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Europe’s Muslim Communities getting divided after sexual assault charges against Islamic Scholar

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Tariq Ramadan
FILE - This file photo taken on March 26, 2016 shows Swiss Islamologist Tariq Ramadan taking part in a conference on the theme "Live together" in Bordeaux.
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Sexual assault charges targeting a prominent Islamic scholar have left many European Muslims stunned, and triggered sharply disparate reactions within the multi-faceted community, even as many fear a broader backlash.

Swiss-born theologian Tariq Ramadan took a leave of absence from teaching at Oxford University last week, following complaints of rape and assault filed by two French women and reports of similar charges in Switzerland. A statement by the university said the decision was mutual. Ramadan denies the accusations.

While some analysts say Ramadan’s star has been waning in recent years, the impact of the accusations has been immense. Especially in French-speaking countries, 55-year-old Ramadan inspired a generation of young Muslims to believe Islam and citizenship were compatible in a distinctly secular Europe. Unlike many religious clerics here, he spoke in French rather than Arabic during meetings and symposiums that were usually packed.

FILE – Tariq Ramadan talks to the media after a conference at the Er-Rahma mosque in Nantes, western France, Apr. 25, 2010.
Rape charges against Tariq Ramadan
FILE – Tariq Ramadan talks to the media after a conference at the Er-Rahma mosque in Nantes, western France, Apr. 25, 2010.

“I think this affair is going to lead to big changes,” said Alexandre Piettre, a specialist in Islam at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in Paris. “He had a discourse of integration, and without it, it leaves space for political radicalism that was contained by it; those who reject public participation in the West and call for a return to Muslim countries — the Hijra — or even armed jihad.”

Double discourse?

The grandson of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna, Ramadan has long been a polarizing figure. Critics claim he wielded a “double discourse,” hiding political Islam behind unifying rhetoric. He was temporarily banned from the U.S. under the Bush administration, a measure lifted under the Obama one.

Much of the debate surrounding him has taken place in France, where an estimated five million Muslims make up Western Europe’s biggest Islamic community.

Rape charges against Tariq Ramadan
FILE – French Muslim youths hold placards which read, “I am Muslim. I love my Prophet” (R) and “I am Muhammad. I belong to the Muslim community and I am anti-terrorist” during a demonstration in central Paris, Jan. 18, 2015.
FILE – French Muslim youths hold placards which read, “I am Muslim. I love my Prophet” (R) and “I am Muhammad. I belong to the Muslim community and I am anti-terrorist” during a demonstration in central Paris, Jan. 18, 2015.

In April, French authorities expelled Ramadan’s older brother, controversial Swiss preacher Hani Ramadan, on grounds he was a threat to public order.

The preacher also sparked outrage in 2002, by publishing an article in France’s Le Monde newspaper that supported stoning adulterers — a position condemned by his brother Tariq.

“Tariq Ramadan: double discourse or double personality?” France’s conservative Le Figaro newspaper asked last week, wondering if the “charming predator” was a sexual one as well.

FILE – Hani Ramadan delivers a speech during the annual meeting of muslims in France, 14 Apr. 2007 in Le Bourget, north of Paris.

Multiple accusations

The assault charges come amid a broader global outcry against sexual harassment, triggered by the Harvey Weinstein scandal that began in the United States. As the charges mounted last month, French activist and former Salafist Henda Ayari filed a police complaint accusing Ramadan of brutally raping her in a hotel room in 2012. Since then, another French woman has come forward with a similar story, according to media reports. French prosecutors are probing the accusations.

In neighboring Switzerland, a Geneva newspaper reported four young women said they had sexual relations with Ramadan as minors when he was teaching at their school — at least three of the incidents were said to be non-consensual. Media reported another rape claim in Belgium.

Meanwhile, Oxford University graduate Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi posted a blog that gave voice to an American Muslim friend, who recounted an unwanted sexual advance by Ramadan in 2013. The account echoed a pattern described by the two French women: an initial interaction with Ramadan on social media to discuss religious matters, then an eventual meeting in a hotel room because Ramadan said he did not wish to be seen in public.

“For me it’s not about his political views,” said al-Tamimi, who works for a think tank opposed to Ramadan, but says he is not part of that debate.

“I don’t find him particularly insightful or been blown away by anything he’s said,” said al-Tamimi in a telephone interview, adding he had seen Ramadan speak at Oxford only once. “For me it’s about people using their celebrity status to engage in sexual misconduct.”

Accusations strongly denied

Ramadan has categorically denied the accusations, and filed for slander.

In a Facebook posting Saturday, he said he remained calm and had “confidence in justice.” For years, he has called for moderation, dialogue and openness, he wrote, and “these are the values we need most today.”

But these are not the reactions swirling in social media and in the press.

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that was targeted in a 2015 terrorist attack, has received death threats over an explicit front-page cartoon of Ramadan. Meanwhile, former prime minister Manuel Valls condemned the scholar on Twitter, saying he had “denounced the duplicity of Tariq Ramadan” for years.

Yet others suggest the allegations against Ramadan are a Zionist or Jewish plot or the manifestation of simmering racism, while a group of Muslim feminists sided with Ramadan’s alleged victims, in a statement published in Le Monde.

“There is no ‘Muslim exception’ when it comes to sexual abuse,” researcher Fatima Khemilat wrote.

Divided community

These reactions, along with yet another — of Muslim hardliners pleased by Ramadan’s predicament — “are sketching the lines of fracture in the Muslim community that will solidify in the future,” analyst Piettre predicted. “With, in the middle, all those who are distraught at what happened to Tariq Ramadan. Who believe it’s not possible, who are orphans.”

