#metoo is finally shaking up academia – a view from Islamic studies

Note: a shorter version of this article has appeared in Times Higher Education (Issue 20/2018).

academia, harassment, #metoo, #timesupacademia, celebrity, role model, syllabus

At the end of 2017, #metoo was seemingly transforming our public sphere. Sexual harassment in show-business was finally being called out, and survivors came forward with their experiences of abuse by household names like Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. TV networks, streaming services, and sponsors were cutting ties with them in panic, even if just to protect their revenue. And all this without a single conviction (yet).  This was somewhat surprising, given the previous year’s election to the highest political office in the USA of a man accused of sexual misconduct by no fewer than 20 women. In Europe, power-wielding men used to get off the hook easily as well, as the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, illustrates. But perhaps, then, things have started to finally change.

Of course, show-business and politics are not the only industries where sexual misconduct happens, they just tend to be more in the public eye. As #metoo (and #balancetonporc – ‘expose your pig’ – in France) was growing and more ordinary women were sharing their experiences of harassment on social media, allegations started surfacing in academia, too. A constantly-growing spreadsheet, started in December 2017 by Karen Kelski, a former US professor and now the owner of a career advice consultancy The Professor Is In, contains 2400 entries that document harassment in academia. All entries are anonymous, though, and so it certainly does not have the media appeal and immediacy of the Weinstein affair.

I was all the more shocked to hear about the allegations of rape levied by Henda Ayari and another anonymous woman at Tariq Ramadan who has now been charged and held by police in Paris. After all, Tariq Ramadan was a superstar of Islamic Studies who wrote extensively about sexual ethics in his quest for a moderate Islam. My reaction also had a personal dimension: Tariq Ramadan was the external examiner of my PhD. But as a feminist, I have been taught to listen to other women’s voices and respect them. This dilemma has further implications for me as a feminist teacher as well, because I teach Islamic Studies now, too. What crossed my mind immediately after hearing about the allegations was – should I keep Tariq Ramadan’s books on my reading lists? Leaving them in could be construed as indifference to women he allegedly raped, removing them could be interpreted as censorship and mixing up academic arguments with the persona of their author. Should we be what we preach? Where is the line, which, when crossed, makes us unredeemable professionally? Are these standards robust across all groups, if so? Should we strive to only use work by scholars who qualify as role models and who can bestow this title anyway? In show-business, the response to the Weinstein and other scandals was clear – the professional links with the accused men were quickly severed. But can and should such a renowned thinker like Tariq Ramadan be ostracised?

A few of the academics I asked for comments think so. Doris H. Gray, Associate Director of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Center for Women’s Empowerment at the Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morroco, says that she has removed Tariq Ramadan’s texts and videos of his talks from her course ‘Gender and Islam’. She says that his role as a thinker writing on ethics, and in particular female modesty, is incompatible with his personal lifestyle. Even if the rape charges are not proven, she says that his grooming of female admirers disqualifies him as a scholar of ethics.

Randi Deguilhem, Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research thinks not. ‘To ignore his work would be to ignore a strong force within the field of contemporary Islamic thought and the reverberations of his work’, she says. ‘I would not ignore his work, especially if I was teaching on Islamic thought in France among French Muslims.’ However, not everyone agrees that Ramadan’s writings are indeed central to Islamic studies. Kecia Ali, professor of religion at Boston University, says she doesn’t use his books in her teaching. ‘He has persistently failed to engage women’s scholarship while superficially proclaiming women’s importance to Muslim reform. Even if one were to set aside the credible accusations against him, I think there are many other rigorous works by contemporary Muslim thinkers of all genders to assign’.

What about the relationship between personal conduct and the reception of one’s academic work more generally, then? ‘It seems to me that there is a case to be made for credible scholarship even where we have evidence of flawed character’, muses Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre (IGS) at the University of Oxford. ‘It is the challenge then for the scholar who engages with a given text to provide necessary scrutiny of a kind that makes transparent the position taken by the critic’. In that sense, it is a thoroughly feminist piece of advice – we should critically examine our own moral values when engaging with and reacting to such a text.

