Martha Nussbaum seeks to explain how politics in Western countries, especially in America and Europe, is increasingly shaped by Islamophobia. Not long ago, Nussbaum, who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School, published a book titled The Clash Within in which she showed how internal religious differences could be sources of great disruption as opposed to the so-called “fault lines of civilization.” As a renowned legal theorist and feminist scholar, she uses intellectual resources from Western philosophy to build up an explanation. She shows deep concern over the growing decline of religious tolerance, undue haste to promulgate laws that perpetuate stereotypes about culture and religious practices, and unwarranted political campaigns and referendum generating enormous anxieties and mistrust about Muslims all over the world.
These issues, according to the author, are a little less problematic in the United States as opposed to Europe, nonetheless with identical adverse consequences. She attributes this difference to the varied notions of nationality that America and Europe practice. Considering that the European notion of nationality is so rooted in the traditional idea of “blood, soil, ethno-linguistic peoplehood, and religion”, people with different looks, culture, and other attributes have found it hard to be part of the elusive homogenous population often seen as a natural pre-requisite for a nation-state.
Politics is widely believed to be a dirty word, yet it is politics that drives the world. But this book is not about the indispensable nature of politics. It is also not about the politics of fear per se, because the politics of hope and emancipation has to be founded on the politics of fear and despair. This book is more specifically about the politics of unfounded fear, where rumours substitute facts, and propaganda determines the value of truth than truth itself. This is more about how Islam has a new face in the Western political imagination, and how the popular perceptions are shaped by mindless propaganda where every aspect of Islamic culture is seen as demonic, and anti- modern. With select cases, Nussbaum examines some of the worst fears constructed by Western elites about Islam in the post- 9/11 world without ever looking around themselves and examining the root cause of the violence and sources of hatred in their own culture and faith.
She recommends an ethical philosophy in the spirit of Socrates to deal with this politics of unfounded fear before it becomes the accepted paradigm of popular knowledge. At least three core ideas should govern the political principles. The first one should express equal respect for all its citizens, and the second one has to be based on serious critical thinking about popular perceptions of all actions of state and non-state actors. She explains it beautifully in the following words: “such thinking should not take the form of making an exception of oneself, noting the ‘mote’ in someone’s eye while failing to note the large plank in one’s own eye.” And, finally, there should be a sincere effort to see the world from the eyes of the victims, and to seek to understand why and how things happen. In other words, she argues for a public reason that needs to be rescued from the dominant discourse shaped by regimes and other non-state actors with their own agendas, largely shrouded in secrecy, and often avoids public accountability.
Because she uses enormous intellectual resources from moral and political philosophy, her arguments and explanations stand out among the contemporary books on the subject. She offers details about the Western response, say, for instance, how three European nations — France, Italy, and Belgium — have passed laws banning Burqua and Niqab. Interestingly, one statistic says only 100 women use these garments in Italy, and the most exaggerated number of users of these garments is 3000. Similarly, only 4 of 150 mosques have minarets in Switzerland, and yet a referendum with 57% support for the ban on minaret was passed.
The book has an entire chapter on the idea of fear and how it is a very narcissistic emotion. She uses the famous example of the myth of Jewish conspiracy to take over the world that was widely believed in the 18th and 19th Century as based on “Rabbi’s speech.” She then examines the idea of fear and its relationship with various biological tendencies, culture, and rhetoric, and its heuristics and biases. She then uses the example of the murders in Norway committed by Anders Behering Breivik to make her case, but dismisses the idea to present Breivik as a psychopath and instead describes him as an extremist with a paranoid view of the world, like Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin.
The chapter “The Case of Park 51”, is perhaps the most influential one on the issue written by any scholar thus far. In this chapter she examines the case of the widespread controversy regarding the Mosque to be located in the neighbourhood of America’s quasi-sacred place, Ground Zero. She analyses both sides of the argument, presents various aspects of key actors associated with the issue. She considers this as a case of failure of President Obama’s leadership for not taking a clear, consistent position on this issue that could have supported American constitutionalism, and robust tradition of freedom of religion that it claims to stand for. She concludes with great optimism about the final resolution of this contentious issue. All in all, this is an extraordinary piece of scholarship that deploys intellectual resources of various disciplines, and addresses perhaps some of the most vital questions of our time regarding citizenship, freedom of religion, multi-culturalism, and issues of inter-faith relationship. Without doubt, scholars of all major disciplines will find this book indispensable in their understanding of the modern world and the challenges that it faces today.
(Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi)
The New Religious Intolerance — Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age: Martha C. Nussbaum; Harvard University Press.