Martha Nussbaum Speaks on Politics of Religious Discrimination

How is a mosque in lower Manhattan disrespectful to 9/11 victims but a strip club isn’t?

Why can a dentist or a cold professor cover her face but a Muslim woman cannot?

Which is a bigger threat to a woman’s health: a hot burqa, a skimpy top that allows sun damage to exposed skin, or high heels that shorten Achilles tendons?

These were questions raised by philosopher and scholar Martha Nussbaum as she explored “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear” Feb. 21 in Colby’s second Distinguished Bicentennial Lecture.

“Not very long ago, Americans and Europeans prided themselves on their enlightened attitudes of religious tolerance and understanding,” Nussbaum said. “Today we have many reasons to doubt this complacent self-assessment.”

Nussbaum spent most of the talk analyzing France’s 2011 law that made it illegal to cover one’s face, noting that the law never mentions women, Muslims, or the burqa.

“What,” she asked, “is truly equal liberty in religious matters, and what limits might reasonably be placed on religious activity in a pluralist society?” She cited two standards for evaluating those questions.

First, she said, English philosopher John Locke maintained that “protecting equal liberty of conscience requires only two things: laws that do not penalize religious belief and laws that are nondiscriminatory about practices, applying the same rules to everyone in matters touching on religious activities.” Locke criticized as anti-Catholic an English law of his era that prohibited the use of Latin in churches but not in schools.

Another approach uses accommodations for religious beliefs and practices in the application of broader laws. This tradition started in the United States when George Washington exempted Quakers from serving in the military.

After a review of various potential justifications for France’s law about face covering and other laws that ban headscarves, Nussbaum concluded that, “The recent European cases all involve discriminatory laws that fail to pass even the weaker Lockian test.”

Nussbaum’s talk was the second in a series of Distinguished Bicentennial Lectures that brought photographer and visual literacy champion Wendy Ewald to campus in December. The series continues March 18 with a lecture by William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It concludes April 8 with an address by David Oxtoby, a theoretical chemist and president of Pomona College.

Nussbaum began her talk saying, “I’m delighted to be here to help you celebrate your bicentennial, because you stand for so many things I write about: liberal arts education, interdisciplinarity, and critical thinking.”