The New Religious Intoleranceby Martha C. Nussbaum

Stumbling on one’s own limits, especially when they reveal prejudice, can be uncomfortable. One virtue of Martha Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance is that it challenged my aversion to some traditionalist Muslim women’s wearing of the burqa and chador in Western societies. My dismay was all the deeper because I am a moralist who should, as Nussbaum argues, live an examined life. Her unrelenting argument against Western arguments for prohibition of the burqa unveiled my own apparent bias.

I am also a minor expert on the Middle East, admittedly focused on minority Christian relations in the Muslim world. But I have little experience of the remoter regions of the Arab world where women commonly wear the burqa, a veil that covers the face, or the chador, the all-enveloping body-tent that hides not just the face but also a woman’s limbs from view.


I have often participated in dialogues with Muslims and have been critical of Islamophobia among my acquaintances. When the Park51 mosque dispute erupted in New York City a few years ago over the opening of a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero, I sided with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a moderate Sufi cleric, and the sponsors of construction against their critics. (Nuss-baum also examines the Park51 controversy in detail.) I have even chatted with young Muslim women of my acquaintance over their choice to wear the hijab, the simple head scarf that covers the hair and neck but leaves the face unveiled, in the interest of modesty and as a sign of religious commitment. But when it came to opening up to the burqa and finding fault with anyone who would ban it, I balked.

Like the former British foreign secretary Jack Straw, I find it a matter of mutual respect and civility to be able to meet people face to face, if not eye to eye. In his own riding (constituency), though he opposed a ban on the burqa, Straw would receive burqa-wearing women only if they met him face to face in the company of another woman. His, I think, is a practical resolution to a clash of cultures. Acceptance in society requires face to face encounter. It is by revealing ourselves that we come to trust one another. Acceptance in a host society, if not integration, requires satisfying that kind of fundamental expectation for facial recognition into it. The burqa, by contrast, heightens the otherness of the newcomer. It makes the woman a wraith in our midst, depriving her of recognizable humanity.

Speaking to the BBC in 2006, Mr. Straw explained, “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers, people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day.” This justification of a policy of limited unveiling on the basis of what Nussbaum calls “transparency and reciprocity” would be axiomatic in sociology or anthropology, but not in Nussbaum’s Kantian liberalism. Other schools of philosophy, like phenomenology or symbolic interactionism, would make it a starting point for further reflection on crosscultural encounters.

Traditional Catholic moral theology, for its part, might find Mr. Straw’s stratagem an acceptable accommodation of conflicting values. It would be an unexceptional bit of casuistry. In some intellectual traditions, in other words, Mr. Straw’s common-sense observation would be a presumptive resolution and, I would hope, an invitation to further inquiry rather than a red herring targeted for rebuttal.

For Professor Nussbaum, one of America’s premier philosophers, however, Mr. Straw’s position is just so much pettifoggery. “The problem with such security and transparency arguments,” she writes, “is they are applied inconsistently.” France’s ban on religious dress and particularly the burqa comes in for relentless criticism from Nussbaum for its loop-hole ridden law on grounds of inconsistency. Exceptions are made for mostly secular professionals like surgeons and dentists, and entertainers like folkloric dancers and actors and, worst of all, carnival masquerades. There are so many exemptions, she argues, that one has to say it is biased against Muslims.

Drawing on her own dressing habits, she describes how she bundles up against the cold Chicago winter and protects herself from the burning summer sun, and no one would ask her to shed clothing in either situation. But the seasonal occasions for her heavy or protective dress is clear; it does not continue throughout the day as conditions ease or when she moves indoors. While she claims no one demands she unfurl her scarf in a bank, I would think she would do so, even just to adjust to the indoor temperature, if not to transact business face to face.

Myself, I am old-fashioned enough to doff my hat when I come indoors; and unlike both film-land state troopers and criminals posing as officers of the law, I remove my sunglasses when I am talking to someone. Of course, my habits and instincts are no more probative than Professor Nussbaum’s. But I would hope a philosopher would give more philosophical consideration to Mr. Straw’s observation about the role of facial recognition in social life.

There is a great deal that is thought-provoking in The New Religious Intolerance, but its flat rendering of philosophical anthropology, despite its commendable insistence on self-examination and moral imagination, is not adequate for exploring intercultural conflicts like that over the burqa. For that we need a philosophical anthropology informed by what Clifford Geertz called “thick description.”

Even a little history of Muslim dress, for example, would have indicated how the burqa originated with control over women held in rulers’ harems. The garment has had a checkered history, and wearing it has only occasionally been regarded as a religious obligation. The face veil has been used in classical Greece, Byzantium, Persia and India largely for cultural and status reasons, not religious ones.

Remarkably, in one of the earliest disputes on the issue, the Prophet’s niece, Aisha bint Tahla, rebuffed her husband’s request to wear the veil. She refused, saying: “Since the Almighty has put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize his grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself.”

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