For more than two months now, Tariq Ramadan, a respected Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies and Senior Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, has been held in solitary confinement in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, northern France, without access to his wife and children or proper medical treatment. Despite the fact that he was hospitalised for several days in February due to multiple sclerosis, with his doctor saying that his condition was ‘not compatible with detention’(France 24 2018) –he was even transported to his appeal in an ambulance (BFMTV 2018)– the Paris Court of Appeal denied a request to release him on medical grounds (Al Jazeera 2018). While his alleged crime is far removed from the ‘War on Terror’ – he is being investigated on at least two separate counts of sexual assault in the wake of the #MeToo movement, extremely serious allegations that he has denied – his unjust treatment is undeniably enmeshed in the grammar of Orientalism, exasperated by the post 9/11 war on Arabs and Muslims.
The allegations against Ramadan are grave and, if proven, he must face justice. Sexual assault is a crime that must end; nearly one in eight French women say they have been raped (BBC 2018). But, thus far, Ramadan’s treatment has differed wildly from the way that the French authorities have handled similar high profile cases of alleged sexual assault. In the wake of the ‘Balance Ton Porc’ (expose your pig) campaign, the French equivalent of #MeToo, two women accused French Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin of rape, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot was accused of raping the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand in 1997. The authorities’ immediate response? French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe‘ called for respect for the principle of innocent until proven guilty and said [that both] ministers will keep their jobs unless charged with an offence’ (AFP 2018).
Another case to consider is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful. During his 2015 trialon charges of ‘aggravated pimping,’ two prostitutes said that he had subjected them to a sex act they did not want,’ expressed his appetite for group sex’ and explained ‘how his sexual style was “rougher than the average man”’ (Chrisafis 2015). And yet, not only was he never imprisoned, but the courts also acquitted him and all but one of his 13 co-defendants (BBC 2015).Back in 2011, Strauss-Kahn spent only four days in a New York jail after being indicted on charges of rape (Scherer 2011).
Solitary confinement is rare in Europe, although France, Belgium and the Netherlands have all recently started placing those suspected and convicted of terrorism in isolation, ostensibly to prevent the radicalisation of other prisoners (Stahl 2016).Out of an overall French prison population of around 67,500, as of 2015, authorities said that 283 prisoners were connected to terrorism (Alexander 2015).But Ramadan is not suspected of any crimes related to terrorism and has willingly cooperated with the prosecutors in Rouen, who after two months have yet to establish whether they have enough evidence for him to even stand trial (Chrisafis 2018). When the charges emerged, long before he was taken into custody, the University of Oxford placed Ramadan on leave, terms which he mutually agreed (Adams and Chrisafis 2017). However, since then, even his academic credentials have spuriously been called into question (Mills 2018).
So why is the treatment of Ramadan, a respected scholar of Islam, so different?
When the many dozens of charges against Harvey Weinstein emerged in late 2017, it was framed as an abuse of power in Hollywood. However, when news of the charges against Ramadan were publicised, it was framed as a problem with Islam (Dabashi 2017; McAuley 2017). All allegations of sexual assault must be treated seriously; but Weinstein, the aforementioned French officials and ordinary citizens all appear to have rights that Ramadan is being denied.
Many scholars are tackling the question of whether Islamophobia has become the new anti-Semitism in Europe (Bunzl 2005; Hafez 2014; Dobkowski 2014). In France, Silverstein (2008: 3) argues that the violence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are both part of a set of structural tensions inside French late modernity: ‘embedded within French post-coloniality, within a set of unresolved and enduring struggles over French national belonging that derive from the colonisation of North Africa and, more particularly, from the bitter war of decolonisation that literally tore the French Republic asunder.’ During the first part of the twentieth century, Jewish citizenship was incompatible with French nationalism; ever since, Muslims have been equally suspect.
