Diane talks with Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert in race and electoral politics.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Fear of others based on their religion has a long history. It is a problem that continues today. A professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago talks about overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age.
- Martha Nussbaum Professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago.
In a new book “The New Religious Intolerance,” Martha Nussbaum explores a long history in Europe and the United States of fear and discrimination against those of other religions. In recent years, much of this has been directed at Muslims. By understanding the sources of these fears, she writes we can overcome them and extend the rights we demand for ourselves to others.
Constitutional Principles of Religious Tolerance
Since the colonial period, Nussbaum said, we’ve been concerned with two big things – the exercise of free religion and non-establishment of religion. One clause that applied, the so-called “free exercise” clause, protects people in the exercise of their religion, even when it involves them in asking for dispensation from some law that applies generally to other people. As an example, people from pacifist religions are exempt from the military draft. But there are always ongoing questions about how much accommodation authorities are required to make for someone’s religion.
Which Religions Glorify Martyrdom?
A caller asked which religions glorify martyrdom, and Nussbaum said Christianity has a long tradition of it. “I think what often happens is that people are so familiar with the scriptures of their own religion and they make selective use of it and selective use of the history. But when it’s Islam that they don’t know much about then certain things jump out at them and they think, oh this glorifies martyrdom,” Nussbaum said.
The Question of Atheism
Guest host Susan Page said she had heard that Americans would rather elect a Muslim to office than an atheist. “Certainly we do have a very long and unfortunate tradition of demonizing atheists,” Nussbaum said. It’s hard for some people to believe someone else is an honest person if they don’t believe in God, she said, and this is not necessarily a new phenomenon – John Locke thought that atheists shouldn’t be tolerated because they can’t swear an oath.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is away on station visits. She'll be back Thursday. In a new book "The New Religious Intolerance," Martha Nussbaum explores a long history in Europe and the United States of fear and discrimination against those of other religions. In recent years, much of this has been directed at Muslims. By understanding the sources of these fears, she writes we can overcome them and extend the rights we demand for ourselves to others. Martha Nussbaum is a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and she joins us in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. MARTHA NUSSBAUMHi, Susan. It's really nice to be here.
PAGEWe're gonna invite our listeners to join our conversation with your comments or your questions. Our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So the title of your book is "The New Religious Intolerance." What is new?
NUSSBAUMWell, I think what's new is not the general form of it because I think it's really very like the fear and suspicion of Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries. Well, what's new is the focus on Muslims and the association with terrorism, which of course has its reasons because 9/11 has galvanized the imagination of everyone. And we tend to think of Muslims in the light of that terrible, traumatic experience.
PAGEAnd we know that last week the Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on racial profiling. That's a topic we hear a lot about. We talked about this some in the first hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" today. But they also included religious profiling. Was that a surprise to you that that was also included?
NUSSBAUMIt was a very pleasant surprise and of course a big change from the hearings that were targeting Muslims that Peter King held only a short time ago. Yeah, so I thought it was absolutely right to say that the same worries that people have about racial profiling are also there when whole communities of Muslims are profiled, targeted without any information that individuals or subgroups are actually likely to be linked to criminal activity.
NUSSBAUMAnd I think we should worry about that and we should talk about it publicly. It's for one thing extremely bad policy because if there is any terrorist plot, we need the cooperation of the Muslim community to back the sources of information. And most American Muslims are extremely patriotic and cooperative, but they won't be there if they're just targeted with suspicion and persecution for who they are.
PAGENow, some people might respond that of course there have been terrorist activity, plots against the United States in some Muslim communities. What would you say to that?
NUSSBAUMWell, I would say first that, yeah, okay, we need to find out about that and that means that the vast majority of Muslims who are good American citizens, who are active in the economy and in the political economy need to be treated with respect and friendship so that they will turn in any information that they have. And by alienating them, we're really cutting ourselves off from information that we badly need.
NUSSBAUMBut I'd say second that, you know, when it's the majority, we never think that the whole of a religion is responsible. So when we think about crimes committed by Christians, we never think, oh, that's a Christian crime, and now all Christians are suspect. But when it's a minority that's strange to us, that we're already a little bit afraid of 'cause we don't know very much about it, then we do demonize the entirety of the religion. And that I think is the real root of this problem.
PAGEWell, in fact, you talk about how this has happened. You mentioned, in fact, how it's happened at earlier times and against other religions. And you write that it comes really from a fear. That's what starts it.
