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Observing Ramadan

February 10, 2018

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Observing Ramadan

I have met Tariq Ramadan only once in my life and was very impressed by him—impressed unfavorably, that is. He seemed to me then the Jimmy Swaggart of Islamism, or at least the kind of man from whom one would certainly not buy a secondhand car. He had the affability of a carpet salesman in a souk, but (for me) without the charm; in other words, even his affability struck me as sinister. I could go on multiplying the metaphors, but they would all tend in the same direction and be repetitive rather than additive. 

I have also read a couple of his books, and they seemed to me to bear the same relationship to scholarship as football commentary does to playing football. I was therefore somewhat taken aback when he was appointed to a chair at Oxford, though it became less surprising to me when I learned that his chair had been endowed by the Qataris (who seem now to have disowned him). That the university had prostituted itself in this way seemed to me also to be emblematic of the condition of the university’s country as a whole: a hybrid of Augean stable and brothel. Perhaps it was always like that, however, and I have merely been slow to recognize it. I daresay Oxford University, which seems to be prepared to do anything for money, would have been happy to institute a chair in human rights endowed by the Gestapo or the OGPU.

“One always delights to believe the worst of those one is inclined to despise.”

I accept that my impressions of Tariq Ramadan are not evidence in the strictest sense, and would not be accepted as such in any court of law in which I should agree to appear. Those who want to read a more scrupulous indictment of Tariq Ramadan would be advised to read the book Brother Tariq, by Caroline Fourest, which exposes his double language, his way of talking in one register to a certain kind of audience and in a completely different register to another kind of audience, as thoroughly as this unpleasant task can possibly be done. I admire journalists who doggedly pursue the evidence for a conclusion that, fundamentally, is foregone.

When I arrived in France last Sunday, then, I have to admit to a certain illicit and no doubt discreditable pleasure on reading Le Journal du Dimanche, the only French Sunday newspaper, whose lead story was a long account of Tariq Ramadan’s arrest for alleged rape, and his subsequent questioning by the police. One always delights to believe the worst of those one is inclined to despise.

As I continued to read, however, I began to feel uneasy—increasingly so, in fact. Here was a man who so far had been found guilty of nothing, who, de facto, was being described publicly as guilty. The presumption of innocence in his case was abrogated because so many people disliked him so intensely.

We learned in the newspaper that his interrogators had laid a trap for him. One of the two complainants against him had described a small scar in his groin. Without knowing that she had revealed this, he was asked whether he was scarred anywhere. He said that he had a small scar in his groin. This was reported as if it were evidence of his guilt.

But of course other interpretations are possible (I am not saying that they would be true). The complainant might have derived her knowledge from consensual sexual activity, though this would go to show that he was a hypocrite as far as his preaching was concerned. She might even have derived knowledge of his scar from third parties, though this seems unlikely, to put it mildly. The point is not that he is innocent, but that he had not been proved guilty, and it seems to me wrong that information intended to be damning should be paraded before the public prior to a proper trial and verdict.

Whatever the verdict, however, people will continue to believe what they are inclined to believe. Were Tariq Ramadan found not guilty, he would not necessarily have been proved innocent (innocence is far more rarely established than is guilt not proved), and those inclined to believe the worst of him would continue to do so. But those who in the past were inclined to admire him and listen to his siren song would believe that he had been the victim of a conspiracy to blacken his name and destroy his moral authority.

Very few of us hold our beliefs, at least those about anything that matters to us, with a strength in exact proportion to the evidence in their favor, to do so having been Bertrand Russell’s definition of rationality. When someone produces a fact that goes against what we believe, we do not joyfully accept that our belief was in error and thank the person for having saved us from continuing in it. On the contrary, we immediately search for a counterargument to preserve intact our cherished belief.

If, for example, we hold that only politically free societies can prosper economically, and someone points to the existence of an unfree society that has prospered, we immediately start to think of arguments that prove the example inapplicable. The society to which he alludes is not really unfree in the sense in which we mean it; or its prosperity is more apparent than real, and cannot in any case last; or it is free in the sense that it is evolving inexorably and ineluctably toward freedom; or that a single exception is not enough to refute a rule. The existence of beliefs that we are prepared to defend to the last ad hoc hypothesis stands in the way of our recognition of the emergence of something new.   

However overwhelming the evidence of Tariq Ramadan’s guilt might be, then (though I do not prejudge the issue), we may predict that conspiracy theories will be elaborated by those susceptible to his message to explain it away. For ardent conspiracy theorists, refutation is the highest form of confirmation, and Tariq Ramadan inhabits a cultural milieu propitious to the elaboration of conspiracy theories.

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