This is the translation of a guest commentary in Die Presse by Christian Zeitz. Germany’s discussion about the legality of religious circumcision has spilled over into Austria, prompting many comments, some of them particularly tasteless (Ariel Muzicant, former leader of the Jewish Faith Community in Vienna, compared a ban to a new Shoah).
Bottom line: if we continue to allow barbaric religious practices under the guise of religious freedom, one day we will have to legalize female circumcision, stoning, and polygamous marriages, as well as wife-beating.
Many thanks to JLH for translating this op-ed from Die Presse:
Circumcision and Religious Freedom: No Phony Compromises
by Christian Zeitz
The state should not prosecute circumcision among Jews, but should later allow damages to the aggrieved parties.
The lively and astonishingly broad discussion on the question of religiously motivated circumcision is both gratifying and useful, because it has publicized two realizations. First, religious and ritual interests also play a considerable role in our supposedly secular society. Second, many people are tired of the fact that any critical judgment of religious views and practices is immediately choked off and then quickly proscribed by using the stigma of discrimination against religious minorities.
This time, in fact, we have already had to hear accusations of “anti-Semitism” and “Islamophobia.” This emotional heating-up does not advance the goal of an unbiased resolution of the problem.
One thing is beyond question. Of course the surgical removal of healthy tissue constitutes bodily harm. The claim that it is (almost) painless, (usually) without complication and would entail no functional disadvantage is not a counter-argument. That would also apply to the amputation of the left little toe. The admonition that state-guaranteed religious freedom would automatically de-criminalize the procedure is also not so easy to maintain. After all, control over a small child, who has no choice but to allow an irreversible invasion of its body, is the precise opposite of freedom. It must be conceded that it is more out of the question for Jews (than Muslims) to negotiate away the ritual circumcision, because it is the unconditional prerequisite for the bond with Yahweh.
It follows from this that we must acknowledge there are religious doctrines whose practice contravenes human rights or secular, constitutional democracy. If commitment to the state is not to be dissolved, we cannot sweep the problem under the rug by automatically deciding conflicts between religious norms and state rights and duties in favor of unlimited religious freedom. If we did, we would eventually have to accept the burning of widows.
“Getting a Ticket” for Circumcising
What is needed is an open discussion about dealing with religious beliefs which are in clear contradiction of constitutional rights and civil liberties as well as state laws (such as right of revenge, punishment of disobedient wives and polygamy in Islam). On no account may “religious freedom” be placed in a position to invalidate freedom of expression (in religious criticism) or constitutional equality. The state and society have the right and duty in every conflict to carry out a balanced, respectful weighing and limiting of rights and obligations which serves the community.
In accordance with the principle of proportionality, a fair compromise in the case of ritual circumcision might look like this: The state forgoes criminal prosecution of circumcision with Jews (perhaps also Muslims) and explicitly allows it. At the same time, it offers the circumcised boy -- when he achieves his majority -- the opportunity to declare his circumcision to have been carried out against his will and seek monetary or other damages. This could also be a kind of “penalty” for the instigator.
Religious peace is not without cost. That is true for all parties involved. We should not deceive ourselves about that with false compromises.
Christian Zeitz is the academic director of the Institute for Applied Political Economics.