I get options »« Sara Azmeh Rasmussen

Which political ideals and which customs?

I’m reading Martha Nussbaum’s new book The New Religious Intolerance, and finding it as exasperating as I expected.

For one thing, there’s what (or who) is not in the index. She puts much of the focus on Islam and what she uncritically calls “Islamophobia,” but who is missing from the index? Maryam. Irshad Manji. Kenan Malik. Taslima. Tarek Fatah. Deeyah.

She argues that “European nations tend to conceive of nationhood and national belonging in ethno-religious and cultural-linguistic terms” [p 94] and that that makes it hard for immigrants to be seen as belonging.

As we’ve seen, there is another option, realized in a wide range of nations around the world: to define national belonging in terms of political ideals, in which immigrants can fully share, despite not sharing the ethnicity, religion, or customs of the majority. [p 95]

That seems to me to be bordering on self-contradictory, unless you add further stipulations about religion and customs (which she does not do).

Look: some tenets of most religions are the opposite of the kinds of political ideals she has in mind (she didn’t suggest Nazi Germany as one example of that kind of nation, nor apartheid South Africa – she did suggest post-apartheid South Africa as one). She means political ideals like equality and universal rights. Well most religions include tenets that rule out equality and universal rights. So do many “customs.” How can it, then, be true that [all] immigrants can [without further ado] fully share in those ideals despite not sharing the customs of the majority?

It’s not that easy. She makes it sound easy, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always happen. The demographics of US immigration are handing the Catholic church ever more power; I’m not comfortable saying that, but it’s true. The “good” news is that home-grown religion is reactionary and sexist too, so what the hell, but that doesn’t mean Nussbaum should skate over the tensions quite so fast.

More later.

Comments

  1. says

    She argues that “European nations tend to conceive of nationhood and national belonging in ethno-religious and cultural-linguistic terms” [p 94] and that that makes it hard for immigrants to be seen as belonging.

    It’s not only European nations. The Japanese, for instance, and the Koreans, also define themselves in ethnic and cultural-linguistic terms. And they can make it even harder for immigrants to be seen as belonging than European countries do.

    Now, what these two have in common with most European countries, and where countries like the USA, Canada or Australia (and to a certain degree South Africa) differ, is that the ethnic majority in these countries see themselves as indigenous to the land, not as comparatively recent settlers. Moreover, most of the European nations (especially the smaller nations) of today built their identity during the 19th Century or in even more recent times by fighting over an imperialistic power with a different language and/or religion. See the history of Greece, Italy, Ireland, Poland, most of the Balkan countries… Even France resorted to use the ancient Gauls as our common cultural heritage to enable the different regional minorities (who up to the 20th Century spoke different languages) to feel members of one single nation.

    Not that it makes it right to be bigoted about one’s culture. But it does give European nations a different perspective about what it means to be a citizen of a given country.

  2. mnb0 says

    “How can it, then, be true that [all] immigrants can [without further ado] fully share in those ideals despite not sharing the customs of the majority?”
    It’s not so hard: by maintaining the separation of state and religious institutes. The good news is that many, probably most immigrants do accept this separation. Else you can’t explain why there is for instance not one single muslim party in entire Europe that has made it into parliament. The bad news is that the zelots make a lot of noise these years. The separation of state and religious institutes can use a far more stubborn defense.
    Nothing of this contradicts your criticism of Nussbaum.

  3. says

    But even with separation of church and state, religion (outside the state) and customs can and do compete with the ideals Nussbaum has in mind.

    Often, sadly, the parents immigrate because they’re attracted by the ideals, and the children prefer the religion and customs, hence a lot more hijabs and niqabs around than there were a few decades ago.

  4. says

    I will note that the demographics of immigration hand Catholics more power in the United States. That does not, however, mean that the Church gets more power, considering that the views of of individual Catholics quite frequently are very different from the Church itself, and polls of first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America show that they are actually more progressive in general than the white Protestant majority that is already here.

  5. says

    I think the church does get more power, though, because it can point to all those “members.” I think the numbers make politicians afraid to defy the bishops.

  6. Jeff D says

    Based on my past exposure to Martha Nussbauam’s writing, I’ve decided not to read her book anytime soon. But when I consider the example (perhaps the only obvious example) of the U.S.A., I don’t think that Nussbaum’s phrase

    to define national belonging in terms of political ideals, in which immigrants can fully share, despite not sharing the ethnicity, religion, or customs of the majority

    is self-contradictory. The only slightly jarring part is the “of the majority” at the end, and I can fix that, sort of, by substituting “of everyone else in the neighborhood, or in the country.”

    The U.S.A. was founded as a credal nation. We have a creed, and whether the 21st-century Christian majority wants to admit it or not, our creed is mostly secular and is based on Enlightenment principles. Is the U.S.A. still an outlier in this respect, compared to European states? Probably yes.

  7. dirigible says

    “That seems to me to be bordering on self-contradictory”

    It’s more like a free trade zone than a border.

  8. Boomer says

    Almost everyone writing about immigration these days is completely beside the mark.

    They cite the mass immigration of the 19th century upon which they pin all their hopes.

    However, the world is such a different place these days that the model of 19th century mass immigration no longer has any validity.

    Someone of Pakistani origin, for example, who arrvied in the UK, say, 20 or 25 years ago may live and work in the country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they INHABIT it.

    Immigrants don’t really exist anymore. What we have instead are millions and millions of migrants engaged in a kind of protracted commute.

    Mass transportation and mass,instant communications mean that ties with the old country no longer need be broken and often aren’t.

    Montréal’s Greek community hails from two different waves of migration; one going back to just after WWI and the other the mid and late 60s.

    The latter group (including their offspring), unlike the former, never severed ties to the old country. I know of many individuals from this demographic who never abandonned Greek as their first tongue, who’ve maintained close ties with Greece, who own homes there, vacation there and who intend, once the pension kicks in, to retire there.

    Their heads, feet, bodies and bank accounts may be in Canada, but their hearts are still over there.

    It’s a situation that applies to almost every immigrant group that has moved to the West, post-60s

  9. Happiestsadist says

    Wow, Boomer. Can you explain to me why it’s the worst thing ever for people to not immediately try (with help of government enforcement) to be as WASP as possible?

  10. Boomer says

    Oh, hai, Boomer, I’d forgotten all about you and your bigoted comments.

    So pointing out how the dyanmics of immigration have changed and having Greek friends is bigotry now?

    Do you always eschew eating white bread for fear of being labelled racist?

    Wow, Boomer. Can you explain to me why it’s the worst thing ever for people to not immediately try (with help of government enforcement) to be as WASP as possible?

    When an immigrant integrates into Québec society, they don’t become wasps, they become francophones.

    You should get out more.

    Integration is highly desirable because it allows immigrants to become full participants in the workfore and thus society in general.

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