On May 8, the Progress Party, the junior partner in the coalition government and the third-largest party in Norway, voted to ban circumcision of boys under 16 years old. This is terrible news for those who observe Jewish and Islamic religious practices in Europe.
First of all, is the circumcision ban motivated by a genuine concern for the rights, welfare and expressed desires of the Muslim and Jewish minorities? No. The motivation for the ban is almost certainly anti-migrant sentiment and not some humanitarian concern in response to popular demand by Muslim and Jewish minorities to save future generations from circumcision.
The Progress Party, which spearheaded the ban, is a well-known anti-immigrant party. It does not have any Muslim or Jewish members in parliament and does not even claim to represent these religious minorities. We have yet to witness a popular human rights campaign by Muslims and Jews to ban circumcision.
Although the party espouses pro-Israeli views, probably to shield itself from criticisms of being anti-Semitic, such a pro-Israeli stance does not amount to being pro-immigrant or having the support of Muslim or Jewish minorities. There is no movement by Muslim or Jewish Norwegians in favor of prohibiting circumcision. If anyone claims that the circumcision ban is somehow a human rights issue, we should have seen real people demanding it, similar to popular movements by women to get the right to vote.
Second, is male circumcision an indisputably harmful practice from a medical perspective, as some proponents claim? No, there are both proponents and opponents of circumcision from a medical perspective. One regularly encounters respectable reports arguing that circumcision significantly (60 percent) lowers the risk of HIV infection, and this could be the difference between life and death in many sub-Saharan African countries.
The argument is not that circumcision is good from a health perspective per se, but that there is a significant debate over this politically sensitive and religiously charged issue, and no state authority should be able to impose its vision of the good life or the ideal body.
Third, does deferring circumcision until after 16 years of age allow for equal choice and non-discrimination, as the Progress Party's proposal implies? Not at all. Simply, any kind of major medical operation is much more costly, more disruptive to work and life, requires a longer recovery period and is perhaps even more risky from a medical point of view as one gets older.
Fourth, if this prohibition law passes, then every Muslim and Jewish man who chooses to be circumcised after the age of 16 must receive commensurate financial compensation for all the lost work days for the operation and recovery, medical costs, psychological counseling and for other associated expenses and potential consequences at that advanced age. This is because all such costs and consequences will be the direct result of the state-imposed ban.
Fifth, does allowing for circumcision beyond the age of 16 amount to accommodation of Jewish and Islamic religious practices? No, because the thousands of years old Jewish and Islamic tradition is to circumcise male children when they are babies or young children, not when they are more than 16 years old. Therefore, the retort that of course they can choose to be circumcised after the age of 16 only pays lip service to the idea of religious freedom and is not at all convincing at that.
Sixth, a state-imposed prohibition of circumcision would amount to giving the custody of the child and all decision-making authority regarding the child to an overpowering state. Unless one wants to move toward a totalitarian dystopia akin to National Socialism, we should prevent the state from taking such decision-making authority regarding children away from their parents.
The state should not dictate what kind of body children should have or what kind of life people should pursue. This is especially the case for circumcision, since it does not put the child's life in jeopardy. Much more critical decisions regarding a child's life choices are left in the hands of their parents, from abortion – literally a life-or-death choice – to the type of school – religious, vocational, secular or other – the child will attend, to what they eat on a daily basis, to whether they should go through aesthetic orthodontic treatment, all of which do have indelible, permanent impacts on their lives.
This is because we accept, with good reason, that parents are better authorities and guardians for their own children's upbringing than the Norwegian Progress Party or any other party or state with no concrete affection for or relationship with the child. Finally, to criminalize circumcision in a continent where Jews and Muslims were mass murdered most recently in the 20th century, i.e., the Holocaust and Srebrenica, and where circumcision was one of the religious practices for which they were targeted, is politically and socio-psychologically very insensitive if not outright insulting.
* Assoc. Prof., Koç University
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