Frank Furedi (1947) is professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, UK. He is well known for his work on Sociology of Fear, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Sociology of Knowledge. This essay appeared in “Spiked”, Jul 2, 2012.
The international campaign demonizing the religious practice of circumcising young boys is fuelled by a new form of misanthropic bigotry. It represents a synthesis of twenty-first-century cultural correctness and old-fashioned prejudice. This moral crusade brings together many of the worst trends of our age: the paranoid dogma about the ‘vulnerable child’; the culturally sanctioned contempt for the exercise of parental authority; intolerance of freedom of religion; insensitivity to people’s traditional beliefs; and old-fashioned prejudice against circumcised people.
Last week’s verdict in a court in Cologne, Germany, which said that the religious circumcision of young boys should be banned, is part of a wider international campaign. For example, circumcision has been a big issue in Norway for some time: last month, the Centre Party there said it would seek to outlaw the practice. ‘Circumcision on religious grounds should be a criminal offence’, said party spokesperson Jenny Klinge. Last year, there was controversy in San Francisco, where campaigners also tried to have circumcision banned.
One of the most chilling things about the attempt to criminalize circumcision is its arrogant and paternalistic undertones. Last week’s German court verdict was bad enough, with its calling into question of the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with their faith. However, what was even worse was the way that this act of bigoted intolerance was presented to the world. Take Holm Putzke, law professor at Passau University in southern Germany, whose arguments were used by the court in Cologne to justify its verdict. Putzke says he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, since ‘nobody wants to ban religious circumcision in Islam and Judaism, not at all’ – no, all that he and the court is saying is that circumcision ‘should just be decided by those who undergo it’. Considering that in Jewish custom a boy has to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, what Putzke is actually saying is that so long as you Jews change your law and adopt my timetable for when males should be circumcised, you can keep your ‘religious’ customs.
Putzke is happy for people to practice their customs so long as they ditch laws that he dislikes. The fact that Jewish law requires circumcision on the eighth day after birth, and that this ceremony represents a defining moment for the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, is simply an administrative inconvenience for this erudite professor. What Putzke and his fellow crusaders against circumcision are really saying is: ‘What’s the big deal – you can be a Jew without being circumcised.’ Or perhaps: ‘You can still get circumcised when you can give informed consent and then become a proper Jew.’
Putzke’s outlook is shared by many commentators, who also claim to know what it means to be a Jew better than those who adhere to the Jewish religion. This arrogant paternalistic outlook is insidious. These campaigners are adopting the role of moral arbiters of Judaism, as if they, being truly enlightened, must save Jewish children from their barbaric parents. Lecturing Jews about postponing circumcision into the indefinite future overlooks the fact that, for those who actually practice this religion, the timing of circumcision is non-negotiable. Telling people that they can be uncircumcised Jews is a bit like saying you don’t need to get baptised to be a real Catholic.
Of course, in a free, tolerant society, everyone is entitled to their views. Putzke has every right to denounce circumcision; he has a democratic right to articulate his prejudices. But it is unacceptable for Putzke or anyone else to use the legal power of the state to dictate to a long-established religion what customs it may and may not observe. A religious law is not like the traffic code, which can be changed or modified on a whim. Where circumcision may be optional for lifestyle warriors, for Jews it is an integral part of their identity. The Hebrew Bible is unequivocal on this point. God actually threatened to kill Moses unless his son with his non-Jewish wife, Zipporah, was circumcised. This maybe just a Biblical story, but for Jews its meaning is that circumcision is an existential matter. That is why, throughout history, Jews have struggled, fought and died for the right to be circumcised.
The Hasmonean Jewish revolt, in the second century BC, was a response to attempts by their Hellenic rulers to make them give up their ‘barbaric’ customs and adopt a more civilised way of life. One of the catalysts for the revolt was a decree by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV, which commanded Jews to leave their sons uncircumcised or face death. This decree, targeting the ‘barbaric’ behavior of an ‘uneducated’ people, was part of a comprehensive campaign to destroy the Jewish way of life. It is not surprising that the revolt against it, led by Judah Maccabee, is considered one of the defining moments of Judaism. That is why, for any Jew with an historic memory, the current crusade against circumcision will be seen as a less brutal version of the Hellenic project to make Jews more ‘civilized’.
The bigotry of new moral absolutes
Crusaders against circumcision often make sneering comments about the moral absolutes of religious people. They often imply that only sad people who rely on ancient dogma and on the authority of a god could possibly resist the enlightened and scientific crusade against the horrible practice of circumcision. No doubt many religious folk do rely on their sacred texts to make sense of the world. However, their moral absolutes pale into insignificance when compared with the absolutist dogma of the anti-circumcision zealots.
In our relativistic times, there are very few practices that invite universal moral condemnation in Western society. Disagreements on abortion, the nature of the family, and the right to suicide show that there is little consensus even on some of the most fundamental questions about the meaning of life. Only two practices really elicit visceral revulsion these days: pedophilia and female genital mutilation. And predictably enough, both of these issues are exploited by the moral entrepreneurs keen to pathologise male circumcision.
The rhetoric of demonology used to discredit circumcision presents it as an act of evil. Typically, circumcision is recast as an act of sordid violence against a child. Commentators casually use terms like ‘genital mutilation’ or ‘sexual mutilation’ to describe this religious custom. The semantic strategy of recasting male circumcision as ‘mutilation’ is a see-through attempt to lump it together with female circumcision. Through a process of guilt by rhetorical association, the circumcision of Jewish and Muslim boys is reinvented as a male equivalent of female genital mutilation (FGM).