In interviews, several prominent French Muslims remained guarded, saying they were waiting for French justice to pronounce judgement first.

Bordeaux imam, Tareq Oubrou, declined an interview request citing the ongoing investigation. “The affair is of enormous gravity for the person concerned and notably for what he incarnates,” he said in a text message.

But M’hammed Henniche of UAM 93, an alliance of French Muslims in the Seine-Saint-Denis region outside Paris, said the allegations against Ramadan would harden anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Everyone who is against Tariq Ramadan will say this is proof that Islam is not a religion of peace, that it’s a barbaric religion that treats women as objects,” he said.

For his part Abdallah Zekri, a senior member of the mainstream umbrella group, the French Council for the Muslim Faith, is underwhelmed by Ramadan, but criticizes the virulent reaction.

“Tariq Ramadan is a big personality because the media made him one,” he said. “He’s never been my cup of tea. But he has not been judged or condemned, and I respect the presumption of innocence.” (VOA)

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Fear of Terror raises Tensions among French-ruled island of Corsica’s Muslims

Muslims and non-Muslims attacked each other with fists and weapons that reports said included machetes and a harpoon

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Terrorism. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

AJACCIO, CORSICA, September 03, 2016: Some referred to the attacks in France as the summer of terror. Communities all over the country these days are working to heal the wounds and avert what many French Muslims think could be a backlash against them by politicians and citizens angry over extremists’ attacks.

Inter-communal tensions have boiled over on the French-ruled island of Corsica. Muslims and non-Muslims clashed on a beach in August, after reports that a tourist had taken a photo of a Muslim woman bathing on a beach in the town of Sisco touched off a riot.

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Muslims and non-Muslims attacked each other with fists and weapons that reports said included machetes and a harpoon.

Fear has risen further after the island’s militant separatists, in defiance of the Paris government, said they are ready to take matters into their own hands if the Islamic State group carries out an attack on the island.

There have been no specific terrorism warnings on Corsica, but, as summer winds down, the island’s beaches became a focal point in France’s battle of cultures – marked by attacks on the French mainland, such as the truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people in July and the murder, also in July, of an elderly Catholic priest during Mass in Normandy. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016.

Who defends Corsica?

Corsica’s isolation and its fierce separatist drive have many feeling like Paris is not doing enough to protect them. After the bloodshed in France, the Corsican National Liberation Front warned the Islamic State that any attack against the Corsican people would precipitate a “determined response,” without hesitation or guilt.

“Beyond that statement, I think Corsica’s entire population is asking, ‘who is going to defend us. Are we obliged to defend ourselves? And by what means?’” asked Francis Nadizi, regional secretary of the far-right National Front party headed by Marine Le Pen.

Corsica has one of France’s highest ratio of firearms per capita – one more reason why officials are taking the separatists’ statement seriously. They also are not ignoring the possibility of a terrorist attack on their soil.

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“There is real concern because unfortunately the events of recent months have shown that no one is safe, and there are elements specific to Corsica that make us fear a rising risk,” said Gilles Simeoni, the island’s top elected official, told VOA.

In remarks published recently, Simeoni warned there has been a breakdown of the “integration machine” – a reference to questions about the local Muslim population’s willingness to integrate into Corsican society.

Mosques hit by arson

Even before this summer’s beach riot, there have been confrontations. Attacks have included arson fires at Muslim places of prayer.

Signs of the tensions are less than subtle. In public restrooms and fences, graffiti demand: “Arabi Fora,” Corsican for “Arabs Out.”

Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016. Image source: VOA
Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016. Image source: VOA

In December, a mob smashed windows and ransacked a prayer hall in the island’s main city, Ajaccio. The incident happened after Muslim youths ambushed firefighters and police who were responding to reports of illegal bonfires.

The prayer hall’s director, Abdel-Mounim el Khalfioui, said the tensions – including those surrounding the controversy over burkinis – have intensified the conversation about what it means to be Muslim in Corsica.

“Integrating into a society does not mean rejecting one’s culture of origin in order to adopt another. That for me is not integration,” el Khalfioui said. “Integration is respecting the laws, respecting the land that welcomes you, respecting its traditions, respecting people, but at the same time holding on to your culture of origin.”’

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Islamic garments an issue

But some Corsicans disagree. Like many people on the French mainland, they say Islamic vestments drive a wedge between Muslims and the rest of the population.

“I think, quite sincerely, that it is a provocation,” said the National Front’s Nadizi. “They will begin by the visual aspect of their vestments, before staking their communitarian claims.”

“It could be that people will see it as a provocation, like if a man sees a naked woman walking on the street. She is going to tell him, ‘I am free,’ but he sees it as a provocation,” said Sabri Merdaci, a 24-year-old building maintenance worker born on Corsica to Algerian and Tunisian parents. Merdaci wears a beard and sometimes a galabiyya, or tunic. “We see it as a choice that one makes in regard to religion, to identity, as it relates to Islam,” he said.

Merdaci said he avoids beaches where French women often sunbathe topless.

Given the hostility already shown to their community, some of Corsica’s Muslims worry any retaliation against Islamic State could spill into retaliation against them.

In a meeting last week, a group gathered to vent their concerns about the Corsican separatists’ warning to the Islamic State. “We took this as a provocation for those who may want to carry out an attack in Corsica, and so it is us who would have to pay,” said Mohamed Jouablia, head of an association of Tunisian immigrants.

“It means someone does something wrong and the group reacts, goes after the other. It is collective punishment, and that is disgusting. It is unacceptable. It is that which worries us,” said another member, Zerdalia Dahoun, a native of Algeria. “The concept of justice is dangerous. Inciting people to do justice themselves has roused the extreme on both sides,” she said. (VOA)