NUSSBAUMYeah, and we now know quite a lot about how fear works in the mind. And one thing we know is that we're evolutionarily programmed to fear predators, something that jumps out at you from hiding is fearful, a snake or something like that. And so one thing that we see is that anything that's hidden inspires fear. And I think that when people see a burqa or a head scarf, it touches off something in the psyche and then it's not dispelled by the calm familiarity that we have with, let's say, a nun's habit or a long winter coat.
NUSSBAUMSo I might be just as covered in the winter in Chicago as somebody who wears a burqa. I wear my long, floor length, down coat. I have a shawl around my nose and my mouth. And I have a big hat that I pull down and I have sunglasses. So I'm completely covered and no one looks at me with suspicion because that's familiar. But it's the unfamiliar combined with its being somehow hidden that inspires fear in people.
PAGEAnd, in fact, this book I think stems from an article you wrote about concerns raised by clothing, by scarves and burqas, an essay you wrote called "Veiled Threats." Tell us about that. Why do you think an article of clothing can cause such a reaction?
NUSSBAUMWell, what I was so concerned about in the article was that it's totally self serving and unequal, that is arguments were made about the burqa particularly in Europe, but also in the U.S., that they wouldn't stand up for a minute if you turned and applied them to the majority religion. So I've already talked about covering, I mean, so we all are covered in various context and some of our most traditional trusted professionals like surgeons, dentists and so on are completely covered and we don't think that's a sign of bad intentions.
NUSSBAUMBut then the argument that this kind of dress objectifies women, turns women into mere objects and for male control. Now, as an old feminist, I wrote about objectification a long time ago. And what we were concerned about was the way women are treated as objects in pornography, in just many customs such as plastic surgery where women are forced by social norms to market themselves as a certain body type and therefore they go in for very dangerous and draconian surgeries.
NUSSBAUMAnd so I think the problem is that if we really said, oh, let's make illegal all practices in which women try to market themselves as objects for men, we would be banning a lot of modern society everywhere. But no one is proposing that. What they're doing is they're just saying, oh, this practice in this strange community, which I really don't understand and I'm not going to bother to find out about, that is what's objectifying women. But of course the plastic surgery that I see in my gym, the pornographic magazines that are all around and the pornography on the internet, no problem with that.
PAGEYou know, this issue of head scarves and burqas have been I think more of a subject of debate in Europe than it has been here; is that right?
NUSSBAUMThat's right. And I actually am -- I feel myself proud of the U.S. at this point. You know, because I think as a land of immigrants and a place that from the very beginning was colonized by people who didn't fit in in Europe, we're used to seeing people dress strangely and we're used to thinking that that's a way that people express themselves. And for people to express themselves religiously in their own way is a good thing and something they have a right to do.
NUSSBAUMI recently went to a baseball game in -- I'm a White Sox fan. And just before the National Anthem, in front of me were three Orthodox Jewish boys who had traditional dress, the fringes hanging out from beneath their shirt. And they were double hatted because they cleverly figured out that during the National Anthem, you should take something off. They took off a baseball cap, but they still had the kippah on their head. And I thought that was very clever of them because they could show respect for the flag, but they could also express themselves religiously in their own way.
NUSSBAUMBut I'm betting that if that happened in Europe, someone would say, here we respect the flag or, you know, take off that hat, that's not respectful. No one gave it a second look except for me 'cause I was just so intrigued by the whole thing.
PAGEYou know, I wonder if there's a difference in attitudes on this subject from countries like the United States, a nation of immigrants, or Australia, also a land with a lot of immigrants, and some European countries that have put citizenship around -- tied to religion or race.
NUSSBAUMI think that's a great point and I think it really is very fortunate for us that, and indeed Australia, India and other newer countries, that the conception of who's a citizen and what our political identity is, is around political principles, not ethnic homogeneity, not religious homogeneity. Whereas in Europe, starting with 19th century romanticism, the idea was it's the soil, the blood and often language and religion come into it that define us as a nation. And so then if you have that conception, it's very hard to assimilate new groups.
NUSSBAUMAnd even when they welcome people in because they don't have enough children to fill all the jobs that need to be done in Switzerland, for example, they welcomed a lot of Muslim immigrants, but then they turn on them because they look different and they feel that they're threatened by that.
PAGEAnd so there are ways in which we can be proud of the way the United States approaches people of other religions, people who look differently, and yet also, as you point out in your book "The New Religious Intolerance," issues in which there is much less tolerance by Americans. And I wonder, does -- the Justice Department has for a decade had guidelines prohibiting racial profiling. Do they also include religious profiling?
