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

Maleiha Malik applauds a road map that seeks to lead the West away from intolerance of Muslims

April 26, 2012

A young girl with a serene expression, her hair covered by a pale yellow scarf, her small hands folded together, turns her face towards us. This could so easily be an image from a Vermeer painting. Except that this "girl with a yellow veil" is a Muslim. She is part of a group of veiled women who seem to have their heads lowered in prayer.

The girl with a yellow veil graces the cover of Martha Nussbaum's latest book. Not long ago, images of veiled Muslim women raised questions because they were a central part of orientalist discourse on Islam and the West. Now, because European and American Muslims are equal citizens, it is important to develop alternative ways to think about Islam in the West. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics who has also made important scholarly contributions to the study of Greek and Roman philosophy, draws on the ancients and the moderns to develop one alternative paradigm. The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age is an excellent book that deserves a wide readership. Nussbaum has provided liberal societies with a road map out of fear into a more inclusive society, and she has put us all - Muslims and non-Muslims - in her debt.

Although her road map is complex, it is presented in a coherent structure set out in seven chapters: an analysis of the politics of fear that includes readings of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill (chapter two); a pluralist account of religious freedom (chapter three); the distortions caused by racism and majoritarian exceptionalism (chapter four); and the need for empathy in politics and ethics (chapter five). The final chapter tests these ideas by applying them to the recent Park51 "Ground Zero" mosque controversy.

Nussbaum writes in accessible, engaging language, and contemporary examples drawn from films such as Fatal Attraction and Invasion of the Body Snatchers ensure that a general readership will feel involved in her scholarly analysis of how fear of Muslims is being deliberately manufactured in our societies. Nussbaum draws on ancient and modern sources, ranging from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, to design a road map from fear to inclusion. The road map combines three prin-ciples. First, it reaffirms our existing liberal constitutional commitments to religious freedom and equal respect, especially in the light of religious difference. Second, it demands critical thinking to root out inconsistencies that cause us to apply stringent principles to "others" while making exceptions for ourselves. Put simply, we should not notice the "mote in someone else's eye while failing to note the large plank in one's own eye". Third, the road map requires empathy, so that we can see how the world looks from the point of view of a person from a different religion. That is, we need "inner eyes that allow us to sympathetically imagine the lives of European and American Muslims".

For Europeans, Nussbaum's analysis of incidents such as the "burka ban" in France is useful because it reveals our inability to live up to our own liberal prin-ciples, although her analysis sometimes fails to fully convey the grave consequences of "the new religious intolerance" for Europe's liberal political order. In Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice has already matured into a sophisticated racist ideology: Europe's far-right political parties have exploited the politics of fear and insist that they are fighting for Enlightenment freedom against Muslim migrants who are transforming Europe into "Eurabia".

What is Eurabia? It is the title of a 2005 book written by Bat Ye'or (the pen name of Gisele Littman); it is a genre of literature about European Muslims; it is a political neologism that refers to the alleged Islamisation of Europe. "Eurabia is a conspiracy theory," concluded Matt Carr in his pioneering scholarly analysis titled "You Are Now Entering Eurabia". "Eurabian Follies - the shoddy and just plain wrong genre that refuses to die," lamented Justin Vaisse, a leading expert on French Muslims, in Foreign Policy magazine. Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Kuper compared Eurabia literature to the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while Gideon Rachman labelled it "a dangerous idea".

Stark critiques of Eurabia literature are now commonplace among the scholarly researchers working to produce reliable knowledge about European Muslims. Niall Ferguson is a notable exception, endorsing an early edition of Eurabia the book with the statement that "future historians will one day regard the coinage of the term Eurabia as prophetic. Those who wish to live in a free society must be eternally vigilant."

Bat Ye'or's book Eurabia is presented by its advocates as an Aristotelian "trusted character" warning us against a well-grounded fear, and its analysis purports to be based on European Union primary sources, especially EU external relations policy, but it reveals no understanding of the institution's history, politics, law or policymaking. Instead, it is riddled with gross exaggerations and inaccuracies verging on hysterical fabrication. In The New Religious Intolerance, Nussbaum focuses on the striking similarities between the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion and contemporary anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. In fact, Eurabia is analogous to Édouard Drumont's La France Juive ("Jewish France"), published in 1886, which described a false "nightmare" vision of late 19th-century France alleged to be dominated by Jews.

Drawing on Aristotle and Mill, Nussbaum provides a valuable intellectual frame for analysing political mobilisation against European Muslims. She notes that a politics of fear emerges when a real social problem, such as European Muslim integration, is displaced on to images of a dangerous enemy presented as an impending threat to personal survival. Eurabia myths generate fears because they propose that European Muslims (an economically deprived, politically disorganised, territorially dispersed minority) will seize power from white Europeans (who control all the political institutions and own most of the wealth). How? Immigration or revolution, some suggest.

Another common obsession is demographic change. We are told that European Muslims will "outbreed" whites and "Islamise" Europe because every Muslim baby, including the girl with a yellow veil, is potentially a genetic carrier of radical Islam. Multiculturalism is blamed: it has emboldened European Muslims to make aggressive claims for equality; at the same time, it has weakened white European liberals who, unlike their muscular American cousins, refuse to defend the Enlightenment. European Muslims will, it is feared, take over Europe and establish sharia (Islamic law). The ultimate fear is that non-Muslim Europeans will be forced to live as oppressed minorities in an authoritarian Europe-wide caliphate (Islamic state).

Nussbaum concludes that a focus on liberal principles is a necessary but insufficient response to the politics of fear. An inner eye and a sympathetic imagination are essential. As we notice the girl with a yellow veil, we need to firmly affirm liberal constitutional principles such as freedom, but we also have to remind ourselves: "Here is another human being, what is she thinking or feeling right now?"

The girl with a yellow veil has her face half turned towards the reader. It's true that her future will depend on how European Muslims adapt to life as equal citizens in liberal democracies. Yet it is also true that all Europeans and Americans will have to decide how they want to respond to her: with a politics of fear or with the promise of a more inclusive liberal society?

The Author

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. She recalls her interest in these subjects developing in childhood, when she watched courtroom dramas on television and attended trials with her father, a lawyer who encouraged her interest.

She gained a bachelor's degree in Classics at New York University, going on to complete a master's and then a PhD in classical philology at Harvard University.

It was during her time at NYU that Nussbaum met her future husband. His family was reluctant to accept a non-Jewish spouse, which prompted her conversion to Judaism. Nussbaum recalls being very serious about Christianity until the age of 16, attending two services every Sunday and singing in both the children's and the adult choirs. She had briefly considered becoming a minister, but when she expressed this view she was told immediately that women would never be ordained.

Nussbaum considers singing to be her main hobby, occasionally performing solos of Jewish music at her temple and tackling opera arias - most recently Non più di fiori from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito - in recitals given by her teacher. She is also a keen runner who takes part in a half marathon once or twice a year.

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

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Harvard University Press

304pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780674065901

Published 26 April 2012

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