Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts.These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Religion And Ethics Report -

View in ParlView

Andrew West: Hello from me, Andrew West. This week, a special edition of the Religion and Ethics Report. Martha Nussbaum is one of the world’s top philosophers. She’s a professor at the University of Chicago. She’s written on some of the big emotional issues—sex, shame, anger. Now she’s fired up about the new religious intolerance. It’s her new book. She says Muslims have become victims of the politics of fear. But she concedes the challenge that radical Islam poses to Western liberalism.

Professor Martha Nussbaum, thank you for being on the Religion and Ethics Report.

Martha Nussbaum: Thanks very much for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Andrew West: Now very early on in your book, The New Religious Intolerance you refer to the events of July 22, 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb in central Oslo that killed eight people and then he went on to murder another 69 young people who were at a Labour Party summer camp. What were the initial assumptions that media commentators, newspapers, and bloggers made about that incident?

Martha Nussbaum: Virtually all, both in the US and in Europe, assumed that there were Muslim terrorists at work. And I think that is very telling because it was the default assumption was, oh, this is terrorism, therefore Muslims must be behind it. And of course then they had to eat their words when…turned out that it was not only not a Muslim but it was someone who was inspired by ideas of holy war that had been fomented by anti-Muslim blogs.

Andrew West: And what did that suggest to you about the popular understanding, or misunderstanding of Islam?

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think there’s just a lot of ignorance first of all. And that makes it easier to have fear. But there’s a lot of paranoia and of course there are incidents of terrorism that are perpetrated by Muslims. But to blame that on the whole of the religion, is completely ridiculous and we don’t do that when there’s a Christian who commits an isolated act of violence like Breivik himself. We don’t say, ah, Breivik well then Christianity must be bad and we must all fear for the Christians among us.

So I think people, when it’s a minority that dresses differently, that has different customs, people are afraid of that and they’re not used to it and it’s easy for them to swallow some paranoid fantasy. And in my book I talk about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion where a paranoid fantasy about Jews was circulated which was a forgery in the 19th century and all kinds of people believed that, including prominent intellectuals. They just believed that the Jews had met in secret and had this conspiracy to take over the world even though you could have told that it was a forgery very very easily.

Andrew West: I want to come back to that distinction that you make. I just want to dwell on the role of the fear monger, as it were, after the Breivik incident. You point to one particular person, a woman called Pamela Geller.

Martha Nussbaum: Yes, I mean, her blog has for a long time been circulating very simplistic historically inaccurate views of Islam as a religion which as a whole is bent on world domination. And unfortunately these ideas have gotten the toehold even in some of our intelligence agencies for a while. Now they’re…they’ve apologised for that now. But they did invite some of these people associated with her anti-Muslim movement to give instructions on Islam for the FBI. And good heavens it’s bad enough that they don’t know any foreign languages but that they should learn history from people like that is truly appalling. So I think what it shows is that the blogosphere makes it easy for historically totally irresponsible fictions to be circulated. And certainly the people who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion could only wish to have the internet to circulate those fantasies. It makes it a lot easier.

Andrew West: Well I think in the case of Pamela Geller you suggest that there was something even more serious. You suggest that not only was her work cited by Breivik—and she can’t help that—but there may have been some interaction between the two.

Martha Nussbaum: Well yes. I mean, there was this anonymous post on her blog where a person who in many other respects, sounds like Breivik, in terms of the references to the crusades and so on, said that he was stockpiling weapons. Now of course, that’s one of the problems with the internet, that you can’t find out who these people are. And so I don’t entirely blame her for not launching a full-scale investigation; it would have been very difficult to do. And that’s a big problem, whenever you have crimes against people perpetrated over the internet. But nonetheless, you know, the fact that this was sitting out there and you know of course the minute the violence occurred, she took it down. But she didn’t speak up and express concern and take it to law enforcement and say maybe you’d like to see whether you can check this out and trace this person. I think that was a problem.

