Back then, Jensen fell in with the pro-Ramadan camp in the heated, polarised debate surrounding him. Despite receiving support from scholars and students, Ramadan was eventually denounced (see box text below), which was seen by those involved then as a missed opportunity to foster a rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims in Rotterdam.
Ramadan in Rotterdam
Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss philosopher and Islamologist who held dual appointments between 2006 and 2009 at Erasmus University and the municipality of Rotterdam, with the latter funding his professorship. At the EUR Ramadan was Professor of Identity and Citizenship, and at the municipality he was an advisor on integration. This was a period marked by fervent division in Rotterdam in the wake of the murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. After a period of the right-leaning local political party Leefbaar Rotterdam controlling the Council, control was handed back to the left in 2006. It was GroenLinks alderman Orhan Kaya who put forward Tariq Ramadan to bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the left and the right. To bolster Ramadan’s advisory role, he was appointed guest professor at Erasmus University. His lectures and speeches always drew in the crowds. He was popular among (Muslim) students and some scholars, but always faced the charge of duplicity: unifying and liberal when addressing a non-Muslim audience and championing a political, pure Islam when addressing his Islamic grass-roots supporters.
Ramadan’s reputation took a knock at the start of 2009 after gay newspaper the Gay Krant published homophobic statements that Ramadan allegedly made. Despite the wrangling in local government, Ramadan was allowed to keep his positions as advisor and professor. However, when he made the news again at the end of 2009 due to his work for an Iranian TV channel (based in the UK), his role as a bridge-builder became untenable and he was dismissed. Not entirely lawfully, as it happens, as a court ruled in 2013 that the university had to pay Ramadan’s salary until the end of his tenure in 2010.
Jensen’s perspective on Ramadan changed when he was arrested in France in 2017 following allegations of rape and sexual assault and also criticism that was previously levelled at him came back into the news. It prompted Jensen to reflect on why she defended him at the time. In her research for the podcast, she discovered that there was also criticism of him from academia at the time, and not just from right-wing populist politicians.
The six-part podcast, which Jensen made for broadcaster HUMAN, sees her talk with various parties who back then were in the pro and anti-camps, these being the only two stances that people adopted when the discussion surrounding Tariq Ramadan erupted.
It was not all that long after the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, and the debate was extremely polarised, as Jensen recalls, with critics of the issue almost automatically being shoehorned into the (far-)right camp. “That put you off siding with the no camp in the debate. Ramadan was a professor in Oxford and was being welcomed with open arms. The lecture halls were packed, he really drew in the crowds due to his rhetorical skills and his activistic scholarship. The crazy thing was that much of the criticism that already existed on doublespeak and a hidden agenda to promote political Islam wasn’t reaching us, and it’s only now, through this podcast, that I’ve been able to gain a much broader perspective on his position.”
As Jensen discovered in her research for the podcast, one simple explanation for this is that a lot of the criticism being levelled stemmed from France and was therefore in French. “And academia in the Netherlands is much more English-oriented, so the existence of critical French publications ended up being totally eclipsed. What’s more, secular feminism in the Netherlands is significantly less developed. If you’re on the political left and a feminist, then you’ll usually be defending minorities by default.”
Ramadan has also been important
The podcast does also feature guests who continue to endorse Tariq Ramadan’s message championing a European Islam, despite the specific criticism and the allegations of sexual assault. “In the final episode I speak with three Muslim women, one of whom was a PhD student at the time, and they say Ramadan had a formative influence on their stance on the position of Islam in the Western world.”
The university had a limited role in the podcast, and then only because it had to make some decisions. Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Henk Oosterling (now retired), who moderated a number of debates with Ramadan in the city back then. Oosterling always gave him the benefit of the doubt and says that Ramadan ‘became entangled in his position’ between academia and Rotterdam City Council and his Islamic grass-roots supporters, but that he does not subscribe to the idea that Ramadan was an evil genius.
You can find the podcast ‘ De Zaak Ramadan’ on the website of HUMAN and in your favorite podcast app.