Friday, August 26, 2016


"Could not be more appropriate than now!" 

That's my reaction after reading Martha Nussbaum's book, The New Religious Intolerance. Nussbaum is a professor of law and ethics at University of Chicago.

Is this book still timely? After all, it was published in 2012. You'd probably agree that the situation she addresses, namely the arrival of thousands of Islamic refugees and immigrants in Western nations, has become only more intense since 2012. Nussbaum's treatment has great and increasing value.

What is the author's purpose? Prof. Nussbaum wants to understand the fear reaction demonstrated by Americans and Europeans toward Muslim arrivals and to suggest a non-fearful inclusive response. 

Her interest in attitudes toward Islamic immigrants was attracted originally, it seems, by laws against wearing Islamic headdress by Muslim women in some countries in Europe. More recently, she focused on a case study in New York. Nussbaum sees evidence of widespread public fear on both continents. In effect she's saying: "Americans and Europeans: get your psyches in order! You'll lose it if fear controls."

What about her major case? the Park 51 project in Lower Manhattan near to Ground Zero, where terrorists brought the Trade Towers to the ground by flying an airliner into the top floors.  

Park 51 was introduced to the public ambiguously, according to Nussbaum. First, it was unclear whether the project was to be a community center or a mosque. Would the proposed building would contain a  room for interfaith worship? Or did the developers intend the project as a mosque in the disguise of a community center? Either way, would it be an insult to the relatives of the hundreds who lost their lives in the 9/11 attack on the Trade Center? Debate about Park 51 rocked the U.S. for months in 2010. 

The project and the public ruckus furnishes a wonderful case for inclusion in an ethics course. It gets ethics out of the ivory tower theoretical approach, gives it a concrete focus and useful application.


Professor Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Author of the image: Robin Holland. License: Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prof. Nussbaum includes a social-psychological understanding of the public fear Islam. She warns against the focus on the self and one's own self-interest, which feeds the wave of fear. She advises the practice of moral self-examination of the choices we make. Is one putting oneself in a special class, selfishly, and do we ignore the equal claims of others? This is healthier, personally and socially, than succumbing to fear.

It's unavoidable that an ethicist treating this subject would delve into the history of ideas and Nussbaum does so. She does it admirably. She introduces scriptural teachings and the moral thought of Immanuel Kant (Koenisburg, Prussia, eighteenth century.) From such sources she distills decency and inclusion as norms that should be applied to our current situation.

What a great book! I recommend it. Get it from your library. Then buy it if you want it on your bookshelf.

An ethicist-reviewer like myself cannot end without asking, "What's missing?" In my opinion, equal treatment of the plight of the immigrants--specifically, the ideas, commitments and frustrations of Islamic peoples. Give some attention to the Crusades, colonialism, and the carving up of the Middle East in the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. Without that, one cannot plumb--and one cannot adequately communicate--the righteous indignation of millions of Muslims and their proclivity to the violent acts which ignite the flames of our fears. Add the current projection of force by airborne weapons and bombing.

Equally absent is enough attention to the global demographics and economic deprivation that draw masses of migrants to Europe and the U.S. The magnetic pull of a developed economy: the rapid electronic communication of images and ideas. 

It's so refreshing for me to read the results of Nussbaum's mind at work relating law to ethics. 

An author can't do everything in one limited volume. She has more to give, and I hope that she'll follow up with attention to demographics, global communications and current European/American/Russian armed intervention.

Thank you Professor Nussbaum! You do public ethics so well! So very well!


(Readers: information for your librarian:  Martha Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance, Belknap Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-674-06590-1)


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