NUSSBAUMThey -- I'm not sure. Actually that's an interesting question. I don't know whether the guidelines have included that, and they certainly should. And I think with the new hearings I think that they probably will. But certainly there's been a commitment to not discriminate on grounds of religion, but that doesn't mean they don't profile. So I don't know that.
PAGEAnd yet we have cases like the New York Police Department surveillance of Muslims that's been quite controversial...
NUSSBAUMWell, yeah, and there are a lot of things where Muslims are targeted for extra suspicion. And so even though we haven't seen these proposals to ban the burqa, ban the head scarf that Europe has seen, we do have a lot of proposals to ban the construction of mosques, to ban minarets on mosques and then we have in Oklahoma a legislative proposal to ban any law that uses Sharia, Muslim law, in the framing of the law. And that's really very complicated because after all Sharia covers many matters.
PAGEWe're talking to Martha Nussbaum. She's a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book "The New Religious Intolerance." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to your calls. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Martha Nussbaum. She's written a book "The New Religious Intolerance." Talk, if you would, about the constitutional principles that apply when we think about tolerance and acceptance of religion.
NUSSBAUMYeah, since the colonial period, we've had a concern for two things, the free exercise of religion and non-establishment of religion. And so when the constitution was written, the way it was formulated was in terms of what we now call the Free Exercise Clause of the constitution and the Establishment Clause. The Free Exercise Clause has been understood to protect people in the exercise of their religion, even when it involves them in asking for dispensation from some law that applies generally to other people.
NUSSBAUMFor example, members of pacifist religions have a dispensation from the military draft. And people whose holy day is on Saturday, even though they might be fired from work on that day they get unemployment compensation because not to do that would be taken to be a violation of their religious freedom. There's dispute about how that principle should be interpreted, whether it's just going to forbid us from making laws that target and persecute a minority religion. Or whether in addition we have to bend over backwards and accommodate the minority religion by giving them dispensations from the law.
NUSSBAUMBut at any rate, here's the sort of thing that you can't do. The City of Hialeah in Florida made a law that said that ritual animal sacrifice was forbidden. And the aim was clearly to target the Santeria worshippers, Afro-Cuban worshippers who did sacrifice animals in their ritual and to drive them out of the city. And so even on the kind of weakest interpretation of the constitutional principle Free Exercise that was held to be impermissible because it was persecutory because other kinds of animal killings were perfectly fine.
PAGEAnd on this issue of how much accommodation you are required to make for someone's religion, where do you think that should be? What is your view of that?
NUSSBAUMWell, I think that no one disputes that legislatures have the right to give accommodations. For example, they can amend the Controlled Substances Act, and they have, to make the ritual use of peyote legal. So the only area of dispute is whether there should also be room for judicial accommodations. And I think there should be but the dispute is really about the competence of judges and whether they really should be in the business of doing that or whether they should leave it to the legislature.
NUSSBAUMI think it's important for the judges to do it because sometimes there's a politically powerless group. For example, there was a small Brazilian sect that had only a 130 members that wanted dispensation from the Controlled Substances Act. But they're not going to be able to move congress to pass law in their own interests the way the Native American lobby could. And so in that case the Supreme Court gave them that accommodation.
PAGELet's go to Dearborn, Mich. and talk to Shelly. Shelly, thanks for giving us a call.
SHELLYHi. I have a degree in textile so I know a little bit about, you know, clothing and how it works. I, however, have worked in Dearborn, lived around or have friends who are Muslims. But when I see that burqa or the head covering, and I've worn one, I feel that that's trying to undo all of the work that we put in in the '70s for women's rights. And I actually frostbit my fingers going on a trip that they wouldn't let girls go on unless we had ten girls. And so I look at my fingers and I think I don't look at that person, that woman as being on my side necessarily.
PAGEAll right. Shelly, thank you so much for your call. Martha Nussbaum, what would you say?
NUSSBAUMYeah, well Shelly, I guess the first thing I'd say is -- and I'm glad you're in textiles. I spend a lot of time in India in my work. And in a hot and dusty climate covering the whole of your body is a pretty sensible thing to do. And the whole question then is, is it a breathable fabric? And if it's a breathable fabric it's a very healthy and comfortable form of clothing. And actually because the sun is so strong there, and I'm quite fair, I try hard to cover my face too.
NUSSBAUMAnd I do the same thing if I'm at a ball game, I have to say, and I'm in the bright sun. I cover my head as much as I can and I cover the whole of my body and then I try to cover my face because the sun's right in my face. So I don't think there's anything unhealthy about it. As to the idea that it negates feminism, you know, I think when you, you know, read Playboy or you look at pornographic pictures of women, well, that too negates individuality. The woman is just an interchangeable body shape for male enjoyment.
