Latin and the burqa. Dissimilar, yet, for American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, Ph.D., related.
The Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum returned to the Humanities Center for the second time on Monday afternoon.
Based on her most recent book, "The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age," Nussbaum's lecture focused on religious prejudices in Europe and America.
Growing up in a community she calls "very intolerant of all minority religions," Nussbaum later converted to Judaism.
"I've experienced life as a member of a so-called majority," Nussbaum said, "but also as a member of a minority, and so I think one does learn something and develop a sensitivity."
Recalling the Crusades, the Wars of Religions and "the quieter violence of colonial religious domination," Nussbaum admitted to a past of collective prejudice.
"U.S. and Europeans prided themselves on allegedly enlightened attitudes toward religious toleration and understanding, although everyone in the history of the west has been characterized by intense religious animosity and violence," she said.
Nussbaum argued that while those "dark times" are seemingly in the past, or, rather, only existing in "societies allegedly more primitive, less characterized by a heritage of Judeo-Christian values."
"Today, we have many reasons to doubt that complacent self-assessment," Nussbaum said. "Our situation calls urgently for searching critical examination as we try to uncover the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all western societies."
A law passed in Europe banned the speaking of the Latin language in churches, but permitted the language to be spoken in schools and university. Nussbaum asserted that this measure clearly targeted the Roman Catholic population.
The burqa, too, poses an ethical dilemma.
The burqa is an outer garment worn by some Islamic women to cover their bodies, and is often associated with Islamic radicals and terrorist groups. On the grounds that it "imprisons women and threatens French values of dignity and equality," a law was passed in April 2011 under President Sarkozy banning the burqa from the public throughout the U.S. and Europe. Other countries, such as Germany, Holland and Belgium have followed suit, banning the Muslim headscarf. Nussbaum noted that despite these mandates, priests and nuns are still allowed to teach in their habit.
Nussbaum also mentioned Imane Boudlal, a Muslim woman working at Disney Land's Grand California Hotel who was told by her supervisors she could not wear her headdress at work on the premise that it was "not the Disney look." If she wished to sport her hijab, she would have to take a job out of sight.
"I wasn't expecting this lecture to be about the burqa at all," Lucas Wood, senior in history and political science, said. "I was expecting it to be about politics in Israel, yet I was pleasantly surprised."
Still, other opponents view the burqa as a form of assault and promotion of male dominance. Yet, Nussbaum mentioned, in a recent survey of women in the U.S., 52 percent admitted to being assaulted physically or emotionally, less than 1 percent of those women were Muslim.
In response to this highly controversial topic, Nussbaum cited the most basic American value, that "all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity."
But that value system must now consider religion. Nussbaum advocated adding "a further premise" to that primary tenet.
"We now add a further premise that the faculty with which people search for life's ultimate meaning," Nussbaum said, "which is often called conscience in this tradition, is a very important part of keeping people close to their human dignity."