Nussbaum: Religious Intolerance Takes Different Forms in Europe and U.S.

November 19, 2012

To endure a Chicago winter, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wraps up from head to toe, she said, with a full-length down coat, scarf around her face, protecting her mouth and nose, hat pulled down over sunglasses. No one finds her suspicious for being covered like that, because hers is a familiar outfit in the Midwest.  

But if she were wearing a burqa, she might get a second glance in the U.S. In France, she’d be breaking the law.

By making such comparisons, Nussbaum reveals a bias against Muslims that is explained as if it were based on practical arguments.

Calling her one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, philosophy professor Mitch Green of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences said Nussbaum brings together the morals of emotions with political philosophy in her work. He introduced her Friday at the first of two talks she gave on Grounds, hosted by the College’s Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. She also led a forum on humanities and higher education later the same afternoon.

Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, discussed her recent book, “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age,” in which she explores how legitimate anxieties become distorted and displaced into laws and policies biased against those considered different, most recently Muslims in the U.S. and Europe.

A video of her talk will be posted Nov. 26 on the institute’s website.

America and Europe have prided themselves on being tolerant, but their histories have been characterized by intense religious violence in different ways, Nussbaum said.

In contemporary times, she used the case of the burqa to illustrate religious intolerance of Muslims. France passed a law in 2007 that makes it illegal for people to cover their faces. Wearing a burqa is not named specifically, but it is not included in an extensive list of exemptions.

All societies make majority decisions that impinge on religious minorities, but the U.S. usually tries to accommodate individual religious freedom, whereas France favors secular liberties over religious freedom in public.

She outlined the five most popular arguments against wearing the burqa: It’s a threat to security; it prevents transparency in identifying someone; it’s degrading to women; it’s being forced on women; and the outfit is unhealthy. These arguments are discriminatory and not compatible with liberty and freedom of conscience, Nussbaum said. When examined, they reflect a fear of differences.

“What inspires fear and mistrust is not facial covering per se, but Muslim clothing,” she said. In a democracy, along with respect for each other’s differences comes the liberty to express those differences.

She mentioned other cases where fully covering clothing is accepted: nuns who wear a full habit with veil and long dress, or professionals such as dentists who wear masks and magnifying glasses. Nussbaum said people should reflect on their own cultural practices before deciding someone else’s differences are dangerous.

Rather than profiling women wearing burqas as a security risk, she suggested using “legitimate” means, such as picture identification, to verify who a person is.

The arguments against the burqa are applied inconsistently, she said. The ideas that the burqa is degrading and coercive to women might show ignorance of the cultures where they are worn. One way to check that is to look at one’s own cultural practices, said Nussbaum, who has researched and written about the objectification of women in pornography. One could say that young American women dress in degrading ways, too. And women can already find legal protection against physical coercion.

When Turkey became a secular state in the early 20th century, it, too, banned the veil. Women who didn’t wear the veil had been persecuted, so the law was made to protect women’s choices. The issue has been controversial and the veil is now permitted informally.

The way to counter sexism is with educational opportunity, Nussbaum said, not with limitations and persecution. Some people might choose submission to authority and cultural constraints, and they deserve tolerance and sympathy, too, she said.

The argument that the burqa is unhealthy because it’s hot and uncomfortable doesn’t hold up either. Full-body covering in the hot weather is accepted and practical, Nussbaum said; it protects from the sun, and the fabric is lightweight and breathable. One could argue that less clothing is a health danger, because more exposed skin could lead to cancer.

It’s unacceptable to equate Islam with fundamentalism, she said. In Western countries, people accept that there are many forms of Christianity and don’t blame the whole religion for a particular sect’s beliefs or actions.

The U.S. is not without its own problems, despite its history of accepting religious dissenters. A woman working at Disney World sued the company because it wouldn’t allow her to work in a public role while wearing her veil. It wasn’t the “Disney look,” she was told.

Hialeah, Fla. passed a law that made ritual animal sacrifice illegal, targeting practitioners of Santeria, a Caribbean religion, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1993.

During plans for renovations in post 9/11 New York, a proposed Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan ignited much political debate across the U.S.

Nussbaum proposes that religious tolerance and liberty must be protected by cultivating our sympathetic imagination and taking the time to understand, thereby seeing others as fully human and deserving of respect.

A sampling of her books includes “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy” (1986, updated in 2000); “Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education” (1997), which won the Ness Book Award of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 1998; “Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership” (2006); “The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future” (2007); and “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (2010).

Her 20th book, “Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice,” will be published next year. She has also edited 15 books.

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Anne E. Bromley

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