Last month, the Bundestag hurriedly passed some strange new legislation: the “Circumcision Law” guarantees the right for parents to have their children circumcised. This was the government’s answer to a passionate and uncomfortable five-month debate over the practice, in which religious minorities and their supporters clashed with a cabal of doctors and politicians over tolerance versus children’s rights. All this over a little foreskin?
German men may differ from one another in many ways, but in one aspect they are strikingly uniform: very few of them are circumcised.
This may not come as a shock given the low circumcision rates throughout Europe. But it does set them apart from expat populations – many of whom come from countries like the US, where over 70 percent of adult males are foreskin-less. In Germany this figure is a mere 10 percent, including 2 million Muslim and 100,000 Jewish men who have gone under the knife as part of widely observed religious traditions dating back centuries.
Why some parts of the majority are fighting for the criminalisation of a worldwide ritual with such insistence is questionable.
Regardless of the seeming national preference for au naturel male organs, there was never any objection to the practice – that is, until last May, when a rogue judge’s ruling in Cologne propelled the issue into the national spotlight.
The case involved a four-year-old Muslim boy who had suffered complications following a circumcision conducted by a doctor. The judge ruled that circumcision constituted “grievous bodily harm” that violated the boy’s right to bodily integrity. Although the case only made circumcision a criminal offense in the jurisdiction, the decision threw the practice into legal uncertainty, causing doctors to withhold from performing the procedure awaiting further legal clarification.
Overnight, a half-nation of self-professed torchbearers of enlightenment from across the political spectrum decried the practice: petitions were signed, articles published, passionate political speeches held. Words like “fundamentalist”, “primitive” and “violent” were thrown around by politicians, columnists and bloggers uncritically. An open letter from 600 anti-circumcision doctors and therapists to the government highlighted the possibility of trauma and the risk of complications from circumcision while also pointing out how uncivilised the act is: “We must finally open your eyes: one does not hurt children!”
Circumcision was as backward culturally as it was dangerous medically. It didn’t belong to Germany. It had to be banned.
Unsurprisingly, furious reactions erupted from Muslim and Jewish groups both inside and outside of Germany. The chairman of the Islamic Community in Germany called the decision “hostile to integration and discriminatory” while the Central Council of Jews in Germany called it “outrageous and insensitive”.
Before long, the debate was spilling over Germany’s borders. Not mincing words, the Anti-Defamation League, an American civil rights organisation, stated that the ruling equated “Jews are not welcome”. Many newspapers did not miss an opportunity to refer to the Holocaust, or to Germany’s issues with Turkish integration, while groups from both religions protested the decision in a rare show of empathy and solidarity. More damning for Germany was Israel’s strong reaction – the German ambassador had to explain himself before the Knesset.
Meanwhile public opinion itself seemed divided – a poll on the subject in July found 45 percent in favour of banning circumcision and 43 percent against, while 33 percent agreed that the debate damaged Germany’s global reputation.
Amidst this outcry, the German government promptly stepped in to announce they would be drafting a law to protect religious circumcision and re-establish legal clarity. But the opposition was just getting warmed up.
In September, the Justice Ministry presented their proposal to the Parliament. It would allow trained religious professionals to perform circumcisions on children up to the age of six months, as long as parents are informed of risks and the act is not carried out when it would put children at risk of complications. After the child reaches six months, the circumcision must be performed by a doctor.
A coalition of 66 left-wing MPs from the SPD, Die Linke and Greens fought back with an alternative bill, backed by several paediatric health organisations, which would require the boy’s consent for circumcision, only possible from the age of 14.
The ideological lines were unusual: the conservative Merkel government championed the religious rights of Jewish and Muslim minorities, while an ad-hoc collection of leftists, usually associated with multi-cultural tolerance, sought to ban infant circumcision in the name of human rights. SPD MP Marlene Rupprecht and Katja Dörner of the Greens gave inflamed speeches against a traumatic form of mutilation, taking a stance that would give Germany the most extreme anti-circumcision laws in the world.
It didn’t happen: On December 12 only 100 MPs voted against the government’s circumcision law (434 voted in favour; 46 abstained; 42 didn’t show up). Has the fear of a damaged international reputation prevailed? Chancellor Merkel herself said that if the country failed to protect circumcision, it would become a “joke of a nation”.
“In the current debate you can feel a certain degree of aggressive argumentation against religion itself,” says Berlin lawyer and Jewish activist Grigori Lagodinsky. “It’s understandable to see emotional reactions from the Jewish and Muslim community. Why some parts of the majority are fighting for the criminalisation of a worldwide ritual with such an insistence is questionable.”
Indeed, for a ritual practiced for thousands of years and across the globe, it seemed as though circumcision was suddenly discovered and abhorred in Germany in a matter of months.
Beyond the question of complications, there is the fact that circumcision… may have a negative impact on the psyche and sexuality.
