October 12, 2012

Nussbaum urges tolerance

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the Law School, spoke on her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, which surveys recent cases of social and legal discrimination against Muslims, to a packed auditorium Tuesday evening at I-House.

Nussbaum’s discussion ranged from bans on headscarves and minarets in Europe to efforts to prevent the construction of Park51, the Islamic center several blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.

“Once, not very long ago, Americans and Europeans prided themselves on their enlightened attitudes of religious toleration and understanding,” Nussbaum said. “Today we have many reasons to doubt this complacent self-assessment. Our situation calls urgently for searching critical self-examination, as we try to uncover the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all Western societies.”

As indicated by the subtitle of her book—“Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age”—Nussbaum discussed how political anxiety and widespread fear of Muslims motivated laws such as the bans on the Muslim burqa and hijab that have been passed in many European nations, arguing for the repeal of such laws.

Nussbaum also dismissed security, transparency, and identification arguments used to justify the European ban on headscarves. She rejected them all as “inconsistently applied” and “failing to uphold equal respect for all.”

Similarly, Nussbaum argued, the claim that the burqa is a unique symbol of patriarchy and male domination fails under scrutiny, since women in Western cultures are also legally objectified in pornography and pressured to, for example, wear revealing clothing and get cosmetic surgery.

However problematic, Nussbaum stressed that the objectification of women “should be addressed by persuasion and example, not by the removal of liberty.”

Furthermore, Nussbaum held that for most Muslim women, wearing a headscarf is a private religious choice that rarely involves coercion by men.

Nussbaum compared the plight of Muslims in Europe today to the persecution of Jews throughout European history, which culminated in genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany. “But, while we see obvious wrongs in the case of Jews, many are unable to see the strong connection to the case of Muslims today,” she said.

Nussbaum’s remedy for discrimination entails extending democratic principles such as equal respect for human dignity to all groups, including Muslims. She also stressed the need for societies to undergo “Socratic critical self-examination and exercise of the imagination in order to understand others’ points of view.”

It is the latter suggestion that distinguishes Nussbaum from many other legal scholars, for whom equal laws are sufficient. “Even if we had good laws, in addition we would need the cultivation of curiosity about different people in order to overcome intolerance,” she said.

The talk was sponsored by the Center for International Studies as part of its series “The World Beyond the Headlines.”