NUSSBAUMAnd so there are many social practices that negate individuality. And then the question is what are we going to do about that? What's the right approach? And I guess I'd say persuasion and conversation and argument is the right approach. You're making something illegal. Well, if you're going to do it consistently you'd have to bend a lot of stuff, wouldn't you? And so I suggest that just talking to people and trying to find out what's on their mind and telling them what's on your mind is the right way to go.
PAGEShelly, anything else you wanted to say or ask?
SHELLYJust that, you know, when men are wearing three-piece suits, I tend to look at them as just, you know, interchangeable parts. So, you know, I try to be a good person, but sometimes the clothing gets in the way.
NUSSBAUMAnd we have to understand that. Thanks so much for taking my call.
PAGEShelly, thank you so much for giving us a call. Let's go to Fatima calling us from Fort Worth, Texas. Fatima, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
FATIMAHi. I just wanted to say that I'm a Sudanese Muslim and I've been here since I was 12 years old. And what I really wanted to comment on is the terminology that we use in daily life in the media and in politics. And it really bothers me sometimes when I turn on the news or hear politicians talking about how Islamists and Muslims are used interchangeably for terrorists.
FATIMAAnd at the same time how, like, for example, when people know me, they're like, oh, I'm surprised you're Muslim and I guess you're moderate. Why is it that a conservative Muslim's a bad thing and is viewed as a terrorist, but and moderate one's a good thing. It makes me like so I'm supposed to not follow my religion and -- or else I'll be -- if I was covered up, which I'm not, I'd be considered a terrorist? So just the terminology that our leaders use is not helpful at all to tolerance. I guess that's what I'm saying.
PAGEFatima, thanks so much for giving us a call.
NUSSBAUMYeah, Fatima, I think there are so many confusions. In fact, one of my main concerns is with education. And I think we need to, from a very early age, educate ourselves to just simply know something complicated and not stereotyped about the major world religions. And at the same time we need to be reading stories, you know, books for children that depict Muslim lives in a wide variety of different context to show us that there are many different ways of being Muslim. Just like there are many different ways of being a Jew.
NUSSBAUMAnd I think you're absolutely right. No one would think that because someone was an Orthodox Jew they were more likely to be threatening. In fact, of course, they would think just the opposite, that these are retiring peaceful people who don't have much to do with politics and wouldn't fight in the military. So, yeah, to equate observance -- literal observance of a religion with being a terrorist is a terrible confusion and, even as you say, the word Islamist.
NUSSBAUMAnother confusion that I think is very widespread is the idea that all Muslims come from the Middle East. Now that, of course, is just not correct and it's used often to say Muslims can't live in Democracy. Well, actually the two largest Muslim countries in the world are Indonesia and India both of them thriving democracies. And the number of Muslims in India is a minority of 13 percent, but it's still a larger number of actual Muslims than in any other country except for Indonesia. So, you know, we should learn some facts about the world and not stereotype people at all.
PAGEHere's an email we've got who writes -- this person writes, "Are there other religions that glorify martyrdom? Knowing that a religion promotes this is frightening." I think this person's referring to the Muslim religion. How would you respond to that?
NUSSBAUMWell, I would say of course that Christianity has a tremendously long history of glorifying martyrdom. And if you look at the Jewish and Christian scriptures you can find much that leads in that direction. So I think what often happens is that people are so familiar with the scriptures of their own religion and they make selective use of it and selective use of the history. But when it's Islam that they don't know much about then certain things jump out at them and they think, oh this glorifies martyrdom.
NUSSBAUMNow in fact, of course, Muslims interpret that text in different ways. And it's just like the history of Christianity. There are just many different ways of understanding that whole history and what martyrdom is and so on. The other thing is that we should think hard about martyrdom, whether it's always a bad thing. If you think about the Nazi era, how many religious people went to their deaths in the death camps. They were martyrs and they were martyrs for justice and they were martyrs for humanity.
NUSSBAUMSo I think martyrdom is not always a bad thing by any means. And we should really think very hard about the conditions under which we would want to criticize it.
PAGEWe saw a terrible massacre in Norway, 77 people killed. A lot of people initially assumed this was by an Islamic terrorist. It turned out to be by someone very different. He's now on trial in Norway. Tell us a little about this case.
NUSSBAUMYeah, that case was fascinating for a lot of reasons. It was a terrible tragedy. So many young people killed in that -- on that island. There was a youth group who gathered for a kind of political education camp. And, yes, a lot of people, including responsible journalists all over the world, initially said, oh this is Jihad in Norway and this is a Muslim killer connected to Al-Qaeda.
