Controversial Comments on Circumcision

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.

Correlation doesn’t mean causation – but HIV prevalence in Africa closely follows trends in both religiosity and the practice of circumcision.

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.

Global Implications

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.

23 Responses to “Controversial Comments on Circumcision”

  1. 1 Jon Snow

    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.”

    You’re joking right?

  2. 2 Shawn Ahmed

    I don’t want to get into the details of the condition I had but I want to be clear: I meant this in an entirely medical sense. 

    I don’t mean to suggest or imply in anyway whatsoever that being circumcised gave me any divine or magical protection or recovery.

    Rather, for completely medical and hygienic reasons, the infection was easier to manage, control, and limit in the situation I was in due to being circumcised.

    But, judging by the tone of your comment, you’re welcome to not believe me.

  3. 3 Jay Schmidt

    You seem to be saying that race is the same thing as religion, so Jews and Muslims should be allowed to permanently brand their children with religion.  Circumcision of minors is difficult to eradicate not because of religion (plenty of old religious ceremonies/rites have been abandoned in the last few thousand years), but because it’s incredibly difficult for a cut man to admit to himself and others than his own amputation was unnecessary.  It’s the “Fox Without a Tail” syndrome.  Only cut men cut their sons, because they are in a state of denial that it’s a big deal.  The excuses for it are secondary.

  4. 4 Shawn Ahmed

    I don’t believe I’ve said, suggested, or implied any of what you’re saying I’ve said, suggested, or implied.

  5. 5 Jay Schmidt

     I think most neutral readers would agree with me that that’s what you said.  As for your WHO argument, it’s been shown in other studies that 10 of 18 countries surveyed display higher rates of HIV infection among cut men.  All of the medical justifications for circumcision are post hoc.

  6. 6 Shawn Ahmed

    Well we’ll have to agree to disagree. And, for the record, I have already said that those who disagree with the WHO argument can cite other studies that disagree with it. But, overall, research in this area (compared to other areas and topics of development) is lacking. 

    But, by all means, don’t let rational thought or discussion get in the way of your assertion that I’m just making “excuses”. Hopefully neutral readers will take note of that as well as any faults in what I have written.

  7. 7 windigo77

    I think you brought up some very interesting points, and an argument that I have not yet encountered [and debunked] before [referring to the effect on the poor]. Kudos for that.

    I still hold that circumcision is a sexual assault on the child, and should be punished equally to that of female circumcision, and that parents have no right to cut children, just as they have no right to stab, beat or maim them in any way, regardless of religion or medical ‘beliefs’ [including beliefs that it prevents HIV (which it doesn’t), etc].

    I was cut as an infant and deeply reset and despise those who inflicted it upon me. I will never, in this lifetime, be able to experience life as it was meant to be for me, and will be forever hurt by a world that thought it was acceptable to impose this vile and cruel act of sexual aggression against me at a time where I was most vulnerable.

  8. 8 Shawn Ahmed

    First, thanks 🙂

    Second, I must politely note that you’re trying to declare a fact by fiat. Having worked both in and outside of the UN system, I can attest that they don’t put up health information recklessly. Every statement is scrutinized and re-examined through a large bureaucracy.

    I’m not saying “UN said it so therefore it is true”. After all, as you can see in Jay Schmidt’s comment, you can cite studies that counter the WHO findings. What I’m suggesting is that we need more studies before we can conclusively say on a scientific basis it has or doesn’t have benefits.

    Also, if your previous circumcision is something of severe resentment, have you looked into surgical options? I wish I could find the news piece, but there are options to have this reversed. While one can argue it won’t be the same as if it were never done, this can be changed.

  9. 9 Nikolaus Gregor

    I really didn’t want to get into this discussion at all, but I just have to get it off my chest. This is honestly not a religious issue in any way, shape, or form–it’s a human rights issue, end of story. Do these infant boys honestly have no right to prevent the mutilation of their own bodies? Let them at least make the decision for themselves when they’re old enough to do so!

    A big deal has been made in general about how this restricts people religious freedoms, but I think it’s rather ironic–and hypocritical–that opponents completely ignore the child’s religious freedoms. What if he grows up and decides to follow another religion, or none at all, or for some other reason decides that he wishes he had never been circumcised? That’s a right that he should have, but it was taken away from him before he was even old enough to understand what was happening. And why? Just because he’s a child, too young to make the decision himself? Are the STD transmission benefits (which are controversial to begin with) of any value to a prepubescent child? If no, then what’s the rush?