“It’s as if Muslims and Jews had not been sharing the same space with the Germans… it serves to, once again, externalise them,” says Dr. Schirin Amir-Moazami, a political scientist and sociologist focusing on Islam in Europe at the Free University. She posits that it is no coincidence that this debate has arisen in the context of a Muslim practice.
“It’s not the first time that Muslim religious practices have been on the agenda. There is a kind of obsession with gender and sexuality questions that are related to Islamic practice, such as veiling or gender-separated schooling.” To Dr. Amir-Moazami, these types of discussions serve as an opportunity to establish norms in order to better exclude some groups.
Of course, circumcision is not at all confined to Muslims and Jews, and not even to religious folk. Although the practice seems to be declining in the Western part of the world (fewer US parents circumcise their kids now – only 50 percent did in 2010 versus 90 percent in the 1970s), no country has of yet outlawed circumcision, and only a handful have restrictions.
In Sweden, for instance, anesthesia must be administered during circumcision, which has made many doctors reluctant to perform the procedure. In most countries, however, the procedure is allowed and even encouraged.
Proponents point to plenty of health benefits: many empirical studies have shown that circumcision may reduce infections and certain types of cancer, as well as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Circumcision is endorsed by the World Health Organisation and encouraged throughout Africa as a way to prevent AIDS. And the influential American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their position on circumcision from neutral to “pro-choice”, saying that the procedure should be available to parents and covered by insurance.
For people from countries that routinely circumcise, the accusations that Jews and Muslims are torturing their children may come off as more than a little absurd.
For Dr. Matthias Franz, one of the most vocal opponents of the law allowing circumcision, this is really beside the point. “This argument [concerning disease prevention] is really not valid. We don’t cut off the breasts of healthy young girls out of a fear that they might one day get breast cancer,” he says, equating the practice to a barbaric act of mutilation. Dr. Franz maintains that the argument should be more focused on ethical and psychological questions, with the primary value being: one simply does not hurt children, whatever the reason.
“Most pediatricians must admit that they woke up from the Cologne decision,” says Dr. Manfred Gahr, from the German Academy for Children and Youth Medicine (DAKJ). “We found it unusual that children could get an operation without medical need.” His organisation (together with others) backed alternative legislation that would either ban circumcision of children for non-medical reasons or require it to be performed only by a doctor with anesthesia. “We think there are no medical reasons for circumcision, at least not for Western European countries – maybe in Africa or some other countries, but not here.”
Anti-circumcision activists also point out that the procedure is risky, could lead to decreased sensitivity in the penis, and could have lasting mental consequences. This very point was brought up at the recent Bundestag debate by Green MP Katya Dörner. “Beyond the question of complications, there is the fact that circumcision results in the removal of a body part that has very important functions. You may have a negative impact on the psyche and sexuality.”
Dr. Franz says he first became aware of the issue only because of patients coming to him with problems following circumcision. Particularly in the case of Muslim circumcisions, he purports, which generally take place in early childhood, the potential for trauma is great.
“A five-year-old boy is extraordinarily libidinous, narcissistic and focused on his genitals… and many also have lots of fear (particularly of castration) surrounding their genitals. One can assume that such a traumatic experience, in the sense of an actual injury, will have an impact.”
Does this mean that one third of the world’s male population (664 million men!) suffers from a castration complex?
To Dr. Amir-Moazami, the irony of such arguments is evident. “This whole debate is an interesting attempt [by circumcision detractors] to construct a norm of the respected child full of dignity, full of choice. Meanwhile so many children are beaten, abused or murdered… I don’t think it’s a good argument to ‘culturalise’ violence.”
Dr. Gahr admits that it is still unproven whether circumcision results in trauma – it is just too difficult to separate that one act from the jumble of minor traumas children suffer. Many say that empirical evidence of trauma, individual case studies aside, is simply not there, while health benefits have been proven time and again.
Perhaps it comes down to the fact that the right to ‘traumatise’ our children the way we want to is something every parent cherishes and what is considered ‘trauma’ versus ‘a rite of passage’ or ‘hygiene’ varies hugely from culture to culture. What one person views as barbaric, another may view as progressive.
Since December 12 the right to circumcision has been reaffirmed in Germany. But the debate may not fade away so fast. Religious communities are still smarting from what seems like a deliberate and unprovoked attack. For the Jewish community it brought up uncomfortable discussions no one ever dared raise before. As for Muslims, especially the Turkish minority, it nauseatingly echoed the racist logic of Thilo Sarrazin, calling into question their place in German society.
For Lagodinsky, the key to moving forward is respect. “Jews and Muslims shouldn’t be lectured about their own religions or forced. The dialogue should be engaged at eye level. We as Europeans should be able to choose to be religious – or not – without running the risk of being estranged.”