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

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

by Martha C. Nussbaum


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What impulse prompted some newspapers to attribute the murder of 77 Norwegians to Islamic extremists, until it became evident that a right-wing Norwegian terrorist was the perpetrator? Why did Switzerland, a country of four minarets, vote to ban those structures? How did a proposed Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan ignite a fevered political debate across the United States? In The New Religious Intolerance, Martha C. Nussbaum surveys such developments and identifies the fear behind these reactions. Drawing inspiration from philosophy, history, and literature, she suggests a route past this limiting response and toward a more equitable, imaginative, and free society.

Fear, Nussbaum writes, is "more narcissistic than other emotions." Legitimate anxieties become distorted and displaced, driving laws and policies biased against those different from us. Overcoming intolerance requires consistent application of universal principles of respect for conscience. Just as important, it requires greater understanding. Nussbaum challenges us to embrace freedom of religious observance for all, extending to others what we demand for ourselves. She encourages us to expand our capacity for empathetic imagination by cultivating our curiosity, seeking friendship across religious lines, and establishing a consistent ethic of decency and civility. With this greater understanding and respect, Nussbaum argues, we can rise above the politics of fear and toward a more open and inclusive future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674725911
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 10/14/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Law School and the Philosophy Department. Among her many awards are the 2018 Berggruen Prize, the 2017 Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3: First Principles: Equal Respect for Conscience

How can we best address the current climate of fear? A good approach has three ingredients: good principles, an emphasis on non-narcissistic consistency, and a cultivation of the “inner eyes,” the capacity to see the world from the perspective of minority experience.

Why principles? Given the distracting and distorting potential of fear, which can so easily render particular judgments self-serving and unreliable, it seems a good idea to approach these delicate and complicated issues armed with some general principles that we can cling to, as we attempt to avoid confusion and panic. If these principles are going to help us address fear’s tendency to self-privileging, they should incorporate a focus on the good of others, correcting for fear’s partiality. Supplying principles to guide democratic political practice has been a central purpose of political philosophy, which, ever since its (Western) start in ancient Athens, has seen its goal as practical, not merely theoretical. I’ll argue that philosophy really does have the sort of practical important that the Greeks claimed for it, offering insight to every person who wants to think about these matters. So what does political philosophy have to say about religious difference and the anxieties it provokes?

The tradition I shall map out is specifically Euro-American, but we’d do well to bear in mind that similar thoughts can be found in the history of India, which developed policies of religious toleration earlier than did the West: at least by the third-second centuries BCE, when the emperor Ashoka, himself a convert to Buddhism from Hinduism, put up a series of edicts mandating toleration throughout his empire. These policies did not endure through the entire pre-modern period, but they were revived and further developed in the Moghul Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the thought and practice of the Muslim emperor Akbar, who proclaimed toleration among all religions and created a state cult that included elements from all the major religions in his empire. Akbar was a famous figure in Europe, and his ideas had a significant influence on the development of European ideas of toleration – as did the ideas and laws of the Ottoman Empire. I shall say no more about this history here, but we should remember it: our goals are fairness and understanding, and we would be thrown off from the start if we were to think, mistakenly, that the ideas of mutual respect and toleration are exclusively Western. It’s particularly important, perhaps, to be keenly aware that some of their most influential architects were observant Muslims.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

1 Religion: A Time of Anxiety and Suspicion 1

2 Fear: A Narcissistic Emotion 20

3 First Principles: Equal Respect for Conscience 59

4 The Mote in My Brother's Eye: Impartiality and the Examined Life 98

5 Inner Eyes: Respect and the Sympathetic Imagination 139

6 The Case of Park51 188

7 Overcoming the Politics of Fear 240

Notes 247

Index 269

What People are Saying About This

Heiner Bielefeldt

Martha Nussbaum persuasively demonstrates that what we need to tackle the root causes of religious hatred is not only broad minds but also open hearts capable of compassion and imagination. A passionate and encouraging book!
Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Paul Mendes-Flohr

With a palpable sense of moral urgency, Martha Nussbaum explores the pathology of the Islamophobia sweeping the West since 9/11. Her diagnosis amounts to a dire warning that the failure to overcome the fear of religious and cultural difference threatens the constitutional and ethical foundations of liberal democracy.
Paul Mendes-Flohr, University of Chicago Divinity School

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