Sometimes it is difficult to find words, even in the face of an obvious injustice. You open your mouth to speak, but there is no language to be found. It is not that you do not care, because you do. But sometimes what is before you is overshadowed by something else. Sometimes the distribution of power is so overwhelmingly fractured that it also splinters the tongue.
I have really struggled to write this blog, but persisted nonetheless. Because not only is the issue not going to go away, it is also not being fairly discussed, when even discussed at all.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
The issue at hand is this: for more than two months now, Tariq Ramadan, a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies and Senior Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, has been held in solitary confinement in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, northern France, without access to his wife and children or proper medical treatment. He suffers from multiple sclerosis and his condition has worsened in prison; he has been hospitalised twice since being detained. Nevertheless, his appeal to be released on medical grounds was denied by the Paris Appeals Court. Although he has been indicted for a crime, he has yet to be charged. Thus far, it is still unclear if the French state has a case against him – it is still under investigation.
To me, solitary confinement is abhorrent, even if the isolated person was convicted of a heinous crime or has acted dangerously while in prison. I cannot humanly justify that kind of harsh punishment, and certainly not for extended periods of time. That Ramadan, who has been neither tried nor convicted in a court of law, has been placed in solitary confinement for over two months now, well to me this is an obvious injustice.
Solitary confinement is rare in Europe, although France, Belgium and the Netherlands have all recently started placing those suspected and convicted of terrorism in isolation, ostensibly to prevent the radicalisation of other prisoners. In 2014, segregation units for Muslims were created in the prisons of Fresnes and Osny, as well as in Fleury-Mérogis, where Ramadan is being held. However, Ramadan is not suspected of any crimes even remotely related to terrorism.
But… how could there possibly be a but here? Well, there is. Speaking about this is difficult and makes me uncomfortable because Ramadan was indicted on two charges of rape and at least one other woman has subsequently made similar charges. These are serious allegations that cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. They are born out of the feminist #MeToo movement, a response to allegations of serial sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, once the most powerful person in Hollywood. Like many of the other women who have spoken out against sexual assault, Ramadan and Weinstein’s accusers were subjected to threats and smear campaigns. However, in other ways these two cases have been received very differently: when the dozens of charges against Weinstein came out, it was framed as a misogynistic abuse of power; when the charges against Ramadan were publicised, it was framed as a problem with Islam. The double standard here is clear.
There are other double standards at play too. In the wake of the ‘Balance Ton Porc’ (expose your pig) campaign, the French equivalent of #MeToo, two wome n accused French Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin of rape, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot was accused of raping the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand. Neither were sent to prison and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted on respecting their innocence until proven guilty.
Another case to consider is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful. A known sexual predator, during his 2015 trial on charges of ‘aggravated pimping,’ two prostitutes said that he ‘had subjected them to a sex act they did not want,’ expressed his ‘appetite for group sex’ and explained ‘how his sexual style was “rougher than the average man”.’ And yet, not only was he never imprisoned, but the French courts also acquitted him and all but one of his 13 co-defendants. Back in 2011, Strauss-Kahn spent only four days in a New York jail after being indicted on charges of rape.
And yet if these double standards are clear, and Ramadan’s solitary confinement is obviously unjust, why the inability to speak about his treatment as something separate from his alleged crimes?
A big problem is that those who are speaking are blindly partisan, either celebrating the demise of Europe’s most famous ‘Islamist’ or calling for his liberation. But the fact is that we are living in a moment of heightening Islamophobia, when French Muslims are almost 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Muslims, and around 55 per cent of Europeans, including the French, want to stop all future immigration from mainly Muslim countries.
So, although it is uncomfortable, we must choose to speak out about the injustice of Ramadan’s treatment. Ramadan’s case must proceed through the French legal system, and while this due process is unfolding there is absolutely no justification for him to suffer in solitary confinement. Justice has never been colour blind, but calls for justice must never end.