Interview with the famous American philosopher Martha Nussbaum

novembre 9th, 2013

 By Rachid Filali

-         In your book “The New Religious Intolerance” You say that the misunderstanding of Islam is the reason for the emergence of the so-called “Islam phobia” in Europe, do you think that education is just enough to dissolve this problem, do not you think that the media’s role is also significant to distort the image of Islam in Europe America, for political reasons the first place?

Actually, in my book I find more than one cause for the current wave of fear and mistrust directed at Islam.  One problem is that Europe has not adopted shared constitutional principles of religious liberty and equal respect: in my book I describe the evolution of the U. S. Constitution and commend the framework that it offers.  But a deeper problem is the issue of national identity.  The U. S., like India, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and quite a few other nations, conceives of its national identity as based on political principles: if you accept those principles and agree to live by them, you can be a fully equal citizen.  Europeans have standardly adopted a conception of identity based on the ideas of romanticism, in which soil, blood, ethnicity, and language lie at the heart of national belonging.  It is for this reason that they have so much difficulty accepting new immigrants who look different, or, indeed, anyone who insists on maintaining a separate and distinctive ethno-religious identity.  I point out that Jews in eighteenth-century Europe were treated very much the way Muslims are treated today.

I think that education is surely helpful, particularly if it’s an education that touches the imagination and induces people to see Muslims as full and equal human beings.  But it won’t be enough without a change in the way in which nationhood and belonging are imagined.

-         Do you think that the Arab Spring has dreamed Arab human freedom and dignity, how to protect the Arab revolutions of extremists and other exploiters and corrupt, and how do you see the future of the Arab world in view of the major events that experienced in recent years?

I’m no expert in the Arab world – my work dealing with Islam has focused on India and Bangladesh, which have a very different history.  I guess the question really is, how did India manage to become a successful pluralistic democracy, in which Muslims play an active role – not without discrimination and occasional violence, but nonetheless as proud Indian citizens?  How did India evolve as the sort of democracy that really respects human equality, and how might nations in the Arab world emulate that success story?  The leadership of Gandhi and Nehru is a large part of the story, and it is as yet unclear whether leaders as deeply committed to human equality will emerge in the Arab nations.  But I would also single out the role of India’s excellent constitution, crafted largly by B. R. Ambedkar, himself a “dalit” (formerly called “untouchable”), which contains extremely careful protections for minorities and women.  I fear that Egypt has not had the same sort of constitution process – at least not yet.  The other thing one might say is that the British, though terrible in many respects, did lay the groundwork for democracy in India by supporting legal reform and the rule of law.  It is not clear that the groundwork has really been laid in the Arab nations.  In his excellent book THE ROAD TO DEMOCRACY IN IRAN, Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji argues that the preconditions of democracy exist in Iran, virtually alone among the Arab nations (including a high level of education, a well formed civil society, vigorous youth movements, and empowered women), and thus Iran fails to have democracy only because of the most brutal repression.  He believes that the preconditions for democracy are incompletely developed elsewhere in the Arab world.

-In your books, we find a strong defense of the humanities, especially in the face of new technology, professor Nussbaum Do not you think that your thoughts, even though it is a great defense of human intelligence, do not affect in this world who surrenders completely to modern technologies for its multiple services?

Well, my book was not written for people who truly believe that only technology and wealth matter.  It was written for people who believe that political liberty and democracy matter as well, and my aim was to convince those people to support the humanities by showing that they are important for the survival and health of democracy.  I think that there is a large group of such people, and that they can be won over, even though they might not support the humanities out of personal love or taste.

--The issue of gender equality is still much debated among intellectuals, especially in the area of ​​freedom, as there is a difference wide between the concept of this freedom among Indian women and Swedish women, for example, in your opinion is there a common standard and unified concept of freedom of all women in the world?

I am not sure why you contrast India with Sweden. I’ve spent a lot of time in India, and I think that you would have a hard time finding a nation that is more deeply committed to women’s equality.  Lifelong feminists hold positions of power that no feminist would ever be given in the United States.  For example Kaushik Basu was Chief Economic Advisor to Manmohan Singh while at the same time being the President of our Human Development and Capability Association, and he is a scholar who has spent most of his career writing about gender equality.  The current Solicitor General of India is Indira Jaising, a passionate lifelong feminist legal advocate who established the leading NGO that works on gender equality.   Sonia Gandhi’s chief advisor is Jean Drèze, an economist who has co-authored numerous books with Amartya Sen, all prominent addressing issues of gender equality.  Even in the opposition party, women’s equality has a high priority, which could not be said of the Republican opposition in the U. S. So there is a deep public commitment to women’s equality in India, and that is a longstanding matter: Gandhi and Nehru were both strong advocates of women’s equality, and gave women high positions of power.  In many Indian states, women are Chief Ministers.  In the academy, women have more power than in any other nation I know.  So the gender gap in India, in education and job opportunities, is not at the level of educated classes;  it persists in rural areas and is part of the general failure to make economic progress in those areas.   The problems are large, but given the united commitment to addressing them, I feel that the future looks good.