    Whenever people point at this issue and say, “You’re restricting my religious freedoms!” I can only think that it’s ridiculous for any rational person to think that his religious freedoms have any say over another human being, *especially* when it comes to mutilation of that human being’s body. Your rights end where mine begin–period.

    I’ll just finish by noting that the noted protective benefit from HIV as a result of circumcision specifically relates to the poorer nations of the world, namely those in Subsaharan Africa. But Subsaharan Africa and Germany are entirely different places with entirely different circumstances, not at all comparable; the same data can’t necessarily be extrapolated. And even in the nations where those data are relevant, I still think the decision whether or not to be circumcised should be made by each man when he’s old enough to understand the consequences. If he chooses not to, at least you’ve got him in a position where you can teach him about other safe practices to protect against the disease instead. Education should always be the goal we strive for.

  10. 10 Billy Tennery

    I’ve had this window open for over a day now trying to decide how exactly to stress my thoughts on this. First let me say thank you for taking a stance on the issue. I believe I know you well enough to assume that you are happy to change your views even with the family you have should superior logic and understanding prevail upon you. Secondly let me thank you for educating me further on the effects of wide sweeping change that I should have been intelligent enough to understand, yet failed to realize. It is yet again another humbling experience and yet another call of for education over ignorance; a struggle we should all should be seeking to pursue every day.

    Now time to dive in. Just because your holy book says to do something, does not make it right. I’m sorry, that is just how it is. Now, I understand that, as an atheist, it is easy to make that claim. Please understand that I spent over 30 years as a Christian (protestant southern baptist, but bounced around quite a bit in my adulthood even to Catholicism) before I became and atheist. So, while not an “expert” in religious studies, I do have some knowledge of the workings if even only one or two sects.

    For instance, the Holy Bible with which I was raised tells me it is perfectly acceptable to sell my daughter and even gives me rules to follow in doing so. In first world countries and even many third world countries this is detestable. It likewise tells me that women should acquiesce to the desires of men and not seek nor be allowed any position of teaching or authority. I find that likewise detestable because under such laws things like the women in Bangladesh doing healthcare work would not be allowed. I believe you can see this line of reasoning. Just because a holy book says someone can or even should do something is no excuse to do things that rational, thoughtful people have provided logical arguments against with no other backing than a religious text.

    That being said, it is my belief that circumcision of males is no different that female genital mutilation. If I was of a religion that thought it ok to remove the left nipple of all females at birth because a child shouldn’t even have the option to drink from a weak left breast, I would be thought of as a horrible person and no doctor in his right mind would perform such a act. This is no different. It is elective cosmetic surgery of infants, sanctioned by whatever god the parents follow, agreed to by the parents which may not even understand the procedure, which will have lifelong effects on the child.

    Now I know you have covered that aspect of this, but give this a good read over. You go on to say that good loving parents don’t want to harm their children. And that is true. I love my children, but to my everlasting shame, I had my own boy circumcised. I didn’t understand at the time. It is my fault. The pain it caused was all on me. Ignorance is no excuse. I love him dearly, but just because we don’t want to cause pain does not mean we do not. Just because we are doing the “normal” thing, does not mean that it isn’t harmful. As conscious human beings, we must evaulate what we are doing and ask questions. “Is this harmful” “How is this harmful” “Why is this harmful”. If we, as parents, are not willing to ask, the shame and responsibility of causing needless pain is no ones to bare but our own.

    You continue to state that if this is outlaw, it will just go on somewhere else. This might be true. But should we have not outlawed slavery because it just pushed it to the black market? The main difference here is that circumcision could, in fact, be carried out. The difference is it would have to be later in life as young boys or young men instead of as a child. The analogy that best fits are those that still get backyard abortions in the US but only after the first trimester…. see the problem here?

    You go on to make an argument of your own experience. While I am delighted that you were able to avoid disaster because of fate or familial religious views, you must also understand that it is called anecdotal evidence. While valid within the personal sphere and within a sphere containing significant others, as a sole arguement for or against anything, it does not hold water.

    Fortunately, that was not your sole defense and you go on to site that a scant bit of research has been done on the correlation between AIDS and circumcision. I believe that if one wants such procedures done, they must FIRST have this research. We are talking about using a sharp implement(s) to painfully remove sections of skin from an infant’s body WITH NO VALID SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH FOR THE REASON. Sure there are cultural reasons. The old witch of a tribe or small community brewed herbs to lessen the pain of ulcers or help with back pain or aid with an ear ache. Science takes those methods and puts them to the test under that “modern form of knowledge”. It is not overlooked or shunned just because it has worked for a millennia. Indeed, if it has stood the test of time it might have something to it. Maybe there is a way to make it better. The problem is what questions do you ask. AIDS has only been heavily researched for the past thirty or so years which is a pretty small window in which to include circumcision. Think of how long cancer research has been happening?