NUSSBAUMAnd so, well, it turned out that this was an extremist, whether sane or not is what is going to be determined by the trial, but certainly appearing to be quite sane with a long manifesto explaining why he hated and feared Muslims, which sighted some popular anti-Muslim writers in America, like Pamela Geller the blogger. So he certainly was well read. He had gone to all these anti-Muslim sources and he produced a paranoid account of the world, according to which we're in for a Muslim takeover. And the white race and Europe need to use force to save themselves.
NUSSBAUMOne of the things he objected to about these kids was that they were mixed ethnicity kids. They weren't just the old white type of European -- of Norwegian history, but instead included minorities in Norwegian society. So anyway, I think what's fascinating is that this paranoia was fueled by anti-Muslim writers all around the world, including some in the U.S. and that he was initially thought himself to be a Muslim.
PAGEHe continues to defend his actions in court on Monday. He said, I see all multicultural political activists as monsters -- as evil monsters who wish to eradicate our people, our ethnic group, our culture and our country.
NUSSBAUMYeah, and of course, he does make references to a holy war and to Christian crusades and so on. But no one thinks that this is a problem for Christianity. No one has ever said that. And the fact that a nut who has extreme paranoid views can be a Christian is obvious. And yet when a Muslim commits a crime it is imputed to the whole of the religion.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, around the time of that mass murder in Norway you write it came out that the FBI had been assigning as recommended reading a book that was connected to this killer. Can you tell us about that?
NUSSBAUMYeah, well, the FBI was certainly assigning some very fringe reading, including writings by Brigitte Gabriel and I think some by Pamela Geller as well. And they gave a very Brevic-like paranoid view of Islam. Now they've stopped doing that and so I'm very glad to hear that, but it's not just out of niceness that I'm glad. I'm glad -- I want them to have good intelligence. That's what they are in the business of doing and this stuff that they were assigning was extremely irresponsible.
PAGEWhy were they assigning it?
NUSSBAUMI think somebody just thought that this gave us the true story about Islam. Somebody -- now no one has taken credit for that, they backed off very quickly, but somebody just didn't know enough. And I think we've had a problem all along with our intelligence about Muslim society and Muslim groups largely because of ignorance. At one point, we really didn't have enough people who spoke Arabic and so on. So, you know, ignorance, I think, is the reason. If it was some other religious group that they were more familiar with, that never would've happened.
PAGEObviously, the 9/11 attacks had such a profound affect -- such a profound impact on so many Americans and fed a lot of fear of Muslims. Do you feel that there has been a tide changing now that ten years has passed and more? What do you think is the continuing impact of the 9/11 attacks?
NUSSBAUMWell, I think right at the time, President Bush handled it very well by saying quickly, we're not at war with Islam, and making a point of showing respect for that religion and for peaceful Muslims everywhere. And, you know, still people did leap to demonize the entirety of the religion in a way that they didn't do when Oklahoma City bombings were committed by Christians. It just never happens that way.
NUSSBAUMSo I think now it looks like we've come through it with a lot of deep wounds but with our principles pretty unscathed. In all the controversy about that Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan, it's called Park Fifty-One now, what was very interesting was that everyone on all sides with very, very few exceptions said we understand that they have a constitutional right to build that community center there. And we understand what the law is. Then they differed a lot about whether doing it was a good idea, whether it respected the sensibilities of the people who lost lives in the 9/11 tragedy.
NUSSBAUMBut I thought was very interesting was that even the general public understood the principle of freedom of religion and understood the rights involved. There was a stripper who performs at one of the strip clubs that's on that site. So, I mean, it's not by any means a holy site. It has off-track betting parlors, it has two strip clubs.
NUSSBAUMAnd one of these strippers was interviewed and she said at first she was worried that it might be noisy. It might disrupt the community with the call to prayer. But when she found out it wasn't noisy, then she felt, what problem is there? She says it's freedom of religion, you know. And I thought that's great that we agree on what our principles are.
PAGEYou -- and when you write about this episode in your book you are somewhat critical of President Obama for not taking a clearer stand on where he stood on that issue.
NUSSBAUMYeah, I thought that he really should've thought ahead of time what exactly it was he was saying. He made a statement one day that sounded like he was defending the position of Mayor Bloomberg, namely that it was perfectly okay to go ahead with the construction of the community center. And then the next day he backed off and said, well he was talking only about legality and constitutional principles, not about whether it was a good idea.
