Stop this moral crusade against circumcision
Iceland is considering a ban on male circumcision – that would be a travesty.
The banning of male circumcision and the demonisation of religious freedom has become a cause célèbre among Europe’s moral entrepreneurs in recent years. Now, a group of parliamentarians in Iceland, supported by 422 doctors, has proposed a bill that would prevent Jewish and Muslim parents from circumcising their newborn male children.
This current crusade against circumcision is only the latest version of a more than 2,000-year-long crusade against the right of Jewish people to circumcise their sons. The Seleucid Emperor Antiochus would have thoroughly approved of the anti-circumcision outlook of the Icelandic parliamentarians. In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered all Jews to leave their sons uncircumcised or else face death. This imperial decree targeting the ‘barbaric’ behaviour of an ‘uneducated’ people was part of a comprehensive campaign to destroy the Jewish way of life. In addition to banning circumcision, the emperor commanded that Jews should no longer study the Torah or keep their dietary laws.
Antiochus, alongside other opponents of male circumcision, understood that this practice was central to the Jewish way of life. In the Greek and Roman era, circumcision was viewed as a backward practice that marked Jews out as different, and lesser, than the other inhabitants of these empires.
Throughout history, the ‘circumcised Jew’ has been a subject of vilification. During the 15th century, Christian suspicion of the Jew often focused on the ritual of circumcision. This obsession led to the emergence of the blood libel, when it was suggested that Jews coveted the blood of ritually murdered Christians for its healing effect when applied to the wounds of circumcision.
For Jewish people, the practice of circumcision has, and continues to be, integral to their religion and their identity. Which is why, to any Jew with a historic memory, the current crusade against circumcision will seem like merely a less brutal version of the age-long project of demeaning their identity and forcing them to become like other people.
The campaign to ban circumcision in Iceland is led by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a Progressive Party member of parliament. Her recent comments suggest she doesn’t have the slightest concern about the impact of her plans on the ability of Jewish and Muslim people to practice their religion. She said she ‘didn’t think it was necessary to consult’ Jewish and Muslim groups on this issue. Why? Because, she says, ‘I didn’t see it as a religious matter’. That she doesn’t perceive the banning of a fundamental religious ritual as a ‘religious matter’ is testimony to her cultural and historical illiteracy. The truth is that this ban would make it impossible for Jews to practice their religion in Iceland.
In Greek and Roman times, the banning of circumcision was justified on the basis that it would ‘civilise’ Jews. Gunnarsdóttir and other modern moral crusaders claim banning circumcision is a blow for children’s rights. Gunnarsdóttir says: ‘We are talking about children’s rights, not about freedom of belief. Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe.’
What Gunnarsdóttir is really saying is that she can live with freedom of belief so long as it doesn’t come into conflict with her view of how children should be brought up. She is entirely hypocritical on this point. Her claim that everyone has the right to believe but the rights of children come first is another way of saying not everyone has the right to their religious belief – especially if you are a Jewish or Muslim parent.
The main argument of the Icelandic anti-circumcision crusaders is that parents do not have the right to circumcise their male child without his consent. They present themselves as speaking up for the rights of the child and protecting infants from their parents. But in reality, neutralising the rights of parents by insisting their behaviour should be subject to the consent of their children is a way of de-authorising mothers and fathers.
The fact is that parents need the authority to perform all sorts of acts that the child cannot consent to. Like circumcision, almost every major decision made by parents can have long-term consequences. Most of us never consented to our ethnic background or cultural heritage. Children live in places and circumstances that are not of their own making. It is precisely because parental decisions are so important that parents need the freedom to make such decisions in a way that they think works best for their way of life. The very existence of private life is at stake when parents can no longer make decisions unless the child consents. Who decides when and if the child has consented? It is likely it will be an officious law professor, not the child’s mother or father.
Though circumcision is the focus of the Icelandic campaigners, their claim that they have set out to protect children from their parents will have implications for all mothers and fathers. More and more so-called children’s advocates are criticising parents for ‘imposing’ their religious values on their children. They claim children often do not ‘consent’ to be Catholic or members of a revivalist Protestant church. Parents who educate their children to embrace the family religion have even been condemned as child abusers by certain anti-faith campaigners. That most vociferous proponent of atheism, Richard Dawkins, has said that as ‘odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of having been brought up Catholic in the first place’.
But there is no such thing as children’s rights. People having rights presupposes their capacity to exercise them. Since children are not able to exercise their rights, it will fall upon kindly people to campaign on their behalf. Of course, that children have never consented to someone like Gunnarsdóttir speaking on their behalf is neither here nor there – and suddenly, anti-circumcision campaigners’ obsession with consent vanishes into thin air.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Populism And The Culture Wars In Europe: The Conflict Of Values Between Hungary and the EU, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
What we could do with your £5 per month
For less than the cost of two copies of the Guardian, you can help spiked become bigger and better and bolshier than ever. All of our articles and podcasts and essays are free, and we want to keep it that way. But to do so we ask our wonderful readers, if they can afford it, to chip in – ideally with a monthly donation. It might not sound like much, but donating as little as £5 per month has a transformative impact on our work. Knowing that we have your regular support means we can keep going and growing. So if you like our work and want to support us, please do consider signing up.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.