By Seth Kaplan, who lectures at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of, among other books, Fixing Fragile States and Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict.
In June 2012, a court in Cologne, Germany ruled that the circumcision of boys should be considered a prosecutable physical assault. In a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy, the judges declared that the permanent physical alteration of any part of the body infringes a child’s right to decide his beliefs for himself. The verdict against the doctor who had performed the procedure stated that neither the rights of parents nor the right to religious liberty could justify “serious and irreversible interference with physical integrity.”
Human-rights advocates, medical associations, and many legal experts in Germany supported the decision. For Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau who had long argued for a ban on non-medical circumcision, the ruling was a particularly hopeful sign for the future, one that, “in the best case, [could] lead the religions concerned to change their mentality when it comes to respecting children’s fundamental rights.” Another leading expert called for a national discussion on “how much religiously-motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate.”
To be sure, the ruling also met with protests, mainly on the part of practicing Jews, Muslims, and Christians. For the first two groups especially, circumcision is a basic element of identity and a tradition that strengthens communal bonds but most of all, in the words of the American political theorist William Galston, “a God-given obligation, the key to and symbol of membership in an ancient and worthy community.”
Jews in Germany have adhered to this commandment, which is performed on the eighth day after birth, for some 1,700 years; Cologne itself had a synagogue at least as early as 321 CE, when Constantine the Great ruled the city as part of the Roman empire, well before the ancestors of most of the city’s current inhabitants had settled on German soil. In Islam, although there are variations in the age at which the rite is performed—for some it is as early as the seventh day after birth, for others as late as puberty—circumcision has likewise been a religious norm from the start.
For Jews and Muslims, therefore, if a government bans circumcision, it is in essence banning the practice of their religion.
Although German lawmakers would soon override the Cologne ruling—in December 2012, legislation was passed explicitly permitting parents the right to have their boys circumcised—the issue is unlikely to disappear given the growing opposition to the practice among Germany’s general population.
And not just there. The Cologne ruling produced ripple effects elsewhere in the German-speaking world. In light of it, two hospitals in Switzerland announced that they would temporarily stop performing circumcisions altogether. In Austria, the governor of Vorarlberg province ordered state-run hospitals to cease the procedure except for health reasons until the legal situation was clarified.
Beyond these locales, the episode in Germany marked just another step forward in a growing trend across Northern Europe, where an “intactivist” movement has been gaining momentum. A 2013 poll in the United Kingdom showed almost two-fifths of the population favoring a ban on non-medical circumcision. A number of other countries have debated outlawing the practice or at least requiring medical supervision of all circumcisions (as Sweden has done since 2001 and Norway since 2014). According to Anne Lindboe, Norway’s ombudsman for children, “With good information about risk, pain, and the lack of health benefits of [circumcision], I think parents from minorities would voluntarily abstain from circumcising children.” In its place, she charitably proposed that Jews and Muslims enact a symbolic, non-surgical ritual—as if the underlying issue were one of their collective ignorance of modern medicine, a deficiency to be overcome by means of a bit of symbolic play-acting.
More drastically, a bill was introduced this year in Iceland’s parliament not only to ban circumcision on non-medical grounds but to impose a six-year prison term on anyone who removed “part or all of the [child’s] sexual organs.” According to Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, the Progressive-party parliamentarian who introduced the bill, the central issue is “children’s rights, not . . . freedom of belief.”
More virulent themes, themselves suggestive of deeper motivations, have also been mobilized in condemnation of the practice. Thus, one of Denmark’s most prestigious newspapers published an article referring to “black-clad men” who torture and mutilate babies in fulfillment of a barbaric custom. Similarly, a cartoon in a Norwegian newspaper pictured law-enforcement officers questioning a rabbi who holds a religious book while stabbing a baby in the head with a devil’s pitchfork and a woman holding a bloodied religious book while cutting off the child’s toe. The woman protests: “Mistreating? No, this is tradition, an important part of our belief!”