NUSSBAUMSo then people were left in total un-clarity about whether he thought it was a good idea or a bad idea. If he didn't know what he thought about that I think it would've been better for him not to suggest that he did approve of it in the first place. I actually think Mayor Bloomberg did a much better job because consistently and clearly he -- all through the thing he said, not only that these are our constitutional principles but he said, we're a country that welcomes people who are different.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Martha Nussbaum is in the studio with me. She's written a new book, "The New Religious Intolerance". You know we've gotten several emails from atheists asking about discrimination against atheists. Here's a tweet that we got, "Atheists are reviled and discriminated against by religious worldwide. Please address this." And here's another one. Jim from Dayton writes us, "Did your guest explore the discrimination of atheists? I've heard that Americans would rather elect a Muslim than an atheist to political office."
NUSSBAUMYeah, I think that's possibly true. Certainly we do have a very long and unfortunate tradition of demonizing atheists. I guess I wouldn't quite agree with you that it comes from the religions. I think that some religions do criticize atheism, but, you know, some are on a spectrum that's continuous with atheism. There are a lot of non-theistic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and then my own religion, reformed-Judaism, certainly contains a lot of people who were humanists, who are agnostics and probably some even atheists.
NUSSBAUMAnd these people have often had prominent positions in that religion, Unitarian Universalists are in some cases agnostic or atheist. So, you know, the spectrum is broad, but I think it comes from something in American culture that they can't quite believe somebody. They can't believe he's an honest person if the person doesn't believe in God. Now, that's an old story. John Locke, the great 17th century philosopher thought that atheists should not be tolerated even though all the religions should be tolerated because if they took an oath the oath wouldn't be binding 'cause there's nothing they could swear an oath to.
NUSSBAUMSo if Locke thought that, you know, it's an old story. And I think it has something to do with this idea of you can't believe them, they're not really honest. Well, of course, atheists are moral, atheists can swear an oath on the moral law and that's all they need, but Americans really don't believe that. I think Europeans find this very mysterious and strange, that in America you have to be religious to be elected to public office. And it's just not at all the case in Europe. I imagine there have been people in public life in America who are not especially believers, but just church-goers because they know that's what they have to do. But I agree with you, that that's something that's a bad part of our national life.
PAGEYou mentioned that you're a reformed Jew. I believe you grew up as an Episcopalian. And I saw an interview that you did with the New York Times in which you said you were a member of the religious rationalists left. What is that?
NUSSBAUMOh, well, I guess, you know, the Reformed Judaism of the sort that I converted into really puts the moral law at the center. It is what Emanuel Cont, the 18th century philosopher thought religion should be, as a set of moral principles that you could reason about together and then scripture's there to help you do that. And so the attitude we have towards scripture is that it's very respected writings done at a certain point in history by people, many of whom were wise, but some were not so wise. And so we turn to scripture for what illumination it can offer concerning social justice and moral principles.
NUSSBAUMI happen to think that ritual is very important. So the kind of Reformed Judaism that came up in the 19th century, where you just sat around reasoning and you had sermons, but you didn't have any ritual, that has pretty much dropped away. And I think a good thing, too, because I think music and poetry are very powerful to make you have emotions that deepen your connection to moral principle. But anyway, yeah, what I mean is I'm part of a group that believes in social justice and thinks hard about it and that where the approach to religion is centered on moral principle.
PAGELet's talk to Mark. He's calling us from Cleveland. Hi, Mark.
MARKHello. I just wanted to call in and I wanted to thank Ms. Nussbaum for her very interesting discussion. I have a different perspective. My parents are actually from the Middle East. I am an Arab-Christian. And I'm somebody who would be profiled if I went into an airport. And I am completely fine with that. And because I think, Ms. Nussbaum, with all due respect, you are underestimating the fact that we are facing a global insurgency in the form of al-Qaeda and its umbrella affiliates around the world.
MARKI'm a very progressive person. I'm very tolerant. I agree with what Ms. Nussbaum was saying, we don’t want to alienate our Muslim communities, but I do think that you are siding with political correctness and avoiding dealing with a problem that we really do have. There's a number of other points I know, but that's really what I wanted to say.
PAGEMark, thanks so much for your call.
NUSSBAUMYeah, well, thank you very much. And I do think airport profiling is a special case. And I don't even have any objection to searching everybody, as airports in India always do. In fact, they have a very good procedure where everyone goes into a curtained-booth, male or female, and they're full-body searched by someone of the same sex in a very respectful way, well trained in order to be respectful. So I have no objection to that. I guess I think that airports are special cases and they're entitled to be very, very careful. What the hearings are concerned with is the targeting of communities, of people living peacefully in a city for unwarranted searches and various other kinds of incursions.
