The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.

2 responses to “The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

  1. Sue Freewoman

    If Breivik’s problem was fear of Muslims, how do you explain the fact that everyone he murdered was an indigenous Norwegian – or, at least, not one was Muslim. Isn’t it obvious that he was just one more gun nut on a spree?

  2. “Isn’t it obvious that he was just one more gun nut on a spree?” Not when one considers what he himself has said about his motivations.

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