Henda Ayari, a French feminist campaigner of Tunisian-Algerian origin, has filed a police complaint against Tariq Ramadan, an holder of an Oxford chair in Islamic studies financed by Qatar and grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna, alleging she was raped. Ayari claims that the rape took place in 2012, at a time when she still was a fervent Salafist and admirer of Ramadan. Ramadan denies the accusation and will sue Ayari for defamation.
We might never know the truth as Ayari has no evidence. What interests me here is a tangential aspect of the matter, which has to do with style. As a Muslim figure, Ramadan is controversial. He enjoys an international reputation as a Muslim reformer but has also been accused of being a jihadist in disguise supporting the conservative views of the Brotherhood. Caroline Fourest has written an entire book on what she believes to be the doublespeak of “Brother Tariq” who is stylizing himself as a Western liberal. Ramadan’s success among young European Muslims is, to a large extent, due to his style. Contrary to other Muslim preachers, Ramadan does not only master the rhetoric of two Western languages but also knows how to dress in a Western way. His fashion aspect has been analyzed in academic articles such as Ellen van de Bovenkamp’s “Tariq Ramadan: Fashion or Fiqh? The Powerful Charisma of an Advocate of Islam in the West.”
Enter Ayari. This young woman became an internet meme at the moment she began dressing fashionably and… in a Western way. Her “before-after” photos showing her first in strict Islamic dress and then as a fashionable, modern French woman went viral. At age twenty, steeped in family problems and an identity crisis, Ayari married a French Salafist who imbued her with the “death-style” culture of radical Islam with terrorist connections. She fled, shed the Islamic gear, and wrote a book called I Chose to be Free about her experiences. Today, when Ayari accuses Ramadan of rape, she is not only a book author but also an internet celebrity who fascinates people because of her style. This means that she shares an essential feature with Ramadan; and the public battle that those two Europeans of Arab origin will fight during the next months will also be determined by how well each of them masters the game of the Western vestimetary aesthetics. This is paradoxical because their encounter initially revolved around Islam and Islam might even play a major role in the entire controversy. However, in the end, what will matter very much for public opinion is the question: how Western are their dress codes? Could Ayari attract the same amount of attention were she still wearing her abaya and hijab? Would her accusations have the same impact? Would Ramadan have the same amount of sympathy were he wearing a thawb and a taqiyah? Certainly not, and this is the irony of the whole story.