    And now I quote. “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.” A religious people who wish to inflict pain on infants do not need a state to hide behind nor do they deserve sympathy on this ground unless it’s ignorance. Likewise, I am a minority being an atheist in the US. There has never been an openly atheist president though there has been 44. There has never been an openly atheist senator, though their are 100 per term. There is only one openly atheist member in the 441 person House of Representatives. I may not be liked. Others may try to silence me. I may be threatened. But I do have my rights protected by the same laws that allow someone else to pray to Allah or God or Ahura Mazda.

    “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?” So people who DO have a religious state to protect their rights and find sympathy and empathy should now have a more open door to allow for discourse such as this to bring new ideas? I’m sorry, but you are arguing both sides of the point.

    …I feel like a peasant during a crusade hearing chants of “GOD WILLS IT!”

    I agree with you that our differences enrich us. I agree that we should strive for a unity that embraces all. Just as it is my religious belief that all first born must be males, and due to this any female born first must be buried alive……

    Religious freedom has it’s place. It is a celebration of freedom to allow any to worship their gods how they see fit. It is the differences of beliefs and cultures that bring new ideas and understanding. That is until they start reaching over those bounds to impose their will on others who rights are now violated.


    To willfully brand and/or inflict pain on another human without their informed and competent consent or without reasonable scientific medical knowledge of the necessity for such a medical procedure is assault. It is NOT an exercise of religious freedom.

  11. 11 Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Nik – thanks for leaving your comment here instead of on Facebook 🙂

    I’m going to flip this around a bit. Stopping circumcision doesn’t enable greater religious freedom. Period. Why is that? 

    Because human beings aren’t born and raised in a vacuum. They grow up in families. In communities. And that means they are raised up with particular beliefs (whether it’s a belief in a religion or no religion at all) that is beyond their control.

    What goes into their minds has greater potential to shape (or harm) them than anything done to their body. They could learn intolerance. Or to hate themselves (e.g. as many LGBT people coming out in religious families sometimes struggle with). THAT is far more harmful.

    If the goal is to maximize a child’s potential to make his own decision, than why are we allowing religious people to raise children? 

    What if the child decides to grow up to be a Jehovah’s Witness? Should we prevent every child from ever receiving a blood transfusion? Or injection-based immunization?

    What if the child grows up and decides to be Sikh? Should parents be forbidden from cutting their child’s hair for that eventuality? 

    What this decision does is amplify harm to a child – not protect it’s rights. Why is that?

    First off, religious families that care enough about this issue will simply go elsewhere and have the procedure performed. Many have already said as much. So, if not done in modern Germany, it could be done in a place with far fewer medical amenities.

    Second, HIV data aside, there are general hygiene benefits to this procedure which limit other types of non-STD related infections. Parents should have a right – exogenous of religion – to decide what preventative care they want to provide their children. 

    Finally, Germany maybe different than the developing world, but the principles on which this ruling was made could just as easily be argued (and imposed) on the poor of the developing world. Making the harm less theoretical and more real and tangible.

  12. 12 Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Billy – I apologize for the brevity of my response since you wrote so much. Here are my thoughts:

    First, I am not making the argument that “god wills it” so you have to accept it. What I am making is the argument that, because this POV exists for many, this will happen regardless of any ban placed. Potentially doing more harm to children than if it were done in the open.

    Second, you assume that just because a child is circumcised it was done on a purely religious basis. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I know many families that are complete atheists that have done this for a variety of non-religious reasons. 

    Third, I get that you put a great deal of emphasis on science. So much so that you capitalized it. And, to be honest, so do I. But the reality is more complex than that. The fact of the matter is, if we approach issues in the developing world on a scientific basis only, we are implementing a form of imperialism. Let me explain…

    Science is unbiased. But the manner in which proper studies and research is funded is not. If we rely on science only for our decisions on matters that affect the poorest of the poor, we overlook valid know-how and valid knowledge that is not yet fully studied and shared through non-scientific means.

    I could go on but I think some of what I replied to Nikolaus Gregor would also apply to this conversation. Feel free to check out my reply to him as well.

