PARIS — In many respects, the subject of France's biggest abuse scandal is similar to several of the men named in assault allegations on the other side of the Atlantic.
He's a prominent figure and operates in the progressive worlds of academia and journalism. But in one significant way, the "Ramadan affair" is different.
Tariq Ramadan — accused of raping two women here — is among the most controversial Muslim personalities in a France still struggling to define the role of religion, and especially Islam, in public life. As an added twist, Ramadan’s accusers in France are also Muslims.
The case has moved beyond the claims — and is now fixated instead on Ramadan’s defenses of Islam. Some see them as important contributions to Western multiculturalism, and others dismiss them as incompatible with French ideals of secularism and assimilation.
The sexual assault allegations — which Ramadan has denied and labeled a "campaign of slander" — have prompted responses from nearly every corner of France's political and intellectual ecosystem.
To many of his detractors, there is irony in someone who has backed the virtues of Islamic law now defending himself in the Western legal system. Feminists say the focus on Ramadan’s opinions takes away from the wider debate over abuse and gender politics. Some leftist intellectuals claim the case has exposed France’s deep-seated Islamophobia.
“It’s not about the victims, nor even about Ramadan as a sexual predator anymore, but about two clashing views on secularism and the place of Islam in the political debate,” said Cécile Alduy, a political analyst and professor at Stanford University.
“What was originally about women’s rights,” she said, “has turned into a debate about political Islam.”
The allegations against Ramadan surfaced in late October during the height of France’s #BalanceTonPorc (“squeal on your pig”) social media campaign, a version of #MeToo.
Henda Ayari, once an ultra-conservative Salafist and now a secular feminist, accused Ramadan of raping her in a Paris hotel in 2012. "He literally pounced on me like a wild animal," Ayari said on French television. "For a few seconds, [Ramadan] choked me. I really thought I was going to die."
She could not be reached for further comment.
Days later, a second — and similar — allegation surfaced, this time from a 45-year-old convert to Islam, who alleged that Ramadan raped her in a hotel room in Lyon in 2009. After the second allegation, the Paris prosecutor opened an investigation into the two cases. The University of Oxford eventually placed Ramadan on leave.
Ayari has reported receiving death threats on social media and has been placed under police protection, according to her attorney.
Ramadan — the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — has vigorously defended Muslim communal life in ways that have alienated French intellectuals on the political left and right.
In the country that has borne the brunt of Europe’s struggle with terrorist violence in recent years, Ramadan is sometimes seen as attempting to explain — and even condone — the actions of the attackers, many of whom have been young men from Muslim backgrounds.
As he wrote in 2012: “The young people who join extremist groups are clearly suffering from massive deficiencies in religious knowledge, and are often politically gullible (when they are not attempting to salve pangs of conscience by cutting themselves off from a life of delinquency).”
There is also the lingering memory of a 2003 article he wrote in which he attacked a number of prominent "French Jewish intellectuals" for abandoning universal values to defend Israel.
As it turned out, one of the intellectuals he cited, Pierre-André Taguieff, was not Jewish but had a name Ramadan assumed to be.
In France, this earned Ramadan a reputation for anti-Semitism, a charge he has struggled to sidestep.
In the current controversy, Ramadan’s most prominent critic is Manuel Valls, the former Socialist prime minister and current parliamentary deputy who, last year, led the crusade against the swimsuit known as the “burkini.”
“I have denounced for a long time the duplicity of Tariq Ramadan,” Valls said on French radio this month, calling Ramadan a “so-called intellectual” and “promoter of sharia” who “has done a terrible evil to our youth, with his cassettes, with his preaching in our mosques, his invitations on platforms, his friendships, his complicities.”
French Muslim leaders have attacked what they see as a double standard: intense public outrage over abuses alleged against a prominent Muslim but nothing comparable in other cases, such as the rape allegation against the former presidential hopeful and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011. Although Strauss-Kahn was ultimately banished from public life, a number of prominent politicians in France — including Valls — defended him as the victim of a political conspiracy.
But Muslim leaders say they most object to the way Ramadan has been attacked.
“We have Islamized a question of law and ethics, if you will. Instead of focusing on the crimes at hand, the trial of one man has become the trial of the entire Muslim community,” said Yasser Louati, a prominent French civil liberties advocate. “Unfortunately, this debate has overshadowed the debate over sexual harassment, which is a scourge and which women have suffered for decades.”
The satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo quickly echoed Valls, publishing a cover that depicted Ramadan with a massive erection. "I am the sixth pillar of Islam," the caption read.
A number of journalists and intellectuals decried what they saw as an attempt to “find any pretext, any calumny, to return to their obsession: war on Muslims, and the demonization of everything concerning Islam and Muslims,” in the words of Edwy Plenel, the publisher of Mediapart, a popular investigative outlet.
Charlie Hebdo — whose offices were ransacked by Islamist terrorists in January 2015 in an attack that killed 12 — invoked that memory. Journalists at the newspaper reported that they received death threats after the Ramadan cover, and the police opened a formal investigation.
The newspaper's editor in chief, Laurent Sourisseau, then published a blistering op-ed accusing Plenel of "condemning Charlie Hebdo to death a second time." That issue also featured a cover image that presented Plenel's face in the variations of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
Feminists have joined the chorus to hammer one question: Why are there so few women — and especially so few Muslim women — included in this debate?
“There is a part of the media that only talks about Tariq Ramadan, and incessantly. It effaces everything else, all the other cases,” said Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, a spokeswoman for Osez le Féminisme (“Dare to be feminist”), a leading advocacy organization. “This is a debate about sexual assault, and yet there is mostly a debate over one particular case of aggression.”
Likewise, Muslim feminists say they have been invited to participate in the debate only as Muslims.
"As if we were Muslim women before being women. As if we were only legitimate to denounce the violence by Muslims. As if the violence we suffer only comes from Muslims," said Lallab, a Muslim feminist organization, in a statement on the Ramadan scandal.
“News flash: This is not the case!”