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Guardians of the Orthodoxy: Writing about Rights and Rites

[Cross posted from the Blogtivist site]

Following a facile article in favor of mass male circumcision on the site (which I discuss on another blog), where the author went to some lengths to pretend he was not in favor of it, there is an article defending circumcision as a religious rite for Jewish people, with even a single mention of Muslims (at a time when even vaguely pro-Muslim, or non-anti-Muslim, sentiment in the media is particularly unfashionable) in the English Guardian. The title of the Guardian article reads: “A ban on male circumcision would be antisemitic. How could it not be?” The article purports to be a response to the Council of Europe’s ‘comparisons’ of male genital mutilation with female genital mutilation, with the author claiming there is no acronym for the former, suggesting that she has familiarized herself with neither the literature nor the operation.

But enthusiasm for circumcision is not confined to the operation as a religious rite. The big money is behind it as a ‘preventive’ against HIV and several sexually transmitted infections. Starting with adults and teenagers as targets for mass male circumcision campaigns, proponents have long been setting their sights on infants. Never mind the fact that most infants don’t engage in any kind of sexual behavior, least of all a kind that would be claimed to increase the risk of HIV transmission in those who have not been circumcised, not even by the most rabid proponent of the operation. Proponents of circumcision *want* to circumcise everyone, at all costs. What could be easier than starting with Africans, about whom few in the media care very much.

What has the argument got to do with the Guardian article? After all, is promoting circumcision for its claimed protection against HIV and the Guardian is promoting it as a religious rite. Well, both articles argue for the mainstream, financially sound view, the view that doesn’t fly in the face of current political sentiment and, more importantly, doesn’t fly in the face of important funders and supporters. depends on big pharma for its funding, along with some other wealthy institutions. The Guardian does not (entirely), but the Guardian’s Development section is funded by the Gates Foundation. That is higly significant when it comes to circumcision: the Gates Foundation is not just pro-circumcision, it funds one of the three main websites that promote circumcision, the Clearinghouse on Male Circumcision for HIV Prevention (the other two are the WHO and USAID).

In fact, the Foundation has also funded research carried out on African participants, research that is highly questionable, ethically as well as empirically. The Guardian’s article doesn’t appear on their Development section, but the connection with as huge a figure in the realm of circumcision promotion as Bill Gates is of a significance that should not be dismissed lightly. In addition, the Guardian article defends circumcision as a religious rite, but the article, by implication, opposes non-circumcision as a cultural right. Ethically and empirically dubious arguments are being shoved down the throats of Africans who do not currently circumcise, by people who do not consider for one moment that others have the right to choose not to circumcise, for cultural reasons. In Kenya, for example, it is for cultural reasons that members of the Luo tribe do not circumcise, and the same goes for many other Africans. It is not because they, like the Europeans, do not believe that the reasons given for mass male circumcision are completely unconvincing (arguments that have changed many times over the decades, except in the fervor with which they are expressed).

Back to Tanya Gold’s arguments in the Guardian. The Council of Europe, astutely enough, used the phrase violation of the physical integrity of the body’ to describe male circumcision. Even defenders of the operation could hardly deny that it violates the physical integrity of the body, could they? After all, that’s the point of it, as a rite and as a putative protection against HIV. Gold doesn’t tell us if she would object if the Council had attempted to suggest that parents be allowed to wait until their boys were old enough to decide whether to be circumcised or not. After all, compromises have been made before. Religious and cultural rites have been modified, even abandoned altogether. Tattooing and body piercing are not banned, but people are not permitted to tattoo and pierce parts of their babies, or even their children. These also violate the physical integrity of the body, although many people believe that they are worth having, for cosmetic or other reasons.

Even Gold is ‘repulsed’ by certain conditions that may surround circumcision, as if these conditions are not common. But most circumcisions are carried out in non-sterile, non-clinical conditions. In fact, like the violation of the physical integrity of the body, this is what makes them a matter of religious or cultural rite, rather than an operation that people can have carried out in a hospital, preferably when they are old enough to decide if they want to have their foreskin removed. Gold is not arguing for these conditions, but she is arguing for the religious right to perform circumcisions, and (perhaps) for the cultural right (or maybe she only considers Jewish circumcision to be worth defending? She is not clear on this.) Would Gold consider allowing parents to wait until their son could decide for himself? We expect those who perform rites and rituals we (in the West) consider repulsive, harmful, etc, to compromise or even abandon those rites and rituals. Why not discuss such a compromise with those who practice circumcision?

Gold objects to calling ritual circumcision a ‘violation of children’s rights’. But if there are exceptions to a law against violation of children’s rights, and violation of the physical integrity of the body in particular, how does this affect other children’s rights, even human rights in general? Can you argue that certain rights should be denied to those infants where parents believe that that would constitute a denial of their own religious rights to circumcise their child? Are human rights not interrelated, interdependent and indivisible: Gold seems to believe that circumcision does not involve violation of the physical integrity of the body, which is ridiculous, though she may prefer a different way of expressing the same thing. But she also seems to believe that circumcising infants is not a violation of their rights, and that banning infant circumcision denies parents their rights. She doesn’t make the distinction between infant circumcision and adult circumcision, but she seems to believe that the Jewish rite necessarily requires that it be carried out on infants.

Sadly, Gold has confined her arguments to the rights of Jewish people and chosen to write about antisemitism, rather than dealing with the broader issues of circumcision, human rights, the right to choose (particularly the right to choose not to circumcise), children’s rights and the like. True, she stuck her neck out by using the word ‘Muslim’ once and had the temerity not to include any other words beloved by journalists and home office officials as an accompaniment to the word ‘Muslim’, but she is clearly not in the business of standing up for what she believes in. It’s almost as if it’s not her job to believe in things. She invokes the typical ‘slippery slope’ argument: if circumcision is a “human rights violation against children… This is a trend – and so of course the next stage is prohibition.” We wouldn’t want to use emotive arguments, would we? There is a “dark marriage between human-rights agitators and racists”, according to Gold.

Which means that in objecting to infant circumcision, either as a religious rite or as a means of ‘preventing’ HIV, I am not just an antisemite, but I am also in bed with racists. I am supporting the “removal of Jews from Europe”. There was me thinking that I was arguing for human rights and against abuses of human rights, especially ones that journalists typically ignore, such as the rights of people who are not wealthy, or powerful, or perhaps people who are not even Guardian readers (who?), although I read the Guardian myself. Gold ends her piece with a sentiment that I would agree with if it were about journalists: “some Jews are always packed in their minds”. But I can’t reassert my credentials as a defender of human rights by accusing a journalist of having views that are formed independently of thought, evidence, logic or humanity; that’s shooting fish in a barrel.

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