Magazine article The Christian Century

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age

Magazine article The Christian Century

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age

Article excerpt

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Belknap Press, 304 pp., $26.95

Martha Nussbaum continues her critical reflection on the ways in which a democratic society can practice justice and provide well-being for all its members. As we have come to expect, she compellingly combines erudite critical analysis with intense moral passion. Her topic here is religious hate in the United States that targets Muslims. Her argument is not aimed at those who give themselves over to emotive ventilation, because such persons would not linger over her proposals. Rather, she addresses those who are responsible members of society and have an obligation and an opportunity to provide protocols, practices and procedures that will safeguard vulnerable people who are victimized by such hate.

Her book begins with two probes into the situation of intolerance. She focuses on the proposed debate over a mosque in lower Manhattan and on disputes over Shari'a laws and headscarves. She considers the passion for social homogeneity and the fear of others that is based variously in appeals to "blood, soil, ethnolinguistic peoplehood." She looks to Finland, India and Australia for examples of the capacity to imagine shared goals and ideals.

In an earlier book, The Clash Within, Nussbaum explored the capacity to entertain the other as key to a democratic society. Now she considers vigorous angry resistance to the other. Her acute analysis of social fear carries her all the way back to Aristotle, who pondered how people can manufacture fear by imagining that a threat is close at hand. She cites a number of cases in which a cascade of orchestrated fear has escalated into a frantic, narcissistic sense of free fall and loss. The outcome, in cases such as the opposition to minarets in Switzerland and Homeland Security's orange alert, is "a purely notional campaign against a threat that does not exist."

The remainder of The New Religious Intolerance consists of three carefully articulated responses to such indulgent fear. The first principle is an affirmation of human equality, according to which every person is entitled to dignity and respect. This nonnegotiable affirmation insists that government may do nothing that violates that elemental commitment. The claim is intensified by the need to respect the liberty of conscience, with particular reference to the most vulnerable in society. In her close reasoning Nussbaum distinguishes between the argument of neutrality championed by John Locke and the more radical commitment that she terms "accommodation." Locke advocated the protection of religious liberty, but the stronger view, remarkably voiced by George Washington, insists that tolerance is insufficient.

Washington saw that it is not enough that "a privileged group says that we will indulge you but retains the power not to do so, should it change its mind." Rather, he insisted, society is based on equal inherent natural rights that are not negotiable. This latter claim was at the heart of Roger Williams's venturesome social experiment in colonial New England. Nussbaum values Locke's position but urges the more radical position of Williams and Washington: "'Even if I am more numerous and hence more powerful, I will try to make the world comfortable for you.' It is the spirit of a gracious hostess. A good hostess needs a good imagination."

Her second principle is that consistency must be practiced both in conduct and in policy. This principle is in contrast to the temptation to see the splinter in the eye of the other and to miss the log in one's own eye--an attitude that "gives latitude to the familiar but refuses the unfamiliar a similar concern, a similar liberty." Nussbaum offers an extended analysis of the various proposals for burqa laws, observing that in certain situations, such as cold winters in Chicago or sports that require special equipment, we may dress in ways that cover more of the face than does a burqa. …

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