When I decided to start an ambitious interfaith project in collaboration with Christian and Jewish support, I knew I’d have to start being more vocal about my own Muslim beliefs and opinions. Some, like my criticism of Germany’s banning of infant and childhood circumcision, has stirred a heated debate.
Let’s see if I can bridge the gulf on this issue a little bit…
Empathizing with Secular Views
This is the 21st century. Why should we give any credence to what an “invisible sky daddy” might say about how we should or should not live our lives? I empathize with this point of view and respect that embracing the idea of God(s) may not be for everyone.
I can also respect that, to many, what matters more than some scribblings in an ancient text is facts, rationality, and rights. And the fact of the matter is, exogenous all else, if you’re going to do a semi-permanent modification on someone – that person should have a say in it.
And while most of us do live in a society where people have “freedom of religion”, we do put limits on this freedom. We don’t allow ritual human sacrifice, ceremonial rape, nor (in most modern nations) female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”).
Why should male circumcision be any different? For most with this POV, it’s not.
Empathizing with Religious Views
I can also empathize with how offended many families are right now. You’d be hard-pressed to find a pro-circumcision parent who doesn’t have a great deal of investment, love, and care for their children. It hurts to hear others who don’t share you values claim you’re harming your children.
Harm is the last thing a loving parent would want to do to their child. Yet, for many parents, it’s hard to see how a ban on circumcision will do anything but cause harm. This is because a ban on circumcision won’t actually stop circumcisions.
If one believes that God commands you to circumcise your children, than this commandment supersedes any worldly ruling or law which says otherwise. Families wishing to adhere to this commandment will simply go elsewhere – perhaps even to places with less modern medical care.
I can empathize with families who feel this ruling is less about preventing harm and more about discriminating against people of a certain faith. After all, raising a child is one of the most sacred duties on this planet. There are far more indisputable ways a parent could irreparably harm a child without ever touching a knife.
My Personal View and Experience
As a Muslim, my parents could very well have chosen to wait for me to be a teenager before circumcising me. This, actually, would be in more in line with the ban on circumcision on infants while still being Islamically permissible. But, I’m glad my parents didn’t wait.
Every child has to get used to their own body. I’m glad I didn’t have the additional complexity to my personal mental, physical, emotional, and sexual development by having to deal with this procedure later in life. Puberty – and getting used to those changes – are difficult enough as it is.
But, religious issues aside, I’m glad my parents choose to do this for me because it may very well have saved my life. As a child, while growing up in a developing country, I developed a severe water and climate related fungal infection.
This infection started with my upper torso and worked its way down. This infection occurred despite having access to many modern amenities (including twice daily showers), hygiene products, and medicines that many of the poorest of the poor did not have in that country.
It took several years upon return to the “first world” before the damage of this infection went away. Had I not been circumcised, the infection would have been far more severe and medical treatment far more difficult. I have no lasting disability or disfigurement from this infection because I was circumcised.
Implications for the Poorest of the Poor
Part of the reason that circumcision has survived the test of time is because it has had great medical benefits to cultures, communities, and countries in earlier stages in development. Unfortunately, most Westerners (and Western Aid Workers) overlook this fact.
This is because, as Westerners, we ascribe the most value to knowledge that is shared through science and scientific argument. But this is a relatively modern form of knowledge and overlooks millennia of expertise and know-how passed down through religious, cultural, and tribal practices.
The problem is that well-funded research in the developing world often skews towards Western approaches to aid and development. The wealth and depth of research into the efficacy of Western drugs and Western sanitation and hygiene programs far outweigh the comparable research on indigenous practices.
So, for example, one can cite the United Nations World Health Organization’s recognition that circumcision of males help reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. We can even see this reflected in the demographic data when you look at the unusual prevalence pattern of HIV and AIDS in Africa.
But, given the relative lack of scientific research on this topic, we can just as easily cite a few sparse studies that say otherwise. We can also dismiss any positive data with a hand wave by pointing out that a Western solution (like condoms) would be far more effective.
The problem is that Western solutions to traditional problems and challenges can sometimes not be followed because it’s seen as a foreign and alien solution. Whose to say that an NGO’s massive condom education and distribution campaign won’t just result in a lot of soccer balls being made?
There’s also the fact that some solutions to living a uncircumcised life can’t be followed by the poorest of the poor. For example, here in Bangladesh, the poorest of the poor can’t access clean water, a shower, laundered clothes, soaps, or products like Itch Guard:
The problem is that those who are against childhood and infant circumcision are against it in all cases, contexts, and countries. If that attitude were to prevail, the people who would suffer the most from this are the poorest of the poor.
Call me an outcast if you’d like, but my personal philosophy is that humanity should be one where our commonalities unite us and our differences enrich us – and not divide us. This ruling, and the manner it’s been discussed by its proponents, creates divisions instead of unity.
It proves that Jewish people truly need a Jewish-only state. Because, when they are a minority, they will neither find their religious rights protected nor will they find sympathy or empathy from non-Jews on issues that matter to them.
It also emboldens Muslim leaders in more dictatorial nations and closed-door nations. After all, why let non-Muslims get citizenship in your country when they might start demanding things you don’t agree with?
Ultimately, whether or not you feel that this life is all that there is for each of us, we should spend our time working in ways that bring us together. And that means empathizing with the fact that what one group may consider reducing harm may be seen as doing the exact opposite by others.