Circumcision in Cologne


Recently, a regional court in Germany have questioned the practice of male circumcision for religious reasons.

Generally we don't give too much thought to penises unless someone gets theirs out and starts waving it around. Then it becomes an issue. Circumcision is much the same in that we are all aware that it goes on, but unless someone forces us to pay attention, we are quite happy for it to remain neatly tucked away in society's trousers. The exception to this is on the internet, where male circumcision is a reliable igniter of flamewars and catalyst of vitriol.

So it is that a recent court decision in Germany has resulted in a number of lengthy screeds accusing the Germans of being anti-Semitic, anti-religion, and (predictably) of being Nazis. In addition to criticism from Jewish commentators, the decision has also been criticised by the American religious right, and from more leftwing figures like Frank Furedi (like me, a graduate of both McGill and SOAS).

The actual content of the ruling hardly matters: a four-year old Muslim boy suffered medical complications after being circumcised by a doctor. While the doctor was acquitted, the court held that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents."

Circumcision is a very complex issue (I wrote a whole thesis on it), so I won't pretend to address it in full. However, I would like to pick out a couple of issues that the events in Germany have highlighted.

One thing that I think is worth addressing here is the way the way critics of the ruling deploy religion to make their case. On the religious right, conservative Robert P. George writes:

Of course, for observant Jews, circumcision of male children is not optional. It is required as a matter of Jewish law. To prohibit it is, in effect, to forbid Jews from being Jews.

On the left, a similar argument is found at the heart of Frank Furedi's article:

[This] outlook is shared by many commentators, who also claim to know what it means to be a Jew better than those who adhere to the Jewish religion... Lecturing Jews about postponing circumcision into the indefinite future overlooks the fact that, for those who actually practise this religion, the timing of circumcision is non-negotiable. Telling people that they can be uncircumcised Jews is a bit like saying you don't need to get baptised to be a real Catholic.

In both cases, there is an attempt to fix circumcision at the heart of Judaism and more broadly to ascribe a fixed meaning to Judaism itself.

Unlike Catholicism, there is no single source of religious dogma in either Judaism or Islam (lest we forget that the original case involved a Muslim family). This means that in both religions, there is considerable debate over what it means to be Jewish or Muslim, and attempts to fix these meanings are shot through with power relations. Sure enough, if we look at the history of circumcision within Jewish and Muslim communities, we see exactly these type of relationships occurring.

Within Jewish communities in Europe, the practice has been debated. For example, in 1866, Jewish doctors in Vienna signed petitions against circumcision, and in 1971 the rabbis of Augsburg declared that the uncircumcised boys of Jewish mothers were still Jewish. Writing in Fearful Symmetries, Sami Abu-Sahlieh writes:

This debate travelled with Jewish immigrants to the USA, where, in 1892 reformed rabbis decided not to impose circumcision on new converts. However, with the increase of births in American hospitals and the generalisation of male circumcision, rabbis were confronted with a practice of circumcision that did not conform to Jewish norms - performed by physicians, in the three days that follow birth and without religious ritual. They tried to remedy this by training Jewish circumcisers. As religious marriage is recognised in the USA, rabbis tried to regain lost ground by refusing to marry those who were not circumcised. The events of World War II reinforced the practice of circumcision among Jews. In 1979, the American Congress of Rabbis decided that circumcision was mandatory and had to be performed according to prescribed Jewish norms. (10)

In Islam, the status of circumcision is even more ambiguous, perhaps reflecting the complexities of establishing religious authority in the Islamic tradition. For some muslims, circumcision is an essentially Jewish tradition and not an Islamic one.

The point is not to pretend that I know better than either Jews or Muslims how to practice their respective religions, but to point out that there has been considerable internal debate over circumcision within those communities. It seems to me that in fact it is George and Furedi who are claiming to know what it means to be Jewish and Muslim, and they have mistakenly decided to hang it on circumcision. Consider, also that the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides, an exposition of the central tenets of Judaism, makes no mention of circumcision. In other words, it is more about faith than foreskin.

The second issue brought to light by the German case is the relationship between religious and individual rights. While I think that intersex children provide a more compelling context for exploring issues of bodily integrity, we can still find something useful here by returning to Furedi''s argument, which hints at the problem of moral relativism in the context of circumcision:

In our relativistic times, there are very few practices that invite universal moral condemnation in Western society... Only two practices really elicit visceral revulsion these days: paedophilia and female genital mutilation.

Furedi's decision to deploy "mutilation" in the female case and "circumcision" in the male case is perhaps part of a complex argument against relativism, or it reveals his biased position. To explore these possibilities a bit deeper, consider the reaction of Women's groups to the ruling in Germany. From a Guardian article:

Women's rights groups and social policy makers also condemned the decision, but for the reason that it would have the effect of putting male and female circumcision on the same footing, when they were "in no way comparable", said Katrin Altpeter, social minister in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Female circumcision she said, was a far more drastic act. It is already outlawed in Germany.

The injunction against making the most obvious comparison is quite remarkable. The reason why this has to be articulated so forcefully is not only because of activists against male circumcision, but also because of recent work done on female circumcision. For example, Fumbai Ahmadu, an American woman who voluntarily underwent circumcision points out in an interview with Anthropology Today:

The problem with the representation of various forms of female circumcision as "mutilation" is that the term, among other things, presupposes some irreversible and serious harm. This is not supported by current medical research on female circumcision. (25.6:15)

I believe that the motivation for the stance of Women's rights groups in this instance is stance is similar to the scorn exhibited by Furedi towards "relativistic times." But, how heavily does an argument for the equal treatment of males and females (and inter- and trans-sexed people) before the law rely on relativity?

Slavoj Žižek has called moral relativism a kind of western-Buddhism which allows practitioners to carry out the functions of their daily lives without having to make any difficult choices. He opposes this to Christianity, where notions of concrete Good and Evil demand that we take sides. Žižek writes:

What this means is that the Buddhist all-encompassing Compassion has to be opposed to the Christian intolerant, violent Love. The Buddhist stance is ultimately that of indifference, of quenching all passions that strive to establish differences, while the Christian love is a violent passion to introduce a difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object above others.

The issue of circumcision is so difficult and divisive at least partly because of the specific difference gaps it introduces: between males and females, and between the individual and the group (religion). Circumcision forces us to make choices about which principles we are elevating above others. How can we hold that female circumcision is not allowed, but male circumcision is? Only by elevating both the female over the male, and the group over the individual. You can easily imagine the combinations required for the other possible positions. The important thing is that this operation is not a relativistic one and, if Žižek is to be believed, it is in fact a highly Christian one. We have become so deeply embedded in our relativistic times that making these choices ends up being quite intimidating. It's almost as if you are being asked to drop your trousers and show everyone else what you have hiding in there.

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