  13. 13 Billy Tennery

     Brevity is not my strong suit so thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

    Firstly, I can see your point, and the picture I painted might have been a bit extreme comparing it to slavery. We know things like drug use, prostitution, and abortions exist in the underground when blanket banned, so I can see where your idea comes from. However, I’m making the same case as Germany (and always will for that matter) that if a person wants to multilate their own genitals he or she may do so, but someone should not be allowed to do so to an infant.

    Secondly, I can see this as well. In the USA it is more or less the “norm” and even in those first few days of parenthood, believe it or not, you worry about things like “Will his girlfriend/wife/partner laugh at him?” Strange I know, but true (at least in my case).

    Thirdly, I would whole-heartedly put my support behind more research that looks into the pros and cons of circumcision because imo there just isn’t enough out there for all the “folk-knowledge” running around. I understand your POV and I indeed aplaud you for articulating your points. But understand two things from my POV.

    I believe you are free to believe whatever you wish. After all, there is no scientific data for any gods, yet I will stand, gun in hand, defending the right of anyone to speak and believe in what they do. It is a precious freedom that so many do not enjoy.

    And lastly, To willfully brand and/or inflict pain on another human without their
    informed and competent consent or without reasonable scientific medical
    knowledge of the necessity for such a medical procedure is assault.

  14. 14 Shawn Ahmed

    If I didn’t know you, I could tell you’re most likely a Westerner (I’m trying to be politically correct or I would have said “White Anglo-Saxon”).  Why? Your comments in this post have a subtle ethnocentrism you aren’t fully aware of. Let’s review:

    – You focus on scientific data. I emphasize that scientific data can only be gathered through scientific studies and that this often overlooks many indigenous forms of knowledge.

    – You call anything that’s not part of a scientific study “anecdotal evidence”. I consider these unique data points to be important qualitative case studies which can lead to sociological and anthropological truths.

    – You call indigenous forms of knowledge “folk-knowledge”. How charming! I, on the other hand call it what it is: indigenous forms of knowledge. Which can sometimes be as accurate, useful, and insightful as the best scientific study.

    – Last, but not least, you call a practiced and time honored tradition “branding” someone. I wonder if we start calling immunizations “needle stabbings” if we can’t get the ball rolling on banning immunizations. Because the case I’m making is that circumcision – like immunizations – can be a medical decision. Those who decide to stab their child with needles – do so with scientific knowledge. Those who choose to circumcises their sons – do so with indigenous knowledge. Both can be valid and both can potentially lead to health gains for children. 

    But as long as we’re being ethnocentric we not only overlook this fact, we deny families the choice to make medical choices for their children. 

  15. 15 windigo77

    If all you are interested in is ‘agreeing to disagree’ why the hell did you write the article in the first place?

    Just an observation.

  16. 16 Shawn Ahmed

    Good question. Here’s why:

    1) Because freedom of speech is an important as freedom of religion. 

    2) Because it’s my blog and I can write whatever I want whenever I want.

    3) Because people were drawing out the discussion to a tweet I made and figured I need to elaborate my POV.

    4) And, most importantly, because even if people don’t agree on issues (and may never agree on them) it’s important to have a dialogue. And it’s important that this dialogue be respectful. And, even if there is no mutual ground to be found, we should strive to empathize with each other’s POV. I feel I’ve done my best to empathize with those that disagree with me. But, especially with the staunchest ideologues on this matter, I can’t say the same was reciprocated to me. C’est la vie.

  17. 17 Billy Tennery

     Sorry Shawn, I only have internet on the weekends :-(.

    To clarify, I am indeed a White Anglo-Saxon male raised in the Southeastern USA. I have had the luxury of growing up in a first world country and being part of a culture where (aside from my southern heritage) I have had the world open to me. (Not really but that is a conversation for another time).

    On to your points. I whole-heartedly agree with you that without scientific study there can be no scientific data. I cannot say that scientific study purposefully passes over indigenous practices, but I will agree that it can sometimes look down their nose at them.

    Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal evidence. If I was saved at a young age by not wearing my seat belt where if I had it would have killed me, I cannot use that as scientific data that seat belts kill and do not save. Now shared data over a wide audience may prove or disprove your point, but until real studies are done, these cases are, by definition, anecdotal. The fact that there has been no case studies yet is somewhat perturbing to me.

