WASHINGTON, DC – A bill to ban non-medical circumcision in Iceland has predictably provoked outrage from Jews and Muslims. They have every reason to be concerned: There have also been calls to outlaw ritual circumcision in the Netherlands and Scandinavia; doctors in the United Kingdom are under pressure to support a ban as well; and few have forgotten that the practice’s legality was challenged in Germany in 2012.
Circumcision has increasingly come under fire in Europe, because the definition of human rights has expanded to include children’s bodily integrity, while the definition of religious freedom has narrowed to include primarily worship and association. But if this emerging hierarchy of rights isn’t managed carefully, the legitimacy of the entire human-rights project could be imperiled.
According to Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, the Progressive Party parliamentarian who introduced the Icelandic bill, the central issue is “children’s rights, not … freedom of belief.” Gunnarsdóttir accepts that “everyone has the right to believe in what they want,” but she insists that, “the rights of children come above the right to believe.”
For his part, Imam Ahmad Seddeeq of the Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland has countered that circumcision is a part of the Muslim faith, and that Gunnarsdóttir’s bill amounts to “a contravention [of] religious freedom.” And Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, the Bishop of Iceland, has warned that the ban would effectively turn Judaism and Islam into “criminalized religions,” because anyone practicing circumcision could be subject to six years in jail.
Complicating matters further, both sides base their arguments on human rights. For example, some supporters of the ban have argued that circumcision violates Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” The term “treatment,” supporters argue, applies to circumcision.
At the same time, some of those defending the practice have also pointed to the UDHR, particularly Article 18, which holds that, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” Moreover, Article 18 defines this right broadly: everyone has the “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” The term “practice” would seem to include circumcision.
Confronting questions of human rights requires that one consider context, in order to balance the rights and obligations of inhabitants of increasingly diverse societies. In the matter of circumcision, there are obvious tensions not just between religious freedom and individuals’ physical integrity, but also between parental rights and the authority of the state, multiculturalism and nationalism, and religious and secular moral perspectives.
Moreover, different communities prioritize human rights differently. For some, the moral framework offered by human rights is sufficient in itself; but for others, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution notes, “the language of human rights hardly exhausts the realm of moral and spiritual goods.”
In other words, culture plays a much larger role in shaping interpretations of human rights than many realize, which implies that human-rights practitioners should be wary of passing judgment on any practice with deep cultural or religious roots. As the cultural psychologist Richard Shweder notes, circumcision has featured in conflicts between Europeans and Middle Easterners for centuries. The Jewish revolt against Greek rule in the second century BCE, which Jews now commemorate annually as Hanukkah, was caused in part by a decree banning circumcision under penalty of death.
In Western countries, meanwhile, interpretations of human rights have evolved alongside a larger cultural shift toward individualism and secularism, prompting opposition to a broad set of religious practices. The circumcision issue is one gauge for measuring whether Western societies still value religious freedom enough to accommodate and appreciate a diversity of beliefs and practices. Circumcision has been an integral part of the cultural identity and religious faith of a large portion of the world for thousands of years. The current movement to abolish it in the West augurs a further narrowing of the scope of religious freedom.
The danger in this is that cherry-picking certain rights to enforce secular norms will not just undermine the overall project of human rights, which aims to unite the world’s peoples and improve lives through a shared understanding of the minimum conditions necessary to advance the “inherent dignity” and equality of “all members of the human family.” It will also undercut the credibility of the liberal order, which was founded on tolerance for diversity and minority groups.
Banning circumcision would represent a marked shift away from that tradition in the West. As the United States has historically shown, tolerance means upholding a broader definition of people’s right to practice religion, or otherwise express their cultural identity, according to their beliefs, while withholding judgment on whether such beliefs are “right” or “wrong.”
Seth D. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a forthcoming book on the future of human rights in varied cultural contexts.
By Seth D. Kaplan