Andrew West: People like Pamela Geller though, have been festering as it were, for a decade since 2001, since the 9/11 terrorist strikes. How have…well maybe longer, I mean, but….how has this fear…well how has this fear manifested itself?

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think, you know, as I say, I think it was longer and I think it’s connected to immigration of course and particularly in Europe; it’s the idea that all of a sudden, with the birth rates falling we've got to let these people come in. But we don’t really want them and we’re not prepared to retool our conception of national identity to include them and so on. And of course, then 9/11 gives people a handy focal point for all their anxieties and there’s something that psychologists discuss called the availability heuristic, that says that whenever people can call to mind some vivid example of something, then that often takes over and takes precedence over calm rational analysis. Well in this case of course 9/11 was terrible. And I think what’s happened with Islam is, that the general public ignorance of Islam…I mean for example in America, a quite large proportion of Muslim immigrants are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But people don’t know that; they think all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs hate Israel and therefore they hate us. And because people are ignorant, then they can easily believe that there’s this general enemy out there. And it was extraordinary the way that a Pakistani legal immigrant who’d been a citizen for years, who was chair of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, got detained at the airport and subjected to hostile questioning when he said he was a friend of the Director of the FBI, they laughed in his face. And then eventually they said okay, call him up and he did. And the director of the FBI said yes, this is the director of a Chicago Chamber of Commerce, you know. So these are the kind of things happen because of ignorance and people just can’t make distinctions between one person and another. And that’s unfortunately how fear hijacks people for bad causes.

Andrew West: You’re listening to the Religion and Ethics Report with me, Andrew West. I’m speaking on this special program with the renowned US philosopher, Martha Nussbaum about her new book, The New Religious Intolerance.

Martha let’s talk about the way you believe that Europe and America is dealing with this question of Islam. Is it really an old world, new world, divide?

Martha Nussbaum: Oh I think there is a difference and it’s a subtle one and I think America can move in…more in the direction of Europe and Europe more in the direction of America and let’s see what happens. But I think that because of the influence of romanticism on the founding of nationalisms in Europe, the concept of what a nation is, is often one that brings language, ethnicity, and religious homogeneity to the fore. And so people naturally then think, well anyone who doesn’t look like us, or who doesn’t worship like us, is not really us. And you find this in very fine people. I’ve spent a lot of time in Finland. And that’s one of the most homogeneous countries in all of Europe because they have almost no immigration. And despite their tremendous dedication to social justice, they have a very hard time seeing somebody with dark skin or a Jew or a Catholic as fully Finnish—even if they speak the Finnish language, interestingly enough…which takes a lot of dedication to do. Whereas in the US…

Andrew West: Well that has been part of the critique of how those countries have maintained though, their social democratic political identity isn’t it? That people don’t mind paying taxes and sharing because they see everyone as similar.

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think that is an issue. Yes. And I think it’s a different kind of challenge and maybe a bigger challenge, to maintain social safety net and social welfare in a much more pluralistic country. So I think there’s no doubt that the fact that Fins all feel that we’re all members of the same family, is one thing that contributes to the willingness even in hard times, to support the social safety net. However, there are much more pluralistic countries such as Britain that are still very much ahead of the US in terms of their social safety net. So I…and Sweden is not that different from Finland in respect of the social programs and yet Sweden has much much more diversity than Finland does and it’s been very welcoming to asylum seekers.

But in the US I think the difference is that the…from the very beginning everyone was there as an outsider. They were outsiders wherever they came from and they came there even though it was a very inhospitable country full of dangers, because they were not welcome where they were. So at least that gave them some motive for constructive thought about difference. They didn’t always do it. The puritans in New England quickly started tossing out people who didn’t agree with them and so on. But you know, there were a sufficient number of people who really did say let’s be inclusive and the colony of Rhode Island founded by the philosopher Roger Williams was the first that really deliberately included on a basis of equality, Jews, the native Americans were treated very well, Muslims were treated well in theory even though there weren’t any there. But every time Williams made a list of the religions that he wanted to show respect for, he included Muslims and then even atheists, who were not tolerated even in John Locke’s famous ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’. So that view about religious freedom took over gradually in the colonies and I think became part of our constitutional founding, that people should have the maximum religious liberty that doesn’t impinge on the basic rights of other people.

