It’s now become a relatively familiar scene: Femen’s topless demonstrators, black lettering daubed across their naked chests, bearing their boobs for women’s rights.
And yesterday the women’s target was Tariq Ramadan – an Oxford scholar and a well-known speaker and writer on Islam in the west.
Stop Islam's political ambition! Allah is not a politician! Femen VS Tariq Ramadan pic.twitter.com/sVJENuQ70J— inna shevchenko (@femeninna) 14 May 2016
Femen’s protest used the phrase “Allah is not a politician”, to highlight their crusade against the involvement of Islam in political discourse and lawmaking.
“FEMEN protest against the visit of fundamentalist preachers at a rally to politicize Muslims in France under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood!” they wrote on their website. “FEMEN claims that political Islam is totalitarianism, and a face of fascism!”
Why exactly the activists wanted to highlight Ramadan for their topless campaign isn’t clear. In their announcement, they described him as a “Muslim Brother”, suggesting he was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but he generally discusses the organisation from an analytical point of view. As an “activist scholar” he’s spent his career exploring the ways that Islam and secular western societies interact, and has variously described himself as a proponent of “Islamic socialism” or “Salafi reformist”.
That work has earned Ramadan the suspicion of many western governments. He’s been barred from the United States on several occasions and France has barred him in the past, too.
Despite the controversy surrounding him, however, Ramadan is regarded by many as an influential voice who's able to bridge a perceived divide between Muslim communities and western secularism.
The response to his targeting by Femen was mixed: while many of the group’s fans applauded their move, others were apalled by their approach.
FEMEN activists are free after 16 hours of custody! https://t.co/rW3QE0hNvF— dilâra ♀ (@DilaraGurcu) 15 May 2016
Hi @FEMEN_Movement, next time you wanna make a statement re: Islam, leave soft targets like Tariq Ramadan alone and try a Salafi mosque— Haidar Sumeri (@IraqiSecurity) 14 May 2016
Femen's particular feminist tactics have earned them as many eye-rolls and condemning think-pieces as they have praise. Their forceful advocacy of a very particular brand of topless feminism – and the outright denial that other ideas could be liberating for women – has been slammed as a form of cultural imperialism that flies in the face of women's autonomy.
The group's focus on Muslims – lead activist Inna Shevchenko has, strikingly, said "there's no such thing as a feminist who supports the hijab" – has laid them open to accusations of Islamophobia, too. The rhetoric protesters used against Ramadan, including the slogan "stop Islamic ambition" in body paint, is particularly inflammatory in France, where terrorist attacks and community tensions has given rise to increasing Islamophobia.
In a recent editorial, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo likened Tariq Ramadan to "a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker".
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