But this attempt to depict male circumcision as something akin to FGM reveals a willful ignorance of human anatomy. There are different forms of female circumcision, but as Nancy McDermott has argued on spiked, they all involve the ‘removal of some or all of a woman’s external genitalia’. The operation often has serious side effects, such as infection, pain, hemorrhaging and infertility. As McDermott says, ‘Comparable surgery in a man would involve the removal of most of the penis and the scrotum’. In reality, male circumcision as practiced by Muslims and Jews involves the removal of the foreskin. And the fact that millions of boys are circumcised for non-religious reasons, either at birth or later in life after a health complication, shows that it is not a form of mutilation.
So how can an operation condemned as ‘sexual mutilation’ in one instance be advocated as an unobjectionable and sound medical procedure used to improve someone’s health in another instance? It seems pretty clear that it is not the physical aspects of circumcision that disgusts the moral crusaders, but rather its cultural meaning for some communities.
Alongside associating male circumcision with FGM, intolerant campaigners also hint that it has links with pedophilia. That is the meaning of such terms as ‘sexual mutilation’. They promiscuously stigmatize circumcision as a form of child abuse. Indeed, some use the term ‘ritualized child abuse’ to describe this custom. The use of the term ‘child abuse’ hints at dark practices that are the moral equivalent of pedophilia; the aim is to incite moral outage. More than any other word today, ‘abuse’ is used to convey a sense of evil, something practiced by pedophile rings or by warped, perverted individuals.
Indeed, in Western secular society, the term ‘abuse’ now plays the same role as the idea of ‘evil’ does for religious people. The word abuse doesn’t only mean ‘misuse’, ‘improper use’ or ‘perversion’ – it also hints at violation, pollution, defilement. Modern-day moral crusaders are always expanding the use of the a-word and now apply it in the most inappropriate circumstances.
In recent years, the exercise of parental authority has frequently been attacked for being ‘abusive’. Parents who ‘force’ their children to go to church or embrace their family’s religion have been charged with committing abuse by anti-faith activists. What used to be called putting pressure on your child is now denounced as emotional abuse. Parents who ‘allow’ their overweight children to eat too much food have been castigated for committing child abuse. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that the circumcision of boys can so effortlessly be integrated into the ever-expanding lexicon of child abuse.
This normalization of parental abuse is now a moral absolute among Western secular campaigners, on a par with the most exotic absolutes that exist in religions. Yet today’s paternalistic bigots only see dogma when it comes stamped with a religious symbol – they never see it in their own intolerant campaigning.
Critics of circumcision have not only assumed responsibility for reinterpreting the laws of Judaism and other religions; they also believe that they know what is best for Jewish and Muslim children. The argument critics most commonly use is that parents do not have the right to circumcise their child unless he has given his consent. In promoting this principle, they claim to be speaking up for the rights of the child and protecting infants from their parents.
In reality, this is an attempt to neutralize the rights of parents by subjecting their behavior to the exigencies of a child’s consent; it reduces mothers and fathers to the level of ‘carers’. But the fact is that parents need to be able to perform many acts to which a child does not consent. Like circumcision, almost every major decision made by parents has long-term consequences. Most of us never consented to our ethnic background or cultural heritage. Children live in places and circumstances not of their own choosing. It is precisely because parental decisions are so important that mothers and fathers need the freedom to make them in a way that they feel is in keeping with their way of life.
When parents can no longer make decisions unless a child has first given his consent, then the very existence of private life and family life is called into question. And who decides what is informed consent? It is far more likely to be an officious law professor than a child’s own mother or father.
The return of old-fashioned bigotry
So does the bigotry of the anti-circumcision crusade make it anti-Semitic? Most opponents of circumcision are motivated by a powerful sense of intolerance, fuelled by today’s prevailing cultural correctness. They are uncomfortable with rituals and practices that are deemed ‘traditional’ and which are based on values antithetical to the secularist worldview.
Anti-Semitism or Islamophobia are not the drivers of the modern criminalization of circumcision. However, individuals and groups who dislike Jews and Muslims have naturally gravitated towards this campaign, seeking to make it their own. Not surprisingly, they have rehabilitated some of the worst Medieval moral panics about the heinous deeds of Judaism’s circumcising monsters. If you go to the anti-circumcision website ForeskinMan.com, you will see graphic caricatures of morally deformed and malevolent Jews. The villain, Monster Mohel, who carries a sharp knife as he searches for children to circumcise, does actually look like something out of a Nazi manual of grotesque Jewish faces. Fortunately, there is a hero, Foreskin Man! Foreskin Man, who is blonder than blond and resembles an ancient Germanic type, provides a much-needed moral contrast to the decadent, circumcision-addicted Jew.
It is worth noting that some of the people behind ForeskinMan.com have also been involved in campaigns to ban circumcision in San Francisco and Santa Monica. However, their pernicious propaganda notwithstanding, the real threat to freedom is the insidious campaign of cultural correctness rather than explicit anti-Semitism. What makes the anti-circumcision campaign insidious is not simply its intolerance of the religious freedom of others, but also its arrogant assumption that it has the right to tell other people how they should lead their lives. If I were a religious believer, I would ask: ‘Who made them God?’
Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum.