Hassan al-Khateb, a 34-year-old management consultant from London, and his wife Shireen, are due to give birth to a son in about four months. To prepare for the baby’s arrival, they’ve bought a new house in a leafy suburb, complete with a room for the newborn and umpteen toys and games given to them by friends and family, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the due date.
Hassan is definitely excited, too. He’s dreamt of becoming a father since his teens — and especially having someone who he can “teach how to ride a bike,” and more importantly, to ensure “lives and breathes for the Gooners” (aka the Arsenal football club).
But there’s one thing Hassan has been privately anxious about — an issue that divides his family, as well as many of his Muslim friends: Whether or not he should have his son circumcised.
“I’m Iraqi, and I have two older brothers — all of us had Khitan [circumcision] months after we were born. In Iraq, it was this really big deal. We were dressed in new clothes; music was played before the ceremony; and our family held a party at our house afterwards. It was a routine for any boy, and we’re expected to do it to our sons and so on,” he explains.
“I didn’t expect to hesitate about it, but since we found out we were having a boy, that’s changed,” he continues. “The idea of inflicting pain onto him, seeing him cry and scream — I’m not sure if I’ll be able to handle that.”
Hassan calls himself a fairly liberal Muslim. He abstains from alcohol, but he doesn’t pray that much and only goes to mosque a few times a year. For him, his Islamic identity is largely tied to his Iraqi one. Which is really the issue here: “Being a Western Muslim, I want to give my son the right to decide how he articulates and expresses his faith. Circumcising him feels as if I’m imposing that identity on him directly — telling him that he’s a Muslim, no matter what. That might be okay when he’s younger, but I know that it can cause resentment in older age. I know people who have left the faith completely, and still resent being circumcised. As if they can’t escape being Muslim, no matter what.”
Hassan’s experience represents a growing trend of young religious men — often second and third generation immigrants living in the West — who struggle with both the ethics and national politics of male circumcision.
That conflict came to a head late last month when a bill went throughIceland’s parliament making it a “criminal offence” to circumcise young boys unless it was medically required. It’s a bill that’s garnered significant support from liberals and medical professionals, but one that’s also been called a “violation of religious freedom” by the country’s small number of Muslims and Jews. Many other European Muslims and Jews also worry that the bill will inspire similar bills in countries with much bigger religious populations.
“It’s a tricky situation for me,” Hassan says about the bill. “I don’t think the government has a right to define how people express their faith. I’m also wary that these kinds of laws aren’t there for the safety of children — they’re an excuse for right-wing parties to attack religious minorities.
“At the same time, I do see the argument that often circumcision is done more for cultural purposes than religions ones. Like, there’s nothing directly quoted in the Qu’ran about circumcising males. It was a cultural practice done to men living in hot climates — obviously not an issue in the U.K. So the question is whether a young man who is circumcised makes him more of a Muslim — or indeed, a better Muslim — than someone who isn’t.”
Of course, when you come from a religious community where circumcision is the norm, it’s difficult to find spaces to talk about whether you have problems with it. “I know my dad always had issues with it,” says “David,” a 28-year-old conservative Jewish PhD student at Cambridge University. Via Twitter DM, David wanted to keep his name hidden because of his online presence, telling me that he’s received hate messages and death threats for previously questioning the necessity of circumcision. “My inboxes were in a state for weeks! People were calling me a Nazi, or saying that I was an atheist masquerading as a Jew. All of it was bizarre. I’m a practicing Jew, and probably more so than a lot of the guys who decided to send me these messages.”
Still, he’s not necessarily alone. “In Jewish communities there are more [and more men] who are deciding not to get their sons circumcised. Part of that is that more Jews are marrying outside of their faith communities and into cultures where circumcision isn’t the norm.”…