    I was not aware that “folk-knowledge” was a derrogatory term. It was not meant to be. Chewing tobacco spit into bee stings, vacuum cleaners helping infant ear aches, these are all folk-knowledge. I agree with you that sometimes be as accurate, useful, and insightful as the best scientific study. However, until it is put under the stress of an impartial scientific method, it is what is it… folk knowledge precipitated by anecdotal evidence.

    As for calling circumcision “branding”, it is my understanding that that was what it was. Abraham was to “brand” God’s people by removing the foreskin. Christians and Muslims continued the practice for the same reasons. So, though now many continue the practice for varying reasons, it began as “branding” and is still used for “branding” and it is the reason the Jewish community is being focused on in the news.

    Lastly you say “Those who decide to stab their child with needles – do so with
    scientific knowledge. Those who choose to circumcises their sons – do so
    with indigenous knowledge. Both CAN be valid and both CAN potentially
    lead to health gains for children. ” The key word in there is “CAN”. There is a mountain of proven scientific data on the reasons for “needle-stabbing” (it is what it is and  I’m not afraid to admit it). There is none for circumcision. Should that change, I’m more than willing to change my view on it. But for the time being… “To willfully brand and/or inflict pain on another human without their
    informed and competent consent or without reasonable scientific medical
    knowledge of the necessity for such a medical procedure is assault.”

  18. 18 Kurt Erb

    The issue as I see it is not religion, but tradition. Generally I don’t see why German muslims should follow an ancient tradition common to other societies in a lower state of development and make an intervention at a very sensitive level for the development of a child. A spirit of enlightenment should govern society, meaning we should get rid off ancient traditions and rituals, go on a sincere quest to our god. Most German muslims don’t circumcise. They don’t follow these traditions as the jews. Regarding the judgement, it didn’t declare it illegal but simply correctly identified it as a “body injury” from which the doctors were indemnified.

  19. 19 Patricia Ivette Ruvalcaba Vela

    I understand your point of view, but I think you are overlooking a very important detail: indigenous/folkloric/traditional/empiric medicine (whichever adjective you like to use) a great deal of times gets so meshed up with traditions and beliefs that you end up with illogical, unreasonable and potentially harming practices.
    Western medicine tells us there is no actual evidence that circumscision helps a boy’s health. The experiences of people in poor countries that do not have acess to clean water and sanitation tells us that the prepuce can be a reservoir of virus and bacteria and thus, the best option is to circumscise boys. Point to both  camps. Notheless, there is a third camp: “my religion tells me to do it”. In ancient times, it was logical to do it – there was no sanitation. But nowadays? We are creatures of habit and we will most likely will continue doing something this or that way because “that’s what everyone before me has done”.

    Germany is a first world country, there is sanitation and a lot of third world illness don’t even exist in the country. Thus, it falls on the first category: there is no actual evidence that it works, there is not actual evidence that it may be needed, even as a precaution and there is no logical reason to do it, because the religions that command it tell so in a book that is more than a millenium old and thus, the circumstances of the practice when the book was written and when the book is read and followed DO NOT match.

    As you can see, my favorite word is WHY?. I read your article, and I checked what western medicine said about it to undestand why it said what it said and why you say what you say. As empiric data is unproven, I can’t look it up, because there is nothing backing certain idea over another one. If there is a logical  reason, then I will support circumcision, but in the specific case of Germany, there is none, so the decision I take is a definite no.

    Scientific proof is not everything, but logic and reason are. We cannot continue doing something just because is “tradition” (or because a book says so). In Africa, boys are circumcised as a rite of passage to become men and boy! it does hurt, especially because they are not anesthezised, since the rite of passage demands a proof of the male – and manly – characteristic of being able to endure pain. Girls, on the other side, are allowed to cry out, but still, both, boys and girls are mutilated in the name of tradition.

    As you can see, this is an extreme example of why circumcision is wrong, but my point is not the easy comparison that can be made to female mutilation in this case, but the illogical and unreasonable decision taken in the name of tradition (which could also have been religion) that causes such pain to young, healthy boys without a real, medical explanation.

  20. 20 Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Patricia – thanks for such a wonderful comment. My response is below.

    It’s important to understand that language and choice of words can have weight – even when we don’t see the bias or weight in the words and phrases we choose. Here are a few phrases in your comment that stood out to me.

    “Western medicine tells us there is no actual evidence that circumscision helps a boy’s health.” At first glance, one can’t help but agree with your statement. 

    For example, I may say that rubbing your belly while standing on one foot will cure AIDS. But there is no evidence to such a claim. Please note, I am being intentionally absurd with my example and don’t actually believe such a claim.