Today, a significant portion of European society questions if Muslims can be good citizens. As Sayyid (2014: 43) argues, Western secularism ‘generates Muslims as permanently transgressive subjects, whose religious essence is constantly being undermined by the temptations of the political’. Here, the political is anything that challenges Western secularism. As Brown (2009: 10) adds, ‘today the secular derives much of its meaning from an imagined opposite in Islam, and, as such, veils the religious shape and content of Western public life and its imperial designs.’
The result has been stark: Muslims in the West, including Ramadan, are tolerated only so long as they do not make any political claims and practice their religion in private (Brown 2006). When European Muslims do become politically active, Islamophobia flourishes: a recent poll found that 55 per cent of people surveyed across ten European countries, including France, wanted to stop all future immigration from mainly Muslim countries (Osborne 2017).
According to The Economist (2016), ‘Muslims make up an estimated 8-10 per cent of France’s population (the exact share is unknown because collecting religious statistics is banned). Yet they are perhaps 60 per cent of prison inmates, according to a [French] parliamentary report’. Nevertheless, of the 1,470 French prison chaplains, only 178 are Muslim (Quesnel 2015).Many Muslim prisoners are either segregated or, as noted above, in solitary confinement. In 2014, segregation units for Muslims were created in the prisons of Fresnes and Osny, as well as in Fleury-Mérogis, the prison where Ramadan is currently being held (The Economist 2016).
In French prisons, Muslims are clearly being denied the rights of citizens. Whatever Ramadan’s alleged crimes might be, and however serious, they have yet to be proven. In fact, it is unclear if the state even has a case against him – it is still under investigation (Elshayyal 2018).Accordingly, absolutely nothing justifies his solitary confinement, without access to his family and appropriate medical treatment. But because he has repeatedly asserted his identity as a highly political and influential Muslim, who also happens to be a European citizen (he is of Swiss nationality), he has already been tried in the court of public opinion and is serving his sentence, without justice.
(2018) ‘Rape case against French budget minister Darmanin dropped,’ AFP, 17 February. https://www.thelocal.fr/20180217/rape-case-against-french-budget-minister-dropped-gerald-darmanin. Accessed 31 March 2018.
(2018) ‘Tariq Ramadan maintains innocence in new video,’ Al Jazeera, 16 March. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/tariq-ramadan-maintains-innnocence-video-180316162248212.html. Accessed 28 March 2018.
(2018) ‘One French woman in eight has been raped, study says,’ BBC News, 23 February 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43167309. Accessed 3 April 2018.
(2015) ‘Dominique Strauss-Kahn acquitted of “aggravated pimping”,’ BBC News, 12 June.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33102896. Accessed 31 March 2018.
(2018) ‘Tariq Ramadan se rendra à la cour d’appel en ambulance en raison de sa santé,’ BFMTV, 15 February. http://www.bfmtv.com/police-justice/tariq-ramadan-se-rendra-a-la-cour-d-appel-en-ambulance-en-raison-de-sa-sante-1374131.html. Accessed 31 March 2018.
(2018) ‘Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, detained on rape charges, hospitalised in France,’ France 24, 19 February. http://www.france24.com/en/20180218-jailed-islamic-scholar-tariq-ramadan-hospitalised-france. Accessed 31 March 2018.
(2018) ‘Relation sexuelle avec une fillette de 11 ans: une enquête pour viol ouverte,’ Le Figaro, 28 February. http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2018/02/27/01016-20180227ARTFIG00332-relation-sexuelle-avec-une-fillette-de-11-ans-une-enquete-pour-viol-ouverte.php. Accessed 31 March 2018.
(2016) ‘Jihadism in French prisons: Caged fervour,’ The Economist, 17 September 2016. https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21707230-should-jails-segregate-jihadists-caged-fervour. Accessed 2 April 2018.
(2017) Adams, Richard and Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Oxford University places Tariq Ramadan on leave amid rape claims,’ The Guardian, 7 November. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/07/oxford-university-places-tariq-ramadan-on-leave-amid-claims. Accessed 1 April 2018.
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