As the widening circle of sex abuse and harassment accusations expands to include Hollywood celebrities, politicians, and media moguls, it was only a matter of time before the scandal shifted back again to the university campus.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week that two Stanford English professors—one retired and one deceased—have now been accused of rape. And, in even more alarming allegations, renowned professor Tariq Ramadan, a scholar of Islam at Oxford University, has been accused of rape by Henda Ayari, a French feminist author. Four Swiss women also claim he made sexual advances to them when they were studying with him as teenagers in Geneva.
The UK’s Telegraph reports that one of the accusers claimed that Ramadan made unsuccessful sexual advances to her when she was 14 years old. Another alleged he had sexual relations with her in the back of his car when she was just 15 years old. Ayari accused Ramadan of raping and assaulting her in a hotel during a conference they attended together in Paris in 2012. Ramadan has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, where he holds an academic chair financed by Qatar. He denies all of the allegations, claiming in a post on Facebook that he is being targeted by “a campaign of slander clearly orchestrated by my longtime adversaries.”
There are indeed a lot of adversaries. A Swiss-born theologian and philosopher, Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s. Ramadan presents himself as a “reformist” and says he rejects terrorism, supports the modernizing of Shariah law, and encourages integration of Muslims into western society. But he has been criticized for voicing more conservative views for Muslim audiences than he does in the West. In 2010, Ramadan was fired from his teaching position at a Dutch university and from an advisory position with the City of Rotterdam, amid allegations that his Iranian-funded television program Islam and Life, airing on Iran’s Press TV, was “irreconcilable” with his duties in Rotterdam.
Going back further, in 1996 Ramadan was banned from entering France on suspicion of having links with an Algerian Islamist who initiated a terrorist campaign in Paris. In 2004 Ramadan resigned his faculty appointment at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies because his visa was revoked by the US State Department. Acting on the recommendation of the Homeland Security Administration, the State Department cited matters of “national security” in denying Ramadan a visa. The ACLU claimed in court that Ramadan was being targeted because of his views and for having donated money to Hamas.
In 2004, the Notre Dame controversy triggered a series of protests against the Bush State Department by professors throughout the country. R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Center at Notre Dame, lauded Ramadan’s research as “rooted in a kind of spirituality and a scholarly method that was innovative and original and very fruitful…he has critiques of capitalism and globalization integrated into Islamic ideas.” The Rev. Edward A. Malloy, then-President of Notre Dame, decried the decision by the State Department, claiming: “We have no reason to think that he’s a mole or an underground instigator…we see him as a really good fit for our peace institute.”
Well, perhaps not. While the terrorist ties have not dissuaded US universities from honoring Ramadan once Hilary Clinton’s State Department lifted the travel ban on him in 2010, the most recent sex abuse allegations will likely end his favored status. After all, college campuses have been embroiled in sex abuse controversies for more than a decade now.
In an ironic twist of fate, Harvey Weinstein—the first in the current round of powerful men accused of sex abuse—helped to ignite a moral panic on college campuses with his activist film The Hunting Ground. Released in 2015 by CNN Films, The Hunting Ground portrayed college campuses as places where serial predators roam free to prey on unsuspecting women. Women were portrayed as frightened victims of evil men who lurked in nearly every fraternity house and campus gathering. But none of the cases described in the film happened the way the filmmakers claimed. In fact, Weinstein’s The Hunting Ground was so egregiously dishonest that 19 Harvard University law professors denounced the film for its dishonest portrayal of sexual violence and serial sex abuse on campus.
In a flood of accusations, the particulars of each situation can be overwhelmed; there is a temptation to either accept them all—or to reject them all. Yet each case demands an objective, careful assessment and process. Care must be taken to reaffirm, first, that people are to be considered innocent until proven guilty and, second, that sexual assault is a heinous and evil act. Both points need to remain in play, whether the accused are conservative politicians or progressives’ favorite scholars.