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Tariq Ramadan, Nouman Ali Khan, Dina Tokio & the Experience of the Millennial Muslim

by in World on 7th December, 2018

Tariq Ramadan, a prominent thinker, author, Islamic scholar, and professor of contemporary Islamic studies at the University of Oxford, was awarded bail last month. The renowned figure, spent just short of one year in custody, charged with rape and denied multiple bail requests during his imprisonment. In an impassioned speech, he vowed to ‘remain in France to defend [his] honour and innocence’, before being granted release.  His case has been the subject of much discussion and controversy, notably focussing on the lack of impartiality on the part of the French judiciary system, and highlighting principal discussion points such as Islamophobia in French/European society.

The accusations of sexual assault were the alleged reason for Ramadan’s accuser Hend Ayari to claim her ‘escape from Salafism’ relayed in her published book: “I chose to be Free”, had kept specific information about her attacker in pseudonymous. Subsequently, two further women, one of whom remains anonymous, came forward with similar allegations. This was quickly followed by 4 further accusers, sparking the beginning of a long case which continues to be the subject of much discussion and debate in online and offline realms.

Ramadan’s stance from the start

Tariq Ramadan has always denied the claims made against him and indeed shortly following the first accusations, there were reports that he was planning to counter-sue Ayari.  According to numerous sources, he also presented himself to the police station at the start of 2018 to highlight his cooperation with due process. He was consequently arrested and imprisoned, with reports of solitary confinement, while his health also continued to deteriorate, sparking campaigns and petitions to urge his release. During this time, he was denied visitation rights from family members, despite cooperation with the French justice system.

Undoubtedly, as these events continued to unfold over the year, it is clear that the treatment awarded to Tariq Ramadan through the presumption of guilt over innocence was incongruent with justice. As his imprisonment continued to be debilitating to his health, with doctors reporting that his Multiple Sclerosis was ‘incompatible’ with being detained, the #FreeTariqRamadan campaign grew, encouraging supporters to enjoin what is right and demand justice for the Professor, as should be demanded in the case of any detainee, guilty or otherwise.

The changing tide of the community

As the list of accusers against Tariq Ramadan grew, so too did the discussion and conversation surrounding the situation, with a large number of people from the Muslim community sharing articles, blog posts, and signing petitions to demand his release. Similarly, a large number of posts surfaced that urged the reader to contemplate the nature of these accusers, and remind audiences that this was likely an extensive campaign to smear Ramadan’s name and reputation, while the French authorities inevitably responded with bias and injustice.

Readers were asked to consider that many of the accusers, particularly Ayari herself, were of secular backgrounds – unlikely to have even been alone in the same room as Ramadan, let alone have any grounds whatsoever to support such egregious claims. The gaping discrepancies in the case also began to surface, as some accusers, including Ayari herself, changed their stories from their original accounts, or provided unsubstantial and unreliable evidence to the court. This was a case that seemed very clear – another example of how western authorities were ready to discredit and disregard Muslims at any point, particularly those as prominent as Ramadan.

Developments in the case

However, in April 2018, some developments emerged that caused some confusion and controversy, although remaining largely unknown to many. Tariq Ramadan confessed that he did indeed know the third rape complainant, and although he firmly maintained that he did not rape her, he confirmed that he had engaged in an encounter of a sexual nature that was consensual between the two individuals. Then, in June, he admitted to having had several extramarital – consensual – affairs with other women, professing that he often acted in ways that he felt contradicted his principles, but never contradicting French law. In October 2018, Ramadan’s lawyer released a statement to say that these extra-marital sexual encounters included games of a sexual nature, text messages, and ‘submissive-dominant’ sexual acts based on the fetishization of pain, which were all consensual.

With these new confessions, it was clear that this case was not as clear-cut as previously thought.

Ayari admitted that her original accusation was encouraged by the #MeToo movement which – initially becoming viral in October 2018 – encourages victims of sexual assault, primarily women, to come forward and be empowered despite the violence they have faced. The solidarity created by the movement aims to destroy the manipulative and misogynistic attitudes that force vulnerable victims to remain silent while encouraging discussion and awareness on issues surrounding consent. While this case remains complicated and the details remain mostly outside of the public realm, much of it mirrors and echoes similar cases sparked by the #MeToo movement that we have seen around the world.

Within this case are all of the themes we have become accustomed to seeing over the past year, with additional intricacies because of the nature of  Ramadan himself: a knowledgeable, educated, intelligent thinker whose speeches attract hundreds, and whose books have sold millions. Undoubtedly, #MeToo movement or not, many Muslims – including myself – will have brushed off the first accusations as being attempts to tarnish the name of a reputable and reliable scholar. But as the developments grew, so too did the silence of the Muslim community surrounding them.

