Assessing Scandinavia's ritual circumcision debate

Submitted by Matthew on 5 March, 2014 - 12:24

Reading Frank Furedi’s article ‘Culture War: the narcissism of minor differences’ (Spiked Online) I became aware of the debate in Scandinavia on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys. The way Furedi framed this debate alerted me to the need to think through a socialist response. Take his opening paragraph:

“On Sunday, a majority of Swiss voters said yes in a referendum on imposing quotas on the arrival of immigrants from EU countries. On the previous weekend, there were mass demonstrations in France, at which protesters chanted slogans in defence of the traditional family and denouncing the school system for planning to indoctrinate their children with ‘gender-equality’ sex education. On the same weekend, thousands demonstrated in Madrid against tough new anti-abortion laws drawn up by the Spanish government. In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has become the focus for international protest over its discrimination against gay people.”

Furedi groups together reactionary waves of anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion sentiment and action, with a public and political discussion on whether male minors should be ritually circumcised without their consent. His common denominator is “culture war”.

Culture war, Furedi argues, is the defining feature of our post-Cold War society, as political ideologies have been worn out and cultural issues take their place.

Anyone familiar with the works of Antonio Gramsci will know that struggles over culture are not new, and are intrinsically bound up with class (and political) interests. Nonetheless, Furedi concludes:

“The new cultural politics rarely recognises itself for what it is. It cannot openly acknowledge its ambition to monopolise moral authority. Although advocates of lifestyle and identity causes always claim to be tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic, in truth they cannot accept the moral legitimacy of their opponents […] There are no progressive causes that can be advanced through the medium of culture. Those who flatter themselves as enlightened and inclusive are no less complicit than their opponents in creating a climate of intolerance.”

But what about the politics of independent working class culture? In other words, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we “independently” think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?

In a statement — “Let the boys decide on circumcision” — released in Oslo on 30 September 2013, and signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as eleven paediatric experts from it is declared:

“Circumcision, performed without a medical indication, on a person who is incapable of giving consent, violates fundamental medical-ethical principles, not least because the procedure is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications. There are no health-related reasons for circumcising young boys in the Nordic countries.

“Circumstances that may make circumcision advantageous for adult men are of little relevance to young boys in the Nordic countries, and on these matters the boys will have the opportunity to decide for themselves when they reach the age and maturity required to give consent. […] We see it as fundamental that parents’ rights in this context do not prevail over children's right to bodily integrity. The best interests of the child must always be a primary consideration, even if this can reduce the rights of adults to perform religious or traditional practices. [we] wish to work towards a situation where circumcision without medical indication may only be carried out if a boy, who has reached the age and maturity required in order to understand the necessary medical information, chooses to consent to the procedure. […]”

According to the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology:

“The penile foreskin is a natural and integral part of the normal male genitalia. The foreskin has a number of important protective and sexual functions. […]. As clinical sexologists, we are concerned about the human rights aspect associated with the practice of non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys. To cut off the penile foreskin in a boy with normal, healthy genitalia deprives him of his right to grow up and make his own informed decision.

“Unless there are compelling medical reasons to operate before a boy reaches an age and a level of maturity at which he is capable of providing informed consent, the decision to alter the appearance, sensitivity and functionality of the penis should be left to its owner, thus upholding his fundamental rights to protection and bodily integrity. Every person’s right to bodily integrity goes hand in hand with his or her sexual autonomy.”

The response of some to the Scandinavian debate has been to state that it is part of a wider wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism. That, implicitly, seems to be Furedi’s position and others associated with Spiked Online.

Indeed, the pressure from political forces stressing this argument appears to have stalled any banning. The Copenhagen Post reported that in December 2013, a delegation of Israeli Knesset politicians attempted to overturn a human rights-based resolution, which was passed in October 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE):

“The PACE resolution 1952 recommends that member states start moving towards abolishing all kinds of physical assaults on children, including non-therapeutic circumcision of boys and girls. […] In the Israeli media, readers have repeatedly been told that the widely-held European stance against ritual circumcision is rooted partly in anti-Semitism, and partly in fear of an expanding Muslim population in Europe.”

Noted in Israel's Arutz Sheva from February 2014: “Foreign Minister Børge Brende of Norway told the Center of European Rabbis and the Union of Jewish Associations in the European Union... that his government has never considered and will never consider putting a ban on ritual circumcision (brit milah in Hebrew).” It is worth registering that in Norway, political party support for [the ban] comes, in the main, from some in the Labor Party and not from the right-wing Progress Party.

My first response is to emphasise that, yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe is on the rise, and Scandinavia is no exception to this reactionary social and political trend. An article in the January 2014 Economist, assessing the rise of Europe's right-wing, observes:

“The populist right is nowhere to be found in austerity-battered Spain and Portugal. But it thrives in well-off Norway, Finland and Austria. […] From 2001 to 2011 the Danish People’s Party under Pia Kjaersgaard swapped parliamentary support for a succession of centre-right minority coalitions for tighter legislation on immigration. […] To the consternation of liberal Scandinavians, Norway’s nationalist-right Progress Party, which secured 16% of the vote at recent parliamentary elections, has been welcomed into a minority coalition government. Its leader, Siv Jensen — a sort of Norwegian Marine Le Pen, who talks about the “rampant Islamification” of Norway — has become the finance minister.”

My second response is to untangle and reassemble the Scandinavian debate on the ritual circumcision of boys — in which not all of the forces can be crudely and crassly labelled and reduced to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism — and a climate of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe, in order to work out an independent socialist perspective.

On assessing the debate and the related evidence, some immediate and basic socialist demands can be concluded:

The right of children to bodily integrity; the right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life; non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure; opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe; opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia; for an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics.

This leaves open the question of “punishment” if the principle of the right of the child to bodily integrity is carried through into law? Evidence of the varying outcomes from the application of the law against female genital mutilation (FGM) suggests that the solution to achieving a phasing out of this practice lies in education.

Whilst France does not have a specific law against FGM, since the late 1970s it has prosecuted parents and “cutters” under existing legislation relating to grievous bodily harm and violence against children. Despite common perceptions this has not led to a deluge of convictions; over the last 34 years there have been 29 trials, and approximately 100 convictions.

Alongside legal application there has been an intense educational campaign in France, including the training of health and education professionals on this issue, and the systematic examination of girls during routine health checks as babies.

The Independent notes: “In the early 1980s, analysis of the examinations showed that if a mother had been “excisée” (mutilated), there was an 80 per cent chance that her daughter would also have been subjected to FGM. A survey in 2007 suggested this had been reduced to 11 per cent.”

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