Note: While our nation is grappling with many high profile cases of sexual misconduct, a parallel drama has been playing itself out in the Western Muslim community (specifically in the UK and the US). This blog was written in response to the alleged misconduct of two high profile figures in this—my—community, Tariq Ramadan and Nouman Ali Khan. While I wrote this with that specifically in mind, I thought recent events might justify sharing these thoughts with a broader audience.
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”
—Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird.
I do not know Tariq Ramadan.
I do not know Henda Ayari.
And when I say I do not know them, I mean that in the broadest sense. I’ve listened to maybe 5 minutes of Professor Ramadan’s lectures in as many years. I maintain what we’ll call philosophical disagreements with his late grandfather, and by virtue of Hassan al-Banna’s late-ness these are disagreements I do not think we will resolve.
Likewise, I have no insight into the doings of Nouman Ali Khan, Omer Mozzafer, or anyone else established out here on the western wing of the ummah.
I am, however, familiar with the law and its critical concepts.
Secular law, not sharia―although there are significant parallels.
What we are exploring is called the presumption of innocence, arguably the bedrock principle of our (western) criminal justice system.
And I am agitated by the public positions taken by certain Islamic figures in Dar-al-Engliziyya―and while I will not name them, this may be treated as an open letter to them.
You have suggested that we must restrain sexual misconduct by accepting as true the accounts given by victims as they come forward.
This is a very good idea.
The best way to hold open space for victims who have been assaulted by wealthier, more popular, and more powerful offenders is by creating a system in which these victims have agency―and you cannot have agency if no one believes you.
But it is the job of counselors, victim advocates, attorneys, prosecutors, and investigators, to treat an accusation with deadly weight.
Not the job of social commentators to try their case in the Court of public opinion, subject to the findings of a jury empanelled via social media.
You may argue that you are not in Court, and the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not apply to you. That is not a good way to look at this. The presumption of innocence is as much a social concept as it is a legal one. And it is one thing to decide within the privacy of your own heart that a man is guilty, and it is another thing to take that position as a professional counselor or advocate, but it is yet another―and worse―thing to use your influence to instill in the minds of people a person’s guilt or innocence before the evidence is even taken, much less sorted, verified, and presented.
And take note, right here, and at this point―I am not saying Tariq Ramadan is innocent. I am saying what you should be saying because it is objectively true for both of us; I do not know if he is innocent or guilty.
We can have a world in which victims are believed, protected, and assisted in their search for justice―but we cannot have that world where there are exceptions to the presumption of innocence.
The presumption of innocence is meant to protect a person from bias based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and yes it is even meant to protect us from biases based on wealth and success too―and weakening the idea as to any one of these weakens it as to all the others.
This notion might sit uncomfortably with you, and I understand that. But think: the presumption of innocence is only ever truly tested by the very worst cases.
I am an attorney in rural, southern, America.
I have watched potential jurors yell aloud “he’s guilty” before the defense has had the opportunity to say a single word just because the charges read involved a sex crime.
People don’t have a problem presuming someone who cheated on their taxes might be innocent―but they do have a problem presuming a person accused of child molestation is innocent; and that’s the point of the presumption.
It is unsavory, but ensuring Tariq Ramadan is not prematurely or unjustly dispatched by the mob protects us all from being convicted by our faith, race, or gender—and not an actual crime—on some other day.
If he is proven guilty, may he be humiliated and forgotten—but not until then.
And finally, though it may be passé in our age of Agnostic Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said:
“Deliberation is from God and haste is from Satan.”
And Allah (swt) said:
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be they rich or poor: Allâh is a Better Protector, to both the accused and the accuser. So follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allâh is Ever Well Acquainted with what you do.”