Nothing, in all my years of journalism, has aroused such frenzied responses among readers as the subject of circumcision. If my main purpose were to excite the maximum number of emails and letters I would write about nothing else, such is the public obsession with it.
So it was hardly surprising last week that when a German court in Cologne ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal there was a public outcry — especially as this was in Germany.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” into the right to religious freedom and “an outrageous and insensitive act”. Likewise, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany called it “a blatant and inadmissible interference” in the rights of parents.
Other Muslims and Jews across the world, and those who express sympathy with them, have risen up in outrage. Germany’s foreign minister quickly added his voice by saying that “religious traditions must be permitted in a tolerant society”. Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on religious freedom, told German radio that the court’s reasoning was “nonsense”.
It wasn’t. No reasonable person could think it was nonsense or wrong. The court ruled that this type of circumcision should be made illegal — it did not itself have the power to do so — because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people — babies or children — who had not consented to it.
However, the court said boys who were able to give informed consent for circumcision should be able to have it done: this would mean that the religious tradition of circumcision would not be lost among those who value it. But in the case of babies, according to the ruling, “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of parents”. How can any reasonable person call that nonsense? It seems self-evident to me that cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy is a primitive, tribal form of child abuse. Quite apart from the question of consent, the procedure is painful and there are some risks attached to any surgery; the case in Germany arose because a four-year-old Muslim boy who had been circumcised started bleeding profusely two days later and was taken to the University Hospital of Cologne, where officials called the police.
The idea of taking a knife to an unsuspecting infant and cutting something off one of the most sensitive parts of his body, permanently changing its appearance and, perhaps, its sensations, has always seemed to me shocking. It is, objectively, a form of genital mutilation.
The argument that such a bizarre practice is an important part of religious freedom in the modern world carries no weight at all. If freedom of religion and the principle of religious tolerance are such overwhelming arguments in western legal decisions, then why not permit the stoning of women, the killing of homosexuals, the amputation of thieves’ hands and much else in Islamic law? There are plenty of practices required by certain religions that would not for one instant be tolerated in the West. One of them is female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital mutilation. And while not all Muslims and others who practise it consider it to be an absolute religious requirement, there are many who do, and who deeply resent western liberal attempts to stop it worldwide.
It’s one of the many mysteries regarding western double standards that while the circumcision of girls is abhorrent and illegal, even in its least invasive forms, the circumcision of boys is acceptable and widely practised by parents who are not in the least religious themselves.
This was true long before epidemiologists discovered that removing the foreskin offered some protection from sexually transmitted diseases: long before then, circumcision had become normalised. But one could imagine the howls of public contempt if religious leaders and human rights campaigners protested that people must in the name of religious freedom and tolerance continue to have the right to mutilate the genitals of little girls.
What’s wrong here, tragically, is article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is hard to believe that all those responsible for this noble manifesto, with their universalist ideals, really can have thought that all religious practices, everywhere, should be enshrined under the umbrella of equal rights.
Some of the authors, surely, must have known that religion is far from a vicarage tea party everywhere in the world. They must have known that some religious practices are, as the Cologne court pointed out, at odds with other central human rights.
Yet because of article 18, people worldwide have considerable force behind their demands for procedures such as male genital mutilation. What makes it worse is the growing conflation in recent years of religion, culture and ethnicity: Muslim women’s insistence on the right to wear the niqab or the hijab, whether or not such a requirement is truly koranic, is an obvious instance.
All the same, while I think the Cologne court was entirely right in its opinion, it was entirely wrong to offer it. Hardly anything could be more inflammatory to Muslims and Jews worldwide, hardly anything could be more symbolic to them of rejection and the painful truth is that it comes particularly badly from a German court, for reasons that need no explanation. Until now male circumcision has been a grey area in Germany and not necessarily illegal. That’s surely how it should stay for the time being.
In the real world, at least in the worlds of hygiene and medicine, surely the realistic view must be that male circumcision should be tolerated because any harm it might do to the child is minor compared to the harm a ban would do to public feeling.
God knows, so to speak, what the real point of circumcision is, but at least male circumcision is not aimed, as female circumcision specifically is, at destroying sexual pleasure.
Its risks in the developed world are tiny and its newly discovered protection against sexual diseases makes it almost desirable. The Protestant Henry IV of France famously said, on becoming Catholic to take the throne, that Paris was well worth a mass. Today one could say that international religious harmony is well worth a foreskin.