Circumcision is not a barrier to an individual's religious freedom

Was a German court justified in interfering with centuries of religious tradition?

A court in Cologne has ruled that circumcision, performed for religious reasons on male children below an age where they can meaningfully consent to the operation, amounts to an unwarranted and irreparable interference with their bodily integrity. Furthermore, it interferes with the right of a child "to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong".

The ruling, in a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy who was injured in a botched procedure, has been strongly criticised by both Muslim and Jewish groups in Germany and beyond. In the UK Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies described it as "intolerant, ill-informed and deeply troubling."  Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, by contrast, supports it. He thinks it is "an open and shut case, ethically speaking" on the grounds that "respect for the autonomy of a person requires that they give consent for irreversible procedures affecting their body like cutting pieces off their genitals". And Pavan Dhaliwal, speaking publicly on behalf of the BHA, suggests that a ban on infant circumcision "would not constitute an attack on religious freedom, because boys would still be allowed to be circumcised when they reach an age to consent".

While Copson has some sympathy for Jews and Muslims who may interpret a ban as oppressive, he appears to locate the source of their discomfort in an emotional attachment to their traditions and, in the case of men, intimate feelings towards their own bodies. But this is more than a merely cultural or psychological issue. It would have especially serious consequences for Jewish religious practice. To ban the circumcision of infant boys would, in effect, be to ban Judaism itself, at least as it has been practised for almost three thousand years. Islam expects males to be circumcised but lays down no specific age for the procedure. Jewish law on the other hand requires circumcision on the eighth day after birth, an age at which even the most precocious infant would be unable to give informed consent. No uncircumcised boy would be able to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at the traditional age of thirteen. It would be potentially catastrophic. That a German court should have produced such a ruling has only added to the disquiet. 

Along with the Sabbath and the rules of kosher, circumcision has always been one of the non-negotiable features of Judaism, indeed central to Jewish identity. The requirement is laid down in the book of Genesis (in chapter 17), which describes circumcision as the "token of the covenant" between God and Israel and goes on to warn that that "the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised shall be cut off from the people; he has broken my covenant." 

The importance attached to the procedure is repeatedly stressed in the Hebrew Bible. In one incident recounted in Exodus, God threatens to kill Moses, apparently because the prophet's (non-Jewish) wife has not had their son circumcised. He is only saved when Zipporah takes the knife to her son's foreskin herself. The message is clear: so much does God care about circumcision that's he's prepared to kill the man without whom there would be no Judaism (nor any Christianity or Islam) at all rather than see one Israelite child in possession of a foreskin. It's that serious.

If circumcision were obviously a bad thing, then religious freedom could and should be overridden. No religious justification would suffice to permit human sacrifice, or indeed female genital mutilation (FGM), which most Western countries have specifically banned. But male circumcision is not obviously harmful, as FGM is. Performed properly, it is not dangerous. The World Health Organisation positively encourages it, the theory being that it protects against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The effect on sexual pleasure in later life is disputed. Men who are in a position to know offer differing opinions, with those who report improvement somewhat outnumbering those regretting the procedure. All agree, however, that even with anaesthetic during the operation it is very painful afterwards and it takes at least a month to recover.

This matters. If circumcision for religious reasons is restricted to adults, not only would this interfere with long-held custom (and in the Jewish case, Biblical law), it would also force men or older boys to undergo a painful procedure as a price of belonging to their ancestral religion. Uncircumcised male converts to Judaism or Islam already face this dilemma, of course, but it's not hard to see that the prospect would act as a deterrent to many men lacking in the zeal of a convert. At the same time, a circumcised man leaving the religion is not forced to be painfully uncircumcised. It's thus hard to follow the logic that sees the procedure as an interference with a boy's freedom to choose his religion later in life. Quite the reverse.

 

A young boy cries after being circumcised. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.