NUSSBAUMSo the airport is a different story. I guess what I worry about is that if you're a smart terrorist you certainly don't wanna draw attention to yourself. And so if you imagine an al-Qaeda terrorist, it's hard to believe that that person would go looking like somebody who would signal attention as a person of Islamic origin. Why not be in a wheelchair, you know. And the searches of elderly people in wheelchairs, although they have offended a lot of people, they are quite rational because that’s a very good disguise.
NUSSBAUMAnd, you know, you can smuggle quite a lot of stuff into a wheelchair. So I think you have to give terrorists credit for being smart and not dressing in just the way that would draw most suspicious attention to themselves. And that means you gotta have solid information, not just the profiling of a group. Profiling of a group is not a very good idea. And, of course, the idea that you put on a no-fly list all people named Ali turned out to be a terrible idea because prominent citizens, very powerful people happen to have that name. It's an extremely common name. And so people have to be smart if they wanna go after real terrorists.
PAGEHere's a similar email we got from Kenneth, who writes, "Intolerance is such an extreme and negative word. Caution is what people you are labeling as intolerant, exhibit toward people of some religions. And caution is wise, especially when encountering someone who could literally be intolerant towards one own religious beliefs and practices."
NUSSBAUMWell, okay. I think that when you meet a stranger, it's not just caution, but politeness that you should show. And I think maybe curiosity, too. One of my favorite philosophers was Roger Williams who founded the colony of Rhode Island. And he wrote a whole book about Native Americans where he tries to tell you how you should approach a new person that you haven't met before. And he's giving lessons in their language, but he's carefully controlling what you learn how to say in that language. And there are things that express respect, curiosity, friendship. So you don't learn how to say, I don't like you, but you do learn how to say, welcome, please come in, would you like something to eat and drink and so on.
NUSSBAUMSo in his little language primer he tells you the polite way to greet someone else. And I think often that can be combined with suitable caution. Of course, we're always cautious about all strangers whom we meet. But what's objectionable, I think, is if we form premature conclusions about what that person's likely to be based simply on their dress or their religious affiliation. And that's what people do all the time.
PAGEWe've gotten several emails on the issue of burqas. And let me read two of them that have different perspectives. Here's one from Bruce. He writes, "No one even gave a second thought to Catholic nuns who wore full habits until about 30 years ago. No one would give a second thought to some woman wearing a full nun's habit today. This issue of burqas is because of 9/11, what a shame." But John writes us from Richardson, Texas. And he writes, "Professor Nussbaum is overlooking one glaring problem with the use of burqas and head scarves with face coverings, which is the public safety issue. We do not often hear of problems people have with traditional Muslim dress for men because they rarely, if ever, hide the face.
PAGE"Are there other laws against people wandering about town in ski masks or with some other clothing that prevents identity from being visually assessed? I imagine if your guest went into a bank in Chicago in winter and neglected to remove her ski mask, she would not get a positive reaction from the security guard."
NUSSBAUMThanks very much for that. Yeah, about the nuns in habit, I think that's an excellent point. And what's really fascinating is that in some parts of Germany they've made it illegal to teach, even in a head scarf, so just the head scarf, not the facial covering, not the full body covering, but they allow nuns and priests to teach in full habit. And when they're questioned about that they say, oh, that's not religion, that's our culture. So in other words, people feel comfortable about it and they don't see any problem. And that's how people are. They feel comfortable with the familiar and they shrink from what's strange, but that isn’t necessarily how a wise public policy should be.
NUSSBAUMAbout the full facial covering, what is fascinating is that these laws in Europe that make the burqa illegal have carefully done a dance around all the other things you mentioned, skaters who wear face masks, skiers, medical professionals who are covered, people who cover for reasons of health. So the French law, you know, says -- it doesn't use the word burqa or Muslim. But it says you can't wear in public a form of dress designed to cover your face unless -- and there's this long list of exceptions, which includes public masquerades, other (word?) which might just be anything, you know. So in other words, everything except the burqa, you get an exemption for.
NUSSBAUMNow, of course, security issues are very important. And I agree with you about that. I think a reasonable requirement is that a person should have a full-face driver's license photograph. And actually most Islamic scholars agree that it's perfectly fine for a Muslim woman to remove her facial covering for a driver's license photograph. And so that's fine, you know, with suitable respectfulness during the photographic session and that would be okay. I actually think the face is a very bad identifier. Everyone else thinks that, too. And pretty quickly eye-recognition software is coming in immigration places and in all other areas because it's just a much superior form of identification.