Andrew West: Yes. You mention two names there, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, I think driven out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony…

Martha Nussbaum: Yes. Yes.

Andrew West: And the English philosopher John Locke, a father of the Enlightenment. But both of those philosophers had different approaches to dealing with religious freedom didn’t they?

Martha Nussbaum: Well up to a point they were similar in that they both ascribed a great deal of importance to religious liberty. And they both urged nations to foster that and they urged people to adopt a spirit of charity, mercy and generosity, says Locke. But the difference was that Locke was more conservative in the sense that he thought that when the state made a law, even if its incidental burdens were greater on some religions than on others, because the majority had made choices that favour their own religious practices, people would just have to either obey that law or they would have to disobey it and go to jail.

So for example if the State decides to require military service, then people who for conscientious religious reasons are unwilling to serve in the military should go to jail. Or to give an example that is another one that comes up often in the courts, if we make laws about workdays and the law says Sunday is the day of rest. Well that’s a convenient choice for majorities. But there are many people who don’t celebrate that as their holy day. So, according to Locke, if you refuse to work on a Saturday because that’s your holy day and you get fired there’s no issue. I mean, you’ve made a choice…got to take the consequences of that choice.

Now Williams thought that this isn’t enough for equal religious liberty because the liberty isn’t equal. The majority gets to obey its holy day and the minorities don’t. The majority gets to obey its own views about violence and military service but the minorities don’t. So the American view that came to prevail was that these minorities get what was called an accommodation from laws that are, in general, applicable to all people. And George Washington, in one of his first statements as our first president, wrote to the Quakers and said, your conscientious scruples are well known to me, and it is my earnest wish and desire that the law shall always be as extensively accommodated to them as a due regard for the essential interests of the nation may permit. So in other words, there’s always a trump card waiting in the wings if there’s really a terrible crisis and we have to call on people then he was reserving the right to do that. But unless there’s what’s come to be known as a compelling state interest, then we can’t trample on people’s conscientious scruples.

Now drug laws have been an area of particular controversy because there are religions such as Native American religion that would like the rights to use peyote in the sacred ceremony. And of course…

Andrew West: And that’s an hallucinogenic drug I think.

Martha Nussbaum: Yes. It’s an hallucinogenic drug and it’s a typical example of a majority unfairness that alcohol which is the drug that’s used in majority religion has always been legal and even when it wasn’t, even under prohibition, they deliberately exempted the religious use of alcohol. So if you went to church you could still get wine even if you couldn’t get it in other places. So the majority has always been able to worship in its own way in terms of drug use but the minorities don’t get that break. Now in that particular case, the courts didn’t support the Native American claim but then the congress went along and fixed the problem. So the Controlled Substances Act eventually was amended to permit the sacramental use of peyote. And so that’s the idea of accommodation that Roger Williams had.

Andrew West: But this accommodationist philosophy, it leads I think in the words of one of your Supreme Court justices, it can lead to anarchy. You know, with every tiny religious sect demanding a special accommodation, a special exclusion from the law can’t it?

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think that is a problem and definitely Justice Scalia was the one who said that, and he’s a rules person and really doesn’t like the idea of judicially tailored exemptions. Now he was happy enough if congress would do it because then there’s a public debate, the law’s applicable to a lot of people, but he didn’t like a single litigant being able to come before the court and get a break just on an ad hoc basis. And I agree that there’s a problem with that. I think the problem is greatest in the area of drug laws because there’s so many people who will invent a bogus religion and then maybe some that are not so bogus, just in order to get out of the drug laws. So what courts have actually done in those cases is to require a long track record and a group history and there…if I come along and say that my conception of the meaning of life requires me to use this drug or that drug, I’m not going to get an accommodation. Whereas the Native Americans, where we can study their history, we can look at their rituals and so on, they will. So that I think, is the way of making it a little bit…work a little bit less chaotically. And, you know, if the choice is really between a system that has that risk and the system that has the risk of gross unfairness to minorities…how terrible that people should not be able to observe their sacred day just because it happens to be Saturday when the people who happen to have Sunday as the day have no problem at all. I mean, that…that’s the classic form of unfairness and as our Supreme Court said, it’s like fining people for Saturday worship, which would be a terrible thing to do.

