The United States trumps Europe in the three preconditions of securing religious liberty for minorities.
This article originally appeared on the New York Times / by Damon Linker
Mitt Romney’s stump speech during the Republican primaries was filled with appeals to his party’s conservative base, but none consistently inspired more heartfelt cheers than his promise to “stop the days of apologizing for success at home and never again apologize for America abroad.” The statement speaks to the widely held suspicion on the right that liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular, prefer other forms of democracy (especially those that prevail in Europe) to the American way of life.
Martha C. Nussbaum’s new book could serve as Exhibit A in liberalism’s defense against this charge. The author of 17 previous books on a wide range of topics — from classical Greek philosophy and tragic drama to modern law, literature and ethics — Nussbaum is one of America’s leading liberal thinkers. In “The New Religious Intolerance,” she turns her attention to the rise of antireligious — and specifically anti-Muslim — zealotry since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Though she writes in her opening chapter that intolerance disfigures “all Western societies,” it quickly becomes clear that there have been far fewer incidents of bigotry in the United States than in Europe — because of America’s vastly superior approach to guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities. When it comes to freedom to worship, at least, Nussbaum is an unabashed proponent of American exceptionalism.
Not that she would want to put it that way. Convinced that evenhandedness is both a moral and an intellectual virtue, Nussbaum begins by citing anti-Muslim incidents on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, there have been efforts to proscribe the use of Sharia law in wills, marriages and other civil contracts, as well as the dozens of examples of mosques facing vandalism or public protest. In Europe, meanwhile, France and Belgium passed laws prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public at the same time that 57 percent of voters in a Swiss referendum supported a ban on building minarets outside mosques. Then there is the Norwegian fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, who said he was motivated to kill 77 people in two attacks in July 2011 out of a desire to fight the supposed Islamization of Europe.
As Nussbaum notes, the American and European developments differ in important ways. Above all, she writes, nothing in the United States “even remotely approaches the nationwide and regional bans on Islamic dress in Europe, or the nationwide Swiss minaret referendum” — let alone an anti-Islamic massacre. In Nussbaum’s view, the difference in severity stems from divergent views of national identity. Whereas European nations tend to “conceive of nationhood and national belonging in ethno-religious and cultural-linguistic terms,” the United States associates citizenship with the affirmation of an ideal of freedom that explicitly precludes the persecution of religious minorities. She suggests that Europe migrate to “a more inclusive and political definition of national belonging, in which land, ethnicity and religion would be less important than shared political ideals.” In other words, Europe should become more like America.
The core of the book explores three preconditions of securing religious liberty for minorities — and in all of them the United States does a much better job than Europe. First, a nation must commit itself to protecting the greatest possible freedom of conscience that is compatible with public order and safety — a principle that the United States codifies in the First Amendment’s disestablishment of religion and guarantee of religious free exercise. Although there is disagreement on the current Supreme Court about which religious practices should be shielded from political regulation, these differences are minor compared with the gulf that separates American attitudes from prevailing opinions in Europe, where every nation has (or once had) a Christian establishment and so feels justified in placing greater limits on the religious freedom of minorities.
The second precondition of religious liberty is an impartial and consistent civic culture. On this measure, Europe fares especially badly, as Nussbaum demonstrates by methodically exposing the double standards and bias at play in the arguments for banning the burqa.
Finally, there is the need for “sympathetic imagination” on the part of citizens. Here the United States has long taken the lead, cultivating respect for religious differences since the 17th century, when Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, the “first colony (anywhere in the world, it seems) in which genuine religious liberty obtained for all.” Nussbaum is particularly impressed with Williams’s respectful treatment of the Narragansett Indians, whose language and culture he struggled to understand at a time when most of the colonists thought of them as beasts or devils.
Nussbaum doesn’t claim America always lives up to its principles. One chapter sorts through the contention surrounding the proposal to build a Muslim cultural center (including a mosque) a few blocks from ground zero in Lower Manhattan. The right-wing blogger Pamela Geller started a campaign opposing the center on the ground that “its existence would be a triumphalist statement by Muslims,” as Nussbaum puts it. Meanwhile, many others expressed old-fashioned American tolerance. In Nussbaum’s telling, Mayor Michael Bloomberg distinguished himself during the debate, as did a stripper working in the neighborhood under the name Cassandra, whose opinion about the center serves as one of two epigraphs for the book: “I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s freedom of religion, you know?”
It’s a nice line, but it raises a question about precisely why — and for whom — Nussbaum has written her book. At times she seems to hold that democratic decency depends on politics being conducted like a graduate seminar, with citizens poring over texts by Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and George Eliot. But then most Americans — even Cassandra the stripper — appear to end up very close to Nussbaum’s position with very little thinking at all. Apparently the only Americans who really need to read, ponder and be persuaded by Nussbaum’s book are those (like Pamela Geller) who are exceedingly unlikely ever to open it.
In Europe, there is obviously a much greater need for her message of tolerance. Yet one also wonders whether Nussbaum could have used a bit more sympathetic imagination in analyzing European anxieties about Muslim minorities. Yes, Anders Behring Breivik deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms. But so does Muhammad Bouyeri, the Muslim extremist who shot and stabbed the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death in 2004. And the Muslim terrorists who killed nearly 250 and injured 10 times as many in the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005. And Mohammed Merah, who just this past March executed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. Here we see an additional way in which America is exceptional: Its Muslim minority is considerably smaller and less radicalized by Islamic ideology than those living in many European countries, making tolerance considerably easier to practice. (Roger Williams’s peaceful interactions with the Narragansett were possible only because his open-minded curiosity was reciprocated.)
Nussbaum is right to insist that Europe’s democratic governments owe Muslim minorities tolerance and respect — and to hold up the United States as a model of how to fulfill this obligation. But her book could have used a more clearly presented, and strongly worded, statement of what, in return, these minorities owe to democracy.
Damon Linker is the commentary editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast and the author, most recently, of The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders. /sources: article, image (James Estrin/The New York Times)
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