To some, this case is almost as if Islam itself was put on trial. There are allegations of violation of due process, as pre-trial custody is a measure of last resort. A crucial piece of evidence supporting Ramadan’s alibi was conveniently ‘lost’ leading to incarceration and solitary confinement even before the trial started. It appears that the case is highly politicised, especially that Ramadan is the only one of many individuals with similar charges (including two current French cabinet ministers) who is treated so harshly by the French justice system. And will Tariq Ramadan be still deemed as a symbol of reformist Islam in the West if he is found guilty? Ramadan once famously called on Muslims to ‘reform their minds’, but now this advice seems somewhat awkward. Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska, professor of religious studies at SGH Warsaw School of Economics who is currently involved in an educational outreach programme in Polish secondary schools talking about Islam in Europe, agrees. ‘The whole thing is jarring’, she says. ‘I have talked to students about Tariq Ramadan as an advocate of moderate Islam and Muslim integration, because he’s central to this movement, but when I say that he was recently arrested on rape charges, it is then difficult to challenge the stereotype of a sexually unrestrained Muslim male that is peddled in Polish right-wing media’. According to Górak-Sosnowska, this may be the most problematic consequence of the ‘Ramadan affair’ for scholars teaching about Islam and Muslims. While we understand the differences between scriptural Islamic sexual ethics and lived Islam, they don’t matter to Islamophobes for whom this case will be a perfect stick to beat Muslims with. And because the classroom is often the place where students are able to confront stereotypes and media narratives with scholarly knowledge, unfortunately, it may now be that little bit harder to address them there.

I can’t help but think that Tariq Ramadan’s case is very particular. He is much more than a scholar of Islamic studies – he has tons of popular appeal among many European Muslims, especially in France, who are often described as his ‘following’ (the letter in his support currently circulating online has 27 000 signatures). He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this notorious familial link, Ramadan has reinvented himself as a symbol of European moderate Islam, and not only has he rubbed shoulders with the great and the good; it is people’s claim to fame that they rubbed shoulders with him. He was banned from the United States which prevented him from taking up a post of Professor of Islamic Studies there, but the University of Oxford immediately stepped in and snatched him up. He heads the Islamic Institute for Ethical Training in France. He has advised successive British governments on Islam and society. Few academics of today can boast such impact outside academia, except perhaps Stephen Hawking. Tariq Ramadan is himself a REF impact case study.

Ramadan is not a cleric, but the fact that he prolifically writes about Islamic ethics invites such associations. Many of his talks wouldn’t be out of place at a Friday Jummah prayer at a mosque when sermons are usually preached. That’s why there are probably more parallels between this case and allegations of sex abuse against high-level Catholic Church officials – because of the compromised moral authority, not scholarly achievements. Globally, in many cases of proven and even alleged rape, scholars are stripped of their titles and dismissed from academic posts.

So back to my original question: should we use the work of morally compromised scholars in our own work? After all, writings don’t cease to exist if their author is found guilty of crime. Neither does the writings’ intellectual influence. I have thought about this long and hard, and decided that if Tariq Ramadan is found guilty of rape, I won’t pass his work over in silence, but will use it as part of a case study that will provide ample sociological context to his famous books.

Perhaps we should take a closer look at the writers whose work we choose to discuss? Just as postcolonial studies has exposed the bias in the work of ‘dead white men’, we should carry on with this scrutiny of the scholars we use in the classroom. Then we should examine where we, as teachers, stand. And, perhaps, the question asked in this scrutiny of the scholars we use in the classroom. Then we should examine where we, as teachers, stand. And, perhaps, the question asked in this article is a good topic for an ethics class debate. That way it can be a lesson to all of us.



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