Andrew West: You’re listening to the Religion and Ethics Report with me, Andrew West. I’m speaking on this special program with the renowned US philosopher, Martha Nussbaum about her new book, The New Religious Intolerance.

Martha in the latter part of the interview I want to look at the burqa ban, enacted by the government of France. I think it’s also on the agenda in places like Belgium, Spain. Why are you so vehemently opposed to a ban on the burqa which many feminists believe to be a real act of coercion, an infringement?

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think that all the arguments that are made against the burqa as in support of banning it, are quite frankly, hypocritical. That is to say, they target a minority practice without targeting similar practices of the majority. So take the feminist objection that the burqa objectifies women, that is, causes women to be treated as mere objects, rather than persons. Now as a feminist who years ago was one of the ones who was writing about the concept of objectification, I know that what we were talking about was the treatment of women as objects in the porn industry, in advertising, in violent pornographic films and magazines, and of course in more diffuse social practices, like the way girls dress up for the high school dance, marketing themselves as sex objects. And so let’s talk about all those practices is my view. And if we decide that there are relevant differences, let’s articulate those differences. But I’m betting that we’ll, in the end, think there’s so much objectification of women in society that if we wanted to give some ministry of feminism the title to make everything illegal that objectifies women, it would be far too great an infringement of liberty and so the best recourse in all these instances is going to be talk, persuasion, and bringing up children in a good way.

So that’s the objectification argument. And then you also mentioned coercion. So then there’s also mingled with this the idea that in the family women are coerced. Now I want to say absolutely unequivocally that any violence, threat of violence, sexual abuse in the family of any kind, in anyone’s family should be and of course is already illegal but should be enforced much more aggressively than it is now.

Now is this violence particularly common in Muslim families? We don’t have enough data on that. But one thing we do know is that violence against women and children in the home is strongly correlated with alcohol abuse. And observant Muslim families are therefore less likely to have that factor. But anyway, let’s just look at the individual case and if there’s anyone who is abusing a woman or a child, and forcing them by threat of physical violence to put on a burqa, that’s already illegal. So let’s enforce the law.

If it’s emotional pressure, well let’s talk about that because in the…bringing up children, parents are always engaging in emotional pressure of one sort or another. Sometimes it’s very gentle—I’ll reward you in such and such a way if you get good grades. Sometimes it’s a little more threatening—if you don’t get an A on your math course, I will take away your dating privileges for the next week. And sometimes it’s really very very harsh. My father threatened to disinherit me if I appeared in public in a group, any member of which was an African American. That was harsh. Now all of these are forms of emotional blackmail and it applies to things like lose weight, take a shower and so on. So the burqa is in that class of parental practices.

Andrew West: Now you very systematically do knock down a lot of the arguments in favour of the burqa ban. But I want to put to you one that you don’t address and that is that the burqa ban on the part of the French government was deliberate in a discriminatory way, in the sense that the government wanted to send a message that the burqa was emblematic of a particular narrow strand of Islam that that government didn’t want taking hold in France.

