Martha C Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, focuses on the treatment of religious minorities, especially Muslims, in the western world. Nussbaum, 65, collaborated with Amartya Sen in the 1980s and promoted the concept of "capability approach" in welfare economics. She had earlier taught at Harvard, Brown and Oxford Universities. Edited excerpts from an interview with Ullekh NP:
What was your personal experience with religious intolerance when you converted to Judaism decades ago?
My father did not come to my wedding! He objected not so much to the religious conversion, but to my marrying a Jew. For him it was an ethno-racial issue, not so much a religious issue.
Is the politics of fear often subversive? You have said in your book that "fear is more narcissistic than other emotions".
Fear is biologically primitive, linked to a part of the brain that we share with all animals, a part that does not process and weigh information. It is also cognitively primitive: it blots out concern with a wider frame of reference, as people focus obsessively on their own safety.
Isn't it common sense that people tend to fear more when they feel insecure about certain faiths? After all, radical Islam hasn't offered the West any reason lately to feel empathetic.
Sometimes there is a real security issue. Very often, however, people who feel insecure about something else - job, or the economy, say - project that fear onto strangers who look different. That is what is happening with Muslims in Europe today: they have become scapegoats for people's economic insecurities.
And, of course, most Muslims in Europe have no connection to radical Islamists' sects: they are peaceful immigrants in search of jobs. Christians do not fear all Christians because a Christian murdered 76 in Norway, but they do have fantasies that all Muslims are dangerous, and that is largely because they are not used to living with people who look different.
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