A German provincial court in the city of Cologne has ruled that male circumcision constitutes a form of bodily harm. To Muslims, the ruling stands as a blatant and illegitimate interference with the right of religious self-determination and the rights of parents. Additionally, rather than clarifying the legal situation, the ruling has introduced further uncertainty for all parties.
Religious freedom is a public good, and specifically protected by the constitution. It must not become the object of one-sided jurisprudence, especially if rulings serve to entrench already existing stereotypes and clichés. Male circumcision, called “tahara” in Islam, is a part of Muslim traditions and follows ancient practices that have been embraced by all monotheistic religions without much complication. It remains the judges’ secret why the practice must suddenly be prohibited in Germany.
The opponents of circumcision, among them several jurists and judges, often pursue political motives and attempt to criminalize Jews and Muslims with much polemic rhetoric, but without much substantial knowledge. While society welcomes religious values like empathy and security, anti-religious extremism is undermining pluralistic societies – especially when it shows its own proselytizing tendencies. The writer Navid Kermani has called the court ruling “a triumph of vulgar rationalism.”
The protection of religious integrity is of the highest value. But it becomes threatened when extremist groups claim to possess discursive authority in legal matters by looking at issues through glasses that are tinted with cultural or religious prejudice and when they seek to restrict or ridicule the religions, cultures, and ways of life of others. This is a problem within Muslim communities as well, and while some resist pointing the finger at ourselves, we must face up to honest criticism.
Medical experts believe that male circumcision can have long-term advantages for children and future adults. In Germany, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim associations as well as civil society organizations have supported medical arguments in favor of circumcision. They reject the recent court ruling as superficial, and criticize it for its dismissive – one might even say hostile – attitude towards religion.
Those who seek to equate male circumcision to bodily harm and want to criminalize it fail to recognize that the ritualistic tradition – which goes back as far as the time of Abraham – does not threaten bodily health. Even the World Heath Organization has recommended male circumcision for medical and hygiene reasons. Leading urologists have supported male circumcision and list the practice as a desirable prophylactic medical procedure.
The judges have ranked the supposed well-being of the child above freedom of religion and the rights of parents without specifying how the child would be threatened if circumcision remained legal. If the argument is about hygiene, about cancer prevention (for men and women), or about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, medical studies irrevocably suggest that circumcision has a positive effect. If the concern is about medical malpractice during the procedure, current law is sufficient: already, doctors can be sued for failing to adhere to the standards of modern medicine. Human health is a priority in Islam and Judaism. In fact, man’s physical integrity is a divine commandment. Additionally, circumcision allows the individual to become integrated into a religious and social community. The celebratory act of circumcision is the social manifestation of a religious rite of passage.
The ruling’s argumentation focuses on religious questions, not on legal analysis. It thus becomes part of the legal skirmishes of recent culture wars, which have been especially evident in relation to Muslim practices. In several countries, the wearing of headscarves, religious slaughter of animals, or regular prayer times in public schools have been prohibited or restricted in recent years. Instead of advancing the legal debate with substantiated arguments, the ruling thus stands as a provincial posse and a legal blunder.