Ramadan’s team,” he said. “Our role is to protect them.” Henda Ayari, the first woman to come forward with a complaint for rape against Ramadan, spoke earlier this month of how she has since been subjected to “hundreds” of threatening messages via the internet, including death threats, “anonymous phone calls” and buzzing on her apartment bell, about which she has also filed a complaint. 

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