Switzerland’s controversial Islamic leaders
The recent expulsion of Swiss Imam Hani Ramadan from France is a reminder that Switzerland is home to several controversial Muslims – some with a reach far beyond Swiss borders. Following are four examples.
Scholar, teacher and Imam born in Geneva, Hani Ramadan, 58, is one of six children. His family fled from Egypt to Switzerland following the assassination of their maternal grandfather, Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ramadan has been director of the controversial Islamic Centre of Geneva since 1995, and leads canton Geneva’s Union of Muslim Organisations.
Ramadan came to attention on September 10, 2002, when French daily newspaper Le Monde published a column he penned titled “The misunderstood Sharia”, in which he defended the stoning of adulterers, saying it was not as cruel as one might think. He also suggested that HIV was a divine punishment. The controversy that arose from the column’s publication let to Ramadan’s immediate dismissal from his teaching position.
Ramadan has also incited controversy with several anti-Israeli statements denouncing conspiracies by the Jewish state. For example, shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, he wrote on his blog, hosted by the Tribune de Genève: “Islam has nothing to do with any of this […] Let’s start by looking at Mossad [Israel’s secret service]”.
In recent months, French authorities have cancelled several of Ramadan’s planned conferences for being “a threat to public order”. Earlier this month, on April 7, he was slapped with an administrative order barring him from France and escorted by police to the Swiss border the following day.
Born in Geneva in 1962 and the younger brother of Hani Ramadan, Tariq Ramadan studied Islamology and French literature at the University of Geneva. He acquired Swiss citizenship at age 22. In 1986, he married a French Catholic who converted to Islam. The couple and their first three children spent time in Egypt while Tariq finished his religious training.
Upon his return to Switzerland in 1992, Ramadan began to make a name for himself in France with a series of conferences and television appearances. From the outset, he seduced the screen with his eloquence, his accessible and refined language, his extensive literary knowledge and his oriental charm. He became the voice of the “European Muslim” (the title of one of his many books), which calls on other Muslims to shake off the mentality of minorities and victims, and to stake their claim as full citizens who are faithful to the principles of Islam. He is widely listened to by second generation immigrants in the suburbs, but also by intellectuals, especially on the left and among those opposed to globalisation.
However, many critics argue that under the charm of the Egyptian prince, a dangerous Islamist lurks. Ramadan’s fortunes changed in 2003 after he published a column online which two major newspapers refused to run. The column listed a series of Jewish intellectuals who, according to Ramadan, were too complacent about Israel. The following year, the United States denied Ramadan entry despite his having been offered a position as a professor at a Catholic university. He later moved to England and in 2009 was given a Chair of Islamology at Oxford University, financed by Qatar.
In early 2016, Ramadan announced his intention to apply for French citizenship, but was vehemently opposed by then Prime Minister Manuel Valls; a sign that, even if his appearances on television are fewer, Tariq Ramadan continues to divide opinions.
Nicolas Blancho is perhaps Switzerland’s most controversial figure of fundamentalist Islam. Converted to Islam at age 16, the 36-year-old from Bern with the bushy red beard first made a name for himself in 2006, when he organised protests against caricatures of the prophet Mohammed and French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In 2009 he founded and became president of the Salafist group Swiss Central Islamic Council (SCIS), created as a response to the Swiss vote banning the construction of new minarets.
While it represents around just 1% of Muslims in Switzerland, mostly converts and second- and third-generation immigrants, the SCIS is regularly in the headlines. Well-versed in the arts of provocation, stunts and of victimisation, Blancho attracts the cameras with ambiguous statements about stoning women or jihad. Omnipresent, Blancho provokes the ire of numerous Swiss Islamic organisations for whom the hardline SCIS only serves to maintain and inflame a climate of distrust towards Muslims in the country.
Blancho is, however, more than just an agitator. The Federal Intelligence Service is investigating the opaque sources of the SCIS funding and the relationship of some of its members with jihadis. In December 2016, the Office of the Attorney General launched an investigation into three members of the SCIS board, including Nicholas Blancho, for spreading Islamist propaganda.
Nora Illi is perhaps Switzerland’s most widely publicised Muslim convert. From behind her hijab, she has publicly pronounced herself in favour of polygamy and refused to deny rumours that her husband and father of her five children has a second wife. Yet, before she converted to Islam, Illi was a seemingly normal young woman who partied and listened to punk music. The Zurich vegetarian also had an interest in Buddhism. It was during a trip to Dubai at age 18 that Illi had a revelation when she heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. Upon her return to Switzerland she converted to Islam in 2002, following the example of her friend and future husband, Qaasim Illi, who had converted two weeks earlier.
The couple became very active in Nicolas Blancho’s SCIC, which has excited controversy for its links to Salafists and hate preachers. On July 1, 2006, the day canton Ticino enacted a law banning the wearing of the full-faced veil, Nora Illi travelled to the canton to be arrested in front of the cameras and bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights.
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