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Bail Refused in French Rape Case Against Muslim Theologian

FILE - Tariq Ramadan talks to the media after a conference at the Er-Rahma mosque in Nantes, western France, April 25, 2010.

A Paris judge on Tuesday denied bail to a controversial Swiss Muslim scholar facing rape accusations, as fresh allegations promise to further complicate one of France's most prominent sexual assault cases to date.

Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan, 55, was charged with rape late last week, following two French women's accusations of brutal sexual experiences in hotel rooms years before. Ramadan was questioned for two days before being taken into custody Friday.

Swiss media have reported allegations that Ramadan had sexual relations with teenage girls at a Geneva school where he taught in the 1980s. In addition, French media have reported that police have testimonies from other women, who have not leveled charges.

The allegations first surfaced last fall, as the Harvey Weinstein scandal triggered a broader #MeToo outcry against sexual assault and harassment.

Ramadan, a married father of four, adamantly denies the charges, claiming they amount to slander from enemies intent on demolishing him. The case has stunned the Muslim world and further fueled the many critics of Ramadan, who has long been a polarizing figure in Europe.

The accusations

Both of the women pressing charges describe similar episodes — of hotel room meetings, ostensibly for religious discussions, that quickly turned into violent sexual encounters. One woman — a handicapped, 45-year-old convert to Islam using the pseudonym "Christelle" — described in interviews a particularly brutal and humiliating encounter with the scholar in the French city of Lyon in 2009.

During recent questioning, "Christelle" allegedly identified a scar on Ramadan's groin, which he reportedly confirmed existed. She turned over a USB flash drive to investigators allegedly containing compromising text messages from Ramadan, according to Le Parisien newspaper.

But the newspaper also reported a plane reservation that, if confirmed, would show Ramadan flying from London to Lyon at about the same time the woman said the assault took place.

Henda Ayari
Henda Ayari

The second woman, Henda Ayari, a former Salifist-turned-feminist activist, went public with her accusations in October. She was the first to openly accuse Ramadan of sexual assault, earning insults and threats in the weeks that followed. Like "Christelle," Ayari said the experience took place in a hotel in 2012.

But Ayari's account, too, has been compromised in recent days, with reports of a man claiming she threatened to press rape charges against him in 2013 — a year after her alleged encounter with Ramadan —after he rebuffed her advances.

Beginning of the end?

Regardless of the outcome, the charges amount to a significant blow to Ramadan, once seen as an inspiration to a generation of young European Muslims. In conferences and television interviews, he preached that Islam and Europe were compatible. Still, critics claimed Ramadan, the grandson of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, wielded a double discourse, hiding political Islam behind unifying rhetoric.

Following last fall's allegations, Ramadan took a leave of absence from his teaching post at Oxford University. More recently, French media report that Qatar — which financed his Islamic Studies chair at Oxford — has also distanced itself from him.

"He has a real hold on his [sexual] prey, as on his faithful," feminist writer Caroline Fourest, a longtime Ramadan foe, told Le Journal du Dimanche.

"I don't think people realize his impact on Europe as a preacher," she added. "He has radicalized brilliant students — young Muslims —and transformed them into vindictive paranoids. He has divided European citizens with the kind of harm that few extremists can match."

A number of prominent Muslims have chosen to remain silent, saying they will wait for French justice to weigh in. Analysts claim Ramadan's star was fading long before the allegations surfaced — and especially after the Arab uprisings starting in 2011.

"It's a whole myth that is collapsing. Tariq Ramadan will have a hard time continuing his preaching career based on his personality and a discourse of religious puritanism," Islam specialist Omero Marongui-Perria told Le Parisien.

For their part, Ramadan's backers have launched a petition and written an open letter of support in which they denounce an alleged campaign against him carried out by French media and politicians.