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The New Religious IntoleranceReview - The New Religious Intolerance
Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age
by Martha C. Nussbaum
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012
Review by Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
May 7th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 19)

The Greek god Phobos (fear),  son of the god of war (Ares) and the goddess of beauty and love (Aphrodite) is the protagonist of this book on religious (in-)tolerance by philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. Fear's particular genealogy, a particularity that Phobos shares with Eros who is the son of Poros (power/abundance) and Penia (poverty), already hints at the complexity of the concept of fear and the difficulty one has/will have in confronting and eventually conquering it.

Although fear is the book's protagonist, it has to be said that Nussbaum hasn't written a technical nor theoretical treatise on fear (only the second chapter is somewhat more technical). And even though this is more than probably not the most profound book on fear and religious tolerance ever written, its divulgative nature and the amount of concrete examples presented and treated , makes for it that it is, in the end,  a work available for all. 

First a brief description of the work. The book consists of 7 chapters. The first chapter treats some religious issues (that is, some issues related to Islam) that have been at the centre of the public discourse in the past years. They are treated briefly as they will return later on in the book confronted, namely the burqa, minarets, mosques, etc.. The second chapter treats fear in a direct and more technical manner (biological, philosophical, and psychological aspects of fear are treated), and the cases of the referendum and consequent law that abolished the construction of minarets in Switzerland and the mass-murder of Anders Breivik in Norway are covered as examples. Chapter three treats the political and legal issues of equality and human dignity. Four 'premises' are listed as being fundamental: 1) the equality premise (all humans have equal dignity), 2) governments may not violate this first premise of equality and dignity, 3) the 'conscience' premise (the faculty with which people search for life's ultimate meaning [conscience] should not be violated), and 4) the vulnerability premise (even though 'situations' can sometimes attack human dignity, human dignity should not/never be violated). This chapter also discusses John Locke's and Roger Williams' political philosophies (their respective insistence on 'neutrality' or 'accommodation'), and some considerations are made about some divergences: impartiality vs. state interests and citizenship vs. immigration. Chapter four is about inconsistency and its over-presence in contemporary discourse on religious liberty; the ban on the burqa in certain European countries and its reasons is presented as a long test-case. The fifth chapter is for its greatest part dedicated to a series of examples in literature that have helped to create and/or develop what Ralph Ellison called one's 'inner eyes', or, said differently, a person's empathic imagination. Sound political principles and legal boundaries are necessary but they are, as Nussbaum repeats correctly over and over again, not enough. A person's empathic imagination is required and can grow, can be helped in its growth, through literature. The sixth chapter is dedicated to the case of park51, the Islamic multi-faith community center near ground zero, and the public discussion around its creation. The seventh and final chapter is a short conclusion. 

What combines the diverse chapters, making this work into a cohesive book are the three pillars (or the "three-pronged approach" -- p. 221) of Nussbaum's ethical-philosophical approach in advocating for religious tolerance. These three pillars are, in fact, also that which is fundamental and essential in this book -- the manifold of examples and their discussion can be considered as being case-studies -- and they are, as Nussbaum writes, essential if we want to "uncover [and conquer] the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all Western societies". (p. 2) These pillars are 1) political principles that express equal respect for all citizens, 2) rigorous critical thinking (considered as the opposite of ignorance), and 3) the cultivation of the imaginative capacity (the so-called 'inner-eye') especially with regard to the  position of the other (minority). (cf. p. 2-3) One can (and obviously should) discuss on the importance of and on the precedence of one of these three pillars (something Nussbaum unfortunately rarely does in this book) but their importance cannot simply be ignored -- as a philosopher, it is fundamental  to stress the extreme importance of critical thinking and its quintessential role in this triptych.  

If I were to express a criticism, I would have to say that it is, and certainly for a 'European', at times not easy to accept the rather caricature-like opposition between the USA and Europe -- where the latter obviously stands for the lesser one. For a book where ignorance is justly condemned and the necessity of actual facts is considered as essential in overcoming ignorance, a more accurate account of Europe should have been expected -- as the issue at hand is of fundamental importance for all of humanity there is, I believe, no need for superiority-feelings of any kind. (Just to list a couple of facts that could be of help: 1) Europe is, for example and contrary to the USA, NOT a country, but consists of a number of countries -- with some being part of the European Union (EU) and others 'less part' or not part of it; Switzerland, for example, although in Europe does not belong to the EU -- and all have proper constitutions, besides there being this rather un-real [it has, in fact, up until now never been accepted as the Constitution by all member countries of the EU] European Constitution that has, however, not been ratified by all countries; 2) there is, and this is another oh so fundamental difference between the USA and 'Europe', no such thing as a European language, and some countries have more than one official language, sometimes even from completely different linguistic families, with the obviously complications in what is called the integration-progress.)True, the just disapproval of Nussbaum (and numerous European citizens from a variety of EU-countries) with certain decisions made by some European governments would remain the same, but the complexity of the continent (also its variety of political systems), and its 'old/tired-ness' (its being the old continent for a reason -- it has a history and scars that the USA, fortunately, does not have) does need to be taken into consideration -- not to justify the decisions taken, but to understand them better.   

Phobos-fear is not only the son of Ares-war. If that was just the case, conquering fear would have been almost an easy task. Phobos is also the son of beauty and love and this renders the whole issue a lot more complicate. Why should love and beauty give birth to fear? But maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the question should be why we can only not fear those things we love and find beautiful, that is the things similar to ourselves.


© 2013 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte


Dr. Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Invited Professor of Philosophy, Pontifical University Antonianum,  Rome, Italy


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