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The Circumcision Debate


Much to my surprise, no little discomfort, and no doubt the curiosity of my readers, I find myself this morning writing the words ‘Iceland’ and ‘circumcision’ in the same sentence.

The explanation for this unusual convergence is that the Icelandic parliament is considering a bill that would ban the circumcision of young boys, other than for medical reasons, as a violation of their rights.  Committing such an act would carry a penalty of six months imprisonment. 

The bill’s proponents assert that male circumcision is the equivalent of female genital mutilation, which is banned in most European countries, and which flouts a United Nations convention on the rights of children.  The politician behind the bill, Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir, head of the centre-right Progressive Party, said, “If we have laws banning circumcision for girls, then we should do so for boys”. 

I think she has a point.

I should make my position clear: I consider circumcision a pagan ritual with no essential medical benefits that ought to be considered by the subject only when he is of an age to make a choice for himself.  And, yes, I realise that by then the procedure would involve more pain and inconvenience.

I will even concede that circumcision, which is mandatory for Jewish and Muslim boys – one of the rare customs on which the two faiths agree – may have certain incidental medical benefits, but these are less than compelling and remain far from proven.  There is not a scintilla of evidence that uncircumcised boys are exposed to greater medical risks or social disadvantages in later life than those who have been ‘snipped’.  (Since you may be wondering, I myself am genitally ‘complete’.) 

The procedure is carried out when a boy is a few days old, which means that he is hardly in a position to object, and is based on a practice dating back to a time, the middle-eastern equivalent of the Bronze Age, when ignorance and superstition was rife; a time when men thought that the earth was flat and that the sun swung to and fro in the sky like a celestial pendulum.  At some point circumcision came to be enshrined in religious law, like the prohibition on eating pork, another tradition common to Jews and Muslims.  (That one is at least arguably justifiable for tribes who lived in a hot desert climate.) 

Scholars of the Torah and the Koran no doubt have an explanation for how God decreed that male infants should have a small section of their penises removed soon after birth, but then religious scholars have explanations for many such rules which now seem, if they did not at the time they were ‘revealed’, to make little sense.  (All this raises a fundamental question: if God in his infinite wisdom wanted boys not to have foreskins, why then did he provide them with one?)    

The responses to Iceland’s debate from religious leaders – of all faiths – have been predictably hostile. 

Ahmad Sadeeq, Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland, quoted in a newspaper, said, “Circumcision has been practised for centuries, and is deeply rooted in cultural and religious traditions”.  Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Catholic Church in the European Union, called the proposed ban a ‘dangerous attack’ on religious freedom.  “The criminalisation of circumcision,” he said, “is a very grave measure that raises deep concern.”

But not, he might have added, if it is practised on girls in ‘backward’ tribal communities in Africa.   

My response, intellectually if not viscerally, is that of all the acts ‘rooted in cultural and religious traditions’, and which have survived into the modern age, many have been to the detriment and shame of the human race.  Islam, to cite just one example, still embraces as a cultural and religious tradition, or at least allows, the subjugation of women. In some Muslim countries apostasy is still punishable by death.  So is adultery, punishable by stoning, and homosexuality, which might result in the perpetrator being thrown off the roof of a building.  Does Mr. Sadeeq, I wonder, believe that such traditions should be maintained in the name of religious freedom?   Sadly, I suspect that he does.

I realise that I am skating on thin ice here, no pun intended.  And the ice patch is close to home, too, living as I do in a household in which my intellectual commitment to atheism exists in peaceful co-existence (so far) with my wife’s adherence to the Jewish faith, or a least its traditions.  

Circumcision is one of those residual issues that bring religious law into conflict with civil law.  In virtually all such circumstances, I come down firmly on the side of civil law.  Religious freedom must be preserved by all means, but religious exemption from the rules of decency and common sense, as promulgated by a civilized and enlightened society, ought to be debated and questioned with just as much vigour.

The parliament of Iceland is doing just that, and should be applauded for doing so.

No cooked dinner for me tonight, I’m guessing.

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One Comment

  1. John Hull John Hull

    I realize that I am late in responding to rant but feel that this is one where you are TOTALLY off the wall. Female circumcision involves ” Partial or total removal of the external female genitalia.” A true comparison to male circumcision would be not to just have your foreskin removed but your penis too . And in your case I now think it would be warranted.

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