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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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era