    The key difference in what I wrote and what you wrote is that I said “there is no evidence” and you said “there is no actual evidence”. Herein lies a good example of the power of words and phrases to have weight.

    Your phrase suggests that, if Western medicine hasn’t found the evidence, than therefore such evidence does not exist. Such a statement presumes that Western empiricism has gathered all data on all subject matters and, thus, only evidence gathered through Western empiricism and science is “actual evidence”.

    But, as I have gone to great lengths to belabor, while science is unbiased – it is not all emcompassing because our studies are not all encompassing. And our studies are not all encompassing because what we fund to study (and studies can be expensive!) is not uniform or fully unbiased (intentionally or unintentionally).

    “We are creatures of habit and we will most likely will continue doing something this or that way because ‘that’s what everyone before me has done’.” Again, at first glance, one can’t help but agree with your statement. 

    For example, I may put my right shoe on first everyday before putting on my left shoe. That doesn’t mean that, by doing them in this order, I have magically shielded myself from tripping and falling for the rest of the day. 

    But, “we are creatures of habit” in a context like this is also a loaded phrase. And more accurate, and more truthful, phrase would have been “we are creatures of evolution“. I believe in evolution and, for the purposes of this conversation, I hope you do too.

    Evolution happens in many forms – including both biological and social. Our ancestors, through generations and generations of social evolution, may have learned that circumsizing male children increases their survivability. They may not have known the science behind it of course.

    And, as you concede, there is at least one piece of evidence (which meets your standards of “actual evidence”) that suggests that in developing nations and cultures – such a practice saves lives and averts disease. This, however, does not mean that this procedure only helps with one problem. But, rather, there is at least one problem that it solves through your standard of “actual evidence”. 

    But just because we don’t have more evidence that meets your standards does not mean that this is the only health benefit of this procedure. As I have tried to highlight in the above blog post, there is correlating data which suggests that circumcision helps in matters such as distributing the spread of HIV. Again, correlation does not mean causation. This isn’t sufficient scientific evidence. But it is a potential indicator of something more existing.

    By the way calling Germany a “first world” country is a loaded term in and of itself. I don’t need to belabor that point because I’m sure we both agree on that “first world” and “third world” labels aren’t very productive or accurate.

    “The religions that command it tell so in a book that is more than a millenium old” is something I think that most people reading this will also agree. Lots of “old books” say things like it’s okay to stone women or to oppress gay people. Doesn’t mean I, you, or most people reading this will agree.

    However, your phrase is once again loaded because it implies that religion – as a whole – is nothing but some ideas in an old book. Rather, religion serves as a vital component to social evolution. Simply put: biological evolution is written into our DNA but social evolution is written into our cultures and religions.

    This means that, somewhere along the line, multiple cultures in this world discovered a medical benefit to circumcision. That it, somehow, increased the survivability of the human race. That know-how was passed on through culture and – eventually – written down in an old book. 

    That doesn’t mean that every commandment in such books must be followed blindly. But, as pointed out already, we have already one medical justification (that meets your criteria of “actual evidence”) in favor of maintaining circumcision practices in one specific circumstance. And, at the very least, correlated data that suggests further study through Western empiricism.

    “Scientific proof is not everything, but logic and reason are.” Again, at first glance, one can’t disagree with what you’re saying. But, even this statement, is a bit loaded. There is logic, there is reason, but there are also human rights.

    – Exogenous of religious superstition, it is the right of every parent to decide on the wellfare and well-being of their children. 

    – Exogenous of whether in “the first world” or “the third world”, it is the right of every parent to decide to protect their children from potential health hazards from unforseen circumstances. This includes a sudden change of personal income and living conditons or a sudden and unforseen change in location of habitation.

    – Exogenous of what you consider to be “actual evidence”, it is the right of every parent to examine all evidence as to what procedures and tools are available to them to maximize the health and wellfare of their children. This includes empiric data gathered through modern day Western science as well as socio-evolutionary data enshrined in cultural and religious practices.

    And at the end of the day, because religion also comes with strong emotions, if we attempt to ban such a practice anywhere in the world there will always be people who feel religiously compelled to ignore the ban. Ultimately, and for practicality’s sake, such bans must be avoided. 

    Thankfully, since writing this blog post, the German government and the majority of the German medical establishment agrees with me.

    Thanks for your time.

  21. 21 dan p

    Why do you think it saved you? and do you think it would have made your faith stronger to do it in line with your faith not just at birth?

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