Book Review: The New Religious Intolerance — US Vs. Europe

Source: Guardian UK

By

Martha Nussbaum and the new religious intolerance

‘Is it right to allow nuns to teach in full habit but to ban Muslim teachers wearing headscarves? There’s a popular student story about Martha Nussbaum giving a talk in a small living room of the Episcopal Church’s chaplaincy centre on the leafy campus of the University of Chicago. As she was holding forth, a bird flew down the chimney and started to flutter around the room, bashing into the walls and generally panicking, as trapped birds do. The students were immediately busy opening windows and trying to shoo the poor creature to freedom. All their attention was taken up with the bird. But in the midst of all the excitement, Nussbaum didn’t break her intellectual stride. She just carried on delivering the lecture as if nothing whatsoever was going on. She emanates detached academic cool – fully in command of herself and her material. From someone who has spent a distinguished academic career emphasising the riskiness and vulnerability of the human condition, all this slightly frosty control comes as something of a surprise.

Her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, is a vigorous defence of the religious freedom of minorities in the face of post-9/11 Islamophobia. And by minorities she mostly means Muslims. “We see unreasoning fear driving a certain amount of public policy, perhaps more in Europe than in the US,” she explains. And Europe has historical form on all this. “The laws that made it illegal to speak Latin in a church but left it legal to speak Latin in universities were covert forms of persecution – and not very covert at all. And you get that all over Europe. You get that in the Swiss minaret case, where a building that expresses the wish of a religious minority is suddenly illegal; you get it in Germany in those cases where nuns can teach in full habit but a teacher can’t wear a headscarf.”

The reason why the US is better-placed than Europe to deal with its own tendency towards religious intolerance is that “the US has always understood itself to be united around political principles and not around culture, whereas the nations of Europe have a much more traditional conception of nationhood that is connected to romanticism, which thinks of religion and culture as ingredients of nationhood.”

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