NUSSBAUMSo pretty soon the photograph of the face will just be a thing of the past. But in the mean time, sure, you can have a full-face photo on your driver's license or your passport. But actually, you know, the truth is that I have never been asked in a bank to remove my winter coat, my winter scarf, even my sunglasses. I think that's striking. I think they probably should have asked me to remove my sunglasses, but in fact, they never have done that. And then if you think about other public places where the burqa is now banned in parts of Europe, just -- it's banned everywhere in France and in Italy the law is still making its way through the legislature and the courts -- you find that in the U.S. a department store might think, okay, it's a security risk.
NUSSBAUMBut then they really would have to treat all similar cases, similarly. They would have to say that I have to take off my coat. So they would have to have a place where you can check your coat. Or they might have a medical detector at the door. But they don't do that because I guess they think that it would discourage customers and it would just be more trouble than it's worth. So the fact is that it's only Muslims -- of course not so much in America, but mostly in Europe -- that get singled out and not people who similarly cover their face for other reasons.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk to Toni. She's calling us from West Bloomfield, Mich. Hi, Toni.
TONIHi. I'd like your guest, if she could, to clarify her comment that the Jews that died at the hands of the Nazis were martyrs. And she made a comparison between the Jews and the martyrs of Islam. I'm pretty sure the Jews that died in the holocaust did not choose to be martyrs. And I'll take her comments off the air.
PAGEAll right, Toni. Thanks for your call.
NUSSBAUMThanks very much. No. I wasn't talking about the Jews. I was saying that martyrdom was a long tradition in Christianity. And I was talking about the Protestant ministers and the many nuns who were killed in the death camps. And they did have a choice. I mean they really sought a kind of statement of solidarity with the Jews. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one, but there are many, many and whole groups of nuns who were, I would say, martyred and they say that, too. So that's what I was talking about. No, I agree. Of course the Jews were by no means martyrs because they had no choice.
PAGEToni, thank you for your call. So if there is a long history going back centuries, of intolerance, suspicion of people of other religions that we see even today, to what degree can that be redressed?
NUSSBAUMWell, I think it can be redressed if we try to do it, if we set about creating the right kind of atmosphere. And, yeah, I mean, it's as old as human beings, even in other parts of the world. It's not just a Western or American phenomenon. The Emperor Ashoka, who was a Hindu who converted to Buddhism, put up some stone pillars in the 2nd century B.C. to say that you should treat with respect and friendliness people of other religions. So, you know, this is a very old story, but I think, you know, there are three things we need to address this well.
NUSSBAUMAnd one is good legal principles. And I think we do have that in the American Constitution. The second is a determination to scrutinize ourselves the same way we scrutinize others. That is, if we think that a certain practice is wrong when we see it in others, let's ask, do we have that same practice in our own society? What do we think about it there? If we think, for example, that coercion of children is wrong when we see it in Muslim families, what do we say when Christian parents threaten their children with disinheritance if they date somebody of the wrong religion or something?
NUSSBAUMSo that kind of principled consistency, not casting out the little moat in your brother's eye before you notice the big plank that's in your own eye. That's a good principle to have. And then the third thing is we really need to cultivate our imaginations. We need not to be obtuse. We need to investigate with curiosity and a kind of friendly curiosity the lives of people who are different from ourselves. And we often can do this through the arts, through narrative literature and certainly in history we can see that, the children who grow up reading little stories about people of other religions have a very different attitude from people who just think all the world looks one way.
PAGEAnd we're almost out of time, but just briefly, do you see this religious intolerance exhibited in the discussion of Mitt Romney's faith in our current presidential campaign?
NUSSBAUMOh, for sure. And actually there is so much misunderstanding about Mormonism in this country. And I think it's going to come up and it'll come up more and more. In the 19th century, of course, the Mormons did practice polygamy, but they've long since given it up. Nonetheless, that whole religion is somehow said to be friendly to polygamy, but even if we go back to the 19th century when Mormons did practice polygamy, there was a lot of false stuff around there. In fact, there were sensationalistic novels that portrayed Muslims as bad because they were beating up women and children and so on and that wasn't true.
PAGEMartha Nussbaum, thank you for joining us this hour. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks with Rick Hasen, a law professor and expert on election administration. His new book is "Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy."
Diane talks to McKay Coppins of The Atlantic about President Trump’s use of disinformation as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, talks about how the country is preparing.