The first shot has been fired in the 21st century European war on religion. The front line is the tiny country of Iceland.
Members of Iceland’s parliament from five different parties have proposed a law banning circumcision. Punishment for those convicted of performing the religious practice would be six years in prison.
It is no surprise the first shot in this war is aimed at minority religions, too few in number to have any national clout. There are only about 100 Jews in Iceland, and some several hundred Muslims. They are too weak to speak out for themselves, but others outside of the country who understand the danger of criminalizing religious practices are speaking out on their behalf and on behalf of religious freedom.
Cardinal Richard Marx, president of the Catholic Church in the European Union (COMECE) called the proposed bill “a dangerous attack on religious freedom.”
“COMECE considers any attempt on the fundamental right to freedom of religion as unacceptable. The criminalization of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern,” Cardinal Marx added.
The European Conference of Rabbis also voiced its opposition to the bill. The chief rabbi of Denmark and the rabbi of Oslo are campaigning against the bill, which sets a dangerous precedent.
Circumcision has been a central sacred Jewish practice for 4,000 years. The story of Judaism begins with Abraham’s circumcision, the sign of his covenant with God. Ever since Abraham, circumcision has been the initiation rite of healthy baby boys into the people of Israel’s faith, practice and peoplehood.
Jesus of Nazareth was circumcised.
Circumcision is a Muslim practice as well, although for different reasons.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated one-third of the world’s males are circumcised … no small number.
Iceland – and other European countries that are considering similar legislation – describes the ban in terms of protecting the health and rights of the child. But there is no substance to the health concerns, according to medical experts. According to the Mayo Clinic, circumcision may actually have some health benefits, including easier hygiene, decreased risk of urinary tract infections, decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections and a decreased risk of penile cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics also notes that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.
When the law concerns itself with children’s well-being it must consider the whole child.
In addition to the need for health and safety, children have psychological, social, spiritual and emotional needs. Among them are the need for a secure identity and sense of belonging to a family and a people; their ancestral faith group.
In her recent article, “The Zealous Faith of Secularism,” the author Mary Eberstadt explains today’s intense and widespread practice of identity politics as a reaction to the loss of the easy identity of elementary human connections society once took for granted. She writes,
” ‘Who am I?’ An illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages was better equipped to answer that question than many people in advanced societies in this century. … [H]e spent his days among family and in towns, practicing a shared faith, and thus developed a vivid sense of those to whom he was elementally connected … , she wrote.
Those who want to ban circumcision and other religious practices are not interested in children’s well-being, which includes identity and belonging. Rather, they are interested in imposing their own secular religion and culture.
Jewish history is very familiar with bans against its religious practices. It has seen this movie before – the ancient Greeks and Romans instituted circumcision bans - and recognizes the fundamental hostility underlying the proposed legislation.
Today’s Europeans may consider themselves sophisticated, modern or post-modern, but their words conceal primitive motivations. They are poised to endorse an ancient anti-religious tactic, and for the same old reasons – to impose their dominant religious culture on minorities in their midst.
The first shot in Europe’s war on religion may come from little Iceland, but don’t ignore it. Similar legislation is under discussion elsewhere in Europe.