Lessons learned

This case has not only echoed lessons from the #MeToo movement, but it has also created lessons of its own in the way that our community has responded to it. Indeed, the prevailing thought for many Muslims is probably the consideration that no human being on this earth is infallible – be they prominent scholars or average college students, the only source of perfection that can ever be sought in a human being was the Prophet SAW. Likewise, the idea prevails that if we are all sinners, we should not look down on or judge other people’s sins – no matter how far we believe we are from even considering such acts. These are all undoubtedly firm and beautiful teachings of Islam, and teachings that we should try to uphold. However, in this case, and in this current climate, this seems like something of a double standard. It is essential to not allow our inclination to ‘not judge’ to repeatedly allow for excuses for individuals who use and manipulate others using their power, particularly those who are leaders in our faith communities. If we are to have learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it is that often victims of the situation are overlooked, in an attempt to ‘hide and cover sins’ of perpetrators, when Allah SWT has always commanded to protect the victims.

Through this intense hiding and covering of sins, a deeper symptom of the community has surfaced where thinkers, speakers, and scholars are glorified, upheld as celebrities and almost held to a standard not befitting of human beings. This is not the only case to have shown this in the past year. Around the same time as the allegations surrounding Ramadan surfaced, Nouman Ali Khan (NAK) – notable American Muslim speaker and teacher also had several allegations against him. While none of these pertained to accusations of rape, they still concerned behaviour surrounding extramarital intimate relationships that were denounced for including ‘significant violations of trust, spiritual abuse, and unethical behavior.’ Again, the internet community was in an uproar, with some supporters of Khan even sending death threats to those who were speaking out against him. Notably, several comments circulated that reiterated the complete perceived impossibility of the claims against Khan, just because of his status as an Islamic speaker. How can you accuse him of this when he is beloved to Allah? Several Muslims also shared dismay that their imaan had been severely affected by the allegations against Khan. They felt that they had been led to learn more about Islam by Khan himself, and in realising his sins, they felt distant and disconnected from the religion.

The dangerous status of the ‘celebrity’

It seems that in the internet sphere, the glorification of speakers has almost made the obsession with personality supersede the importance of character and content while venturing into the dangerous waters of upholding fallible people to infallible standards. As a community, it has become imperative that we recognise where this symptom is fast becoming a disease. Where Muslims should regard their closeness to the faith as being something that Allah SWT has guided them towards, many are equating it to the personable speakers they follow. Ultimately, the beauty and validity of the message do not change according to the person who teaches it, and so too should our concept of justice not change according to who we are applying it to.

At the same time that the developments surfaced about Ramadan admitting to consensual extra-marital submissive-dominant sexual encounters with these women. The Muslim community was in a heavily heated debate about Dina Tokio. Prominent YouTuber and modest fashion ‘influencer’, she had just publicly stopped wearing her hijab, and there were opinions from every faction of Muslim society. Youtube videos in ‘reaction’ to her decision and abusive posts and messages sent directly to her were just some of the responses from Muslims online. While no person should receive a single piece of abuse online or otherwise, the stark contrast of this reaction to the silence surrounding the circumstances of Ramadan’s latest confession has been astounding.

The same people who are likely choosing to overlook and pardon Ramadan’s sins have little consideration when it comes to respecting Dina’s choice, or at the very least her right to not be abused. It is still an oversimplification to assume that the same people are involved (or not involved) in the two discussions, but the overwhelming discrepancy in emphatic response from Muslims between these two cases is a resounding reminder of the predominance of male privilege. Had Ramadan been female, there would likely be a reduced sense of our refusal to judge. If a female scholar – whose work was fundamentally concerned with teaching the foundations of achieving God-consciousness or Taqwa –  admitted to engagement in multiple extramarital affairs (the very opposite of being God Conscious), in the hope that the judiciary system approved that although immoral, it was still legal, there is little doubt that support for her work would remain so high.

 Justice of man vs justice of Allah

Following his release last month, it is clear that the campaigns urging for fair treatment were necessary. His treatment in prison was contrary to French egalitarian and Islamic principles, and there was a degree of bias amongst the authorities that cannot be denied. It is also true, however, that as the story unfolded, there remained a degree of bias within the Muslim community that also needs to be identified and recognised.

Be it a mixture of sheer disbelief or genuine mercy on our part, or the legitimate belief that the injustice of the French judiciary system far outweighed the professor’s shortcomings, the Muslim community has been quick to shrug off the deeper challenges of this story. In a world where we are quick to launch into furore the moment a Muslim woman decides to take off her Hijab, we have been resoundingly quiet about the latest developments of the Tariq Ramadan case.

Ultimately, the underlying goal, in this case, should remain the same: to achieve justice. What we should not forget, however, is that as Muslims, our justice does not come from the French judiciary system, from media outlets or Instagram comment wars. Our justice is founded in the principles that Allah SWT has laid down for us in the Qur’an and Sunnah. It is therefore that we need to recognise that even if we assume Tariq Ramadan’s innocence surrounding rape – which is illegal in French Law – we still must firmly and strongly denounce his actions following his own admitted guilt surrounding extramarital sexual relationships, be that consensual or otherwise – as this is undeniably unlawful in the eyes of Allah, The Most Just.

O you who believe, be steadfast in standing up for justice as witnesses for Allah, even against yourselves or your parents or your relatives, whether they are rich or poor, for Allah can best protect both. Do not follow your wishes lest you deviate and if you distort or turn away, indeed Allah is aware of whatsoever you do. (Qur’an 4:135)

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