As for Sweden, Sweden probably has less sexual violence than either the United States or India, and women do quite well in politics, but in the academy they still lag way behind, due to a tradition of mentorship and inbreeding.  I would not want to have a career in Sweden!  If I had to choose between India and Sweden, I’d have a hard time, because I think that academic women are treated better in India, but the air quality is better in Sweden, and that is rather important to me, as an amateur singer with lots of allergies.

Is there a common standard of freedom among the world’s women?  Yes, I think so. CEDAW is a fully international document, both written and supported by women all over the world.  I find small differences among nations.  For example, Sweden is more hostile to the decriminalization of sex work than either Denmark or India.  But those are matters for detailed argument.  On the large issues, including most of CEDAW, there is very substantial agreement.

-What do you think of contemporary Arab women?

Once again, I am no expert, since I do a lot of work in India, and most of the Islamic women I know are either there or in the U. S.  But on visits I’ve made to Jordan and Lebanon, I am deeply impressed by the energy and achievement of Arab women.  Our Human Development and Capabilitity Association held its annual meeting in Amman, on the campus of the University, and I was amazed to discover that 75 % of university students in that excellent university are women.  They are really an impressive bunch. The same was true of women at the American University of Beirut.  Women still have a long way to go in these nations in terms of equal influence in politics and the economy, but they are making large strides in the professions as well as in education.  Now they just need to extend the progress they have already made.  Women in Egypt are in a far more insecure and uncertain position.  In Iran and Saudi Arabia they are in a very adverse position.

-Professor Nussbaum: You strongly defended the hijab and burqa, and this moderate position rarely noticeable when non-Muslim woman, how could Professor overcome cultural heritage and win this humanitarian vision, open-mindedness on others who are different from us?

I think that my defense of the choice to wear the hijab or burqa (and of course I defend it only when it is a choice, not imposed by violence or the threat of violence) has been largely accepted in the U. S.  It is a very mainstream position, and even conservative Republicans appear to agree with a lot of what I say.  Some members of my family are very conservative, and I’ve also been on conservative radio shows, so I know, as a result of these conversations, that there is a general agreement that when people want to express their religious convictions in dress, they have every right to do so.  In Europe things are very different: my views are regarded as outside the mainstream, and even as “offensive.”  That is largely, I think, because of the problem I mentioned earlier – Europeans think that people ought to blend in and adopt the ways of the dominant ethnicity. They also think that religion itself is “premodern,” and that any form of religious dress is rather embarrassing.  I find that the fact that I’m an observant Jew, and that I often sing in my temple, makes people in Europe pretty uncomfortable.  So what can be done?  Well, I think one thing is simply to live an openly religious life and talk about it, and manifest in one’s life the fact that one can be an engaged citizen and at the same time express and live by a religious identity.  That’s what I say to observant Muslim students in U. S. universities when they ask me for advice.  In Europe, however, they will have a far harder time, because the basic idea of equal respect has not been accepted.  Given that the nations of Europe summon new immigrants and need them to do the work that needs to be done, I hope over time these attitudes will change.  It’s rather like inviting guests to a party and then treating them rudely when they arrive.

-Political world today relies primarily on power and interest, and as you see that virtue and human dignity and equality of opportunity is the solution which is the essence of justice and liberty, how can that be reconciled in practice between these opposing trends?Is not this dialectical conflict that human lives in its fire since time immemorial?

I think you are too pessimistic about politics.  Of course there is a large role for power and interest, and always has been. But today we also have a thriving international human rights movement, and an increasing consensus that dignity and equality are key political values.  I think we simply need to keep talking about the importance of these values and to support people who are struggling to realize them – at the same time making sure that our own nation, whatever it is, exemplifies the high standards that it talks about!  I find that people often pretend that threats to liberty and equality are only in distant parts of the world, when they are often, also, right in front of us at home.

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