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think what’s wrong with extremism is when it threatens the rights of others. One can be as extreme as one wants, one can have an asceticism that’s extremely extreme. You know, the old order Amish are in their own way, very very extreme. They refuse the whole modern world. And so what’s wrong with extremism is not the fact that it’s unusual, or even way out on a limb, it’s that it threatens the rights of others. So what do we do? We look for people who actually threaten the rights of others. We don’t say, oh, because we think some members of your religion threaten the rights of others, then you too must be one of the people who threatens the rights of others. And so I think that in so far as the ban was defended in that way, that’s just totally unacceptable. We don’t take guilt by association as a legal principle that has any standing. But I don’t actually even think it was that specific. I mean, you give…it’s a good argument that you’ve made there but I think if you look at the law, what you find is they just don’t even mention the word burqa they say you can’t wear a garment designed to cover the face unless, and then there’s this long list of exemptions including, unless you’re doing it for sport, unless you’re doing it for your professional occupation, unless you’re doing it because you’re in a masquerade, unless you’re in a traditional manifestation. So there’s this long list that takes away everything except the one thing that people are afraid of and that is the woman wearing the burqa. So it’s a weird law and it certainly doesn’t say any of the sensible things that you were just saying.

Andrew West: But do you acknowledge that the burqa issue is, in a sense, where the rubber hits the road on this question of religious tolerance or religious intolerance? Because essentially it’s a visceral reaction against what people in France and certainly in the Netherlands and more recently in Britain, have been suggesting is an upsurge in militant and assertive demands from a very small but very conservative section of the Islamic community. And they are worried about the transformations of their otherwise liberal societies that they have spent most of the post-war era trying to create.

Martha Nussbaum: I actually think it’s much more visceral than that. I think it’s a fear of people who look different. Because look, the first thing that France did was to ban the headscarf in schools. Now the headscarf is not associated with any particular extreme version of Islam. And they also banned the Jewish yarmulke, which of course is not extreme in any way. So it’s an attempt to enforce a French mode of being as the way we have to be if we’re going to be full citizens in France. And Joan Scott who wrote an excellent book on the ban of the headscarf before the burqa even came into view, she’s very nicely said, there is this idea that the French have, that there’s a French way of being a woman which is that you display your body in pretty revealing clothes and often fashionable clothes if you can. And the Muslim way, covering the hair, why would one do that? So it’s a visceral reaction against strangeness that lies behind it I think. And it’s so bizarre that for example in some parts of Germany, nuns and priests can teach in full habit but a woman who wants to wear a headscarf while she’s teaching, she can’t do that. So why would that be? It’s not because of covering, because the habit of course covers a lot more of the body than the headscarf. It’s because we’re very used to nuns and priests and as the people said when that case was in court and they were defending it, oh this isn’t religion, it’s part of our culture.

Andrew West: Well let’s look for example at Britain then. We’ve had just in the last few months some examples of where, again representing a very narrow section of Islam, but we’ve had militant activists erect signs in places like Tower Hamlets and Newham and Waltham Forest in London saying you are entering a sharia controlled zone. I think there was a sharia judge who said that Britain ought to introduce a penal code that involved stonings and amputations. I guess the argument that I’m making to you as a philosopher is, to what extent must a society tolerate intolerance?

Martha Nussbaum: Well I think it’s always a mistake to give religious groups title to make law in areas of family law or property law or anything. In fact I’ve studied that and written about it extensively in the case of the personal laws in India and I think those laws never went to an extreme point. I mean, the Muslim personal law in India, can be objected to in many ways but it certainly doesn’t license any extreme practices. But anyway I think it’s always a mistake because it just leads to the balkanisation of law, which in turn leads to inequality of treatment and unfairness. So I think that’s always a mistake and countries need to be on their guard against that kind of delegation of law-making authority to a religious group. It happens everywhere…I mean people always want to do that. There was a Hindu group that decided they would incorporate as a town in the State of Oregon in the US so that they could make the drug laws that they wanted and they could do everything the way they wanted and the Supreme Court says no you can’t do that, you can’t be a town that belongs to a single religion. And the same thing happened with an Orthodox Jewish school district in the State of New York. So yes, we have to be on our guard against that. And we should say the law is the law. And the law is everyone.

Andrew West: Well on that cautionary note Martha we’ll leave it there. The book is The New Religious Intolerance by Martha Nussbaum, the renowned American philosopher. Thank you for joining us on the Religion and Ethics Report.

Martha Nussbaum: Okay. Thank you very much.