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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England are out of the Euros – I only wish I'd cared a bit more

Try as I might, I just can’t make myself care about the England football team.

In a humiliation widely regarded as unprecedented, England have just fallen in the 2016 European Championships to Iceland, a country, it was stressed in the build-up, with a population the size of Leicester. True, if the story of last season in the Premiership taught us anything, it was to entertain a wholly new respect for things the size of Leicester. But even so. Iceland! Land of the puffin!

And so the post-mortem begins. It had already begun, in fact. In comments that set a new record for impatience in this area, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City was irrecoverably monstered for various inefficiencies on the right-hand side in England’s opening (and drawn) game. Roy Hodgson, the manager, resigned minutes after the Iceland defeat, reading a statement apparently written in the dressing room between the final whistle and the press conference. With that kind of flair for a deadline, he should obviously now go into sports journalism. But Hodgson’s future was a keynote in the debate even before the group stages were completed. A headline in the Sunday Times, as England entered the knockout phase, facing a highly winnable tie, read: “Hodgson: I won’t beg for my job”. With England, you have to be ready to get your post-mortems in earlier and earlier.

There has been a shift, though. Typically over the past half-century, England would fly in to an international tournament (assuming they’d qualified for it) in a media-supported horn-blare of expectation and entitlement, most of it patently unreasonable. The team’s subsequent failure to match those implausible expectations would then duly sponsor a long period of anguished wailing and dark recrimination. Things have calmed down, however. Of late, thankfully, a more modest understanding of England’s place in the global framework has taken hold. Now the team arrives helpfully cushioned by carefully managed expectations. And then, when they don’t win the tournament, the anguished wailing and dark recriminations start.

Such was the way in 2014 when the most downplayed England team in history went into a tough World Cup group in Brazil and, as widely predicted, didn’t emerge. The consequent flagellation lasted months – simply segued into this new one, really. England has been experimenting with modesty but the lesson of France, surely, is that the experiment has failed. English football doesn’t do modesty – from the overfunded swank of the FA’s hand-picked training and troughing headquarters in Chantilly, down to the aggressive occupation of foreign town squares by its supporters.

On that subject, it was more poignant than usual to reflect on the geographical affiliations declared on the flags at the England end in Nice on Monday night. Harpenden, Bletchley, Lincoln, Burton. Manchester? Newcastle? London? The big metropolises? Not so much. Hard not to catch an eerie echo of the referendum vote map laid out in that carpet of modified bedsheets. Perhaps those England fans actually meant it when they stood on their chairs and sang to their hosts in Marseilles, “F*** off, Europe – we’re voting to leave.” In the international tournaments, the discontented and the overlooked are heard. They take their game back.

I only wish I cared a bit more. I’ve tried, I’ve strained, but it won’t come. The fate of the English national football team doesn’t engage me – except as black comedy, of course, where it’s irresistible. I’m a fully paid-up, card-carrying Chelsea fan and it seems to create barriers at these big summer events. Support a team with five Tottenham players in it? I have too much invested emotionally, year-round, in the notion of Harry Kane not prospering on a football pitch to make the necessary leap, even though it’s June and we’re supposed to be on holiday. I’m not pretending this does me credit. But I can’t deny it.

Giles Smith writes for the Times
Hunter Davies returns in September

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies