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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