Scandinavia’s ritual circumcision debate: a socialist response

“the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity. Critical understanding of the self takes place therefore through a struggle of political ‘hegemonies’ and opposing directions” (Antonio Gramsci)

Independent working class culture

It was on reading Frank Furedi’s article “Culture War: the narcissism of minor differences” (in Spiked Online) that I became aware of the recent debate in Scandinavia on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys. Moreover, it is the way in which Furedi frames this debate that alerted me to the need to think through a socialist response. Take his opening paragraph:

“On Sunday, a majority of Swiss voters said yes in a referendum on imposing quotas on the arrival of immigrants from EU countries. On the previous weekend, there were mass demonstrations in France, at which protesters chanted slogans in defence of the traditional family and denouncing the school system for planning to indoctrinate their children with ‘gender-equality’ sex education. On the same weekend, thousands demonstrated in Madrid against tough new anti-abortion laws drawn up by the Spanish government. In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has become the focus for international protest over its discrimination against gay people.”

Here Furedi groups together, through a common denominator, reactionary waves of anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion sentiment and action, with a public and political discussion on whether male minors should be ritually circumcised without their consent. So, what is his common denominator? A new concept apparently, ‘culture war’. He states: “Today, it is through the contestation of norms and values, and a clash over cultural authority, that conflicts of interest are most commonly expressed.” Culture war, Furedi argues, is the defining feature of our post-Cold War society, as political ideologies have been worn out and cultural issues take their place. Of course, anyone with a decent grasp of the works of Antonio Gramsci will know that struggles over culture are not new, and are intrinsically bound up with class (and political) interests. Nonetheless, Furedi concludes:

“The new cultural politics rarely recognises itself for what it is. It cannot openly acknowledge its ambition to monopolise moral authority. Although advocates of lifestyle and identity causes always claim to be tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic, in truth they cannot accept the moral legitimacy of their opponents. […] There are no progressive causes that can be advanced through the medium of culture. Those who flatter themselves as enlightened and inclusive are no less complicit than their opponents in creating a climate of intolerance.”

Ultimately, and ironically, Furedi (in his outright rejection of culture war) slides right into cultural relativism. What’s more, I ask: what about the politics of independent working class culture? In other words, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?

The Nordic debate


(Wikimedia Commons)

In a joint statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – released in Oslo on September 30th 2013, and signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, it is declared:

“Circumcision, performed without a medical indication, on a person who is incapable of giving consent, violates fundamental medical-ethical principles, not least because the procedure is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications. There are no health-related reasons for circumcising young boys in the Nordic countries. Circumstances that may make circumcision advantageous for adult men are of little relevance to young boys in the Nordic countries, and on these matters the boys will have the opportunity to decide for themselves when they reach the age and maturity required to give consent. […] We see it as fundamental that parents’ rights in this context do not prevail over children’s right to bodily integrity. The best interests of the child must always be a primary consideration, even if this can reduce the rights of adults to perform religious or traditional practices. The Nordic Ombudsmen for Children in conjunction with pediatric experts therefore wish to work towards a situation where circumcision without medical indication may only be carried out if a boy, who has reached the age and maturity required in order to understand the necessary medical information, chooses to consent to the procedure. […]”

On the 10th October 2013 the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” from Helsinki, which includes the following:

“The penile foreskin is a natural and integral part of the normal male genitalia. The foreskin has a number of important protective and sexual functions. […] recent scientific evidence leave little doubt that during sexual activity the foreskin is a functional and highly sensitive, erogenous structure, capable of providing pleasure to its owner and his potential partners. As clinical sexologists, we are concerned about the human rights aspect associated with the practice of non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys. To cut off the penile foreskin in a boy with normal, healthy genitalia deprives him of his right to grow up and make his own informed decision. Unless there are compelling medical reasons to operate before a boy reaches an age and a level of maturity at which he is capable of providing informed consent, the decision to alter the appearance, sensitivity and functionality of the penis should be left to its owner, thus upholding his fundamental rights to protection and bodily integrity. Every person’s right to bodily integrity goes hand in hand with his or her sexual autonomy.”

Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism

The response of some to the Scandinavian debate on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys has been to state that it is part of a wider wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism. That, implicitly, seems to be Furedi’s position, and in another article in his associated journal Spiked Online, Nancy McDermott explicitly states that the ‘culture war’ against circumcision is part of a new, cultural, anti-Semitism that is ironically expressed in the language of human rights.

Indeed, the pressure from particular political forces stressing this argument appears to have stalled any momentum in the direction of banning the practice amongst minors. The Copenhagen Post reported that in December 2013, a delegation of Israeli Knesset politicians attempted to overturn a human rights-based resolution, which was passed in October 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE):

“The PACE resolution 1952 recommends that member states start moving towards abolishing all kinds of physical assaults on children, including non-therapeutic circumcision of boys and girls. […] In the Israeli media, readers have repeatedly been told that the widely-held European stance against ritual circumcision is rooted partly in anti-Semitism, and partly in fear of an expanding Muslim population in Europe.”

Noted in Israel’s Arutz Sheva from February 2014: “Foreign Minister Børge Brende of Norway told the Center of European Rabbis and the Union of Jewish Associations in the European Union, Thursday, that his government has never considered and will never consider putting a ban on ritual circumcision (brit milah in Hebrew).” It is worth registering that in Norway, political party support for the position of the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and paediatric experts on ritual circumcision comes, in the main, from some in the Labor Party and not from the right-wing Progress Party.

My first response is to emphasise that, yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe is on the rise, and Scandinavia is no exception to this reactionary social and political trend. An article in The Economist from January 2014, assessing the rise of Europe’s right-wing, observes:

“The populist right is nowhere to be found in austerity-battered Spain and Portugal. But it thrives in well-off Norway, Finland and Austria. […] From 2001 to 2011 the Danish People’s Party under Pia Kjaersgaard swapped parliamentary support for a succession of centre-right minority coalitions for tighter legislation on immigration. […] To the consternation of liberal Scandinavians, Norway’s nationalist-right Progress Party, which secured 16% of the vote at recent parliamentary elections, has been welcomed into a minority coalition government. Its leader, Siv Jensen – a sort of Norwegian Marine Le Pen, who talks about the “rampant Islamification” of Norway – has become the finance minister.”

My second response is to untangle and reassemble the Scandinavian debate on the ritual circumcision of boys – in which not all of the forces can be crudely and crassly labelled and reduced to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism – and a climate of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe, in order to work out an independent socialist perspective.


On assessing the debate and the related evidence, some immediate and basic socialist demands can be concluded:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics

This leaves the question of: if the principle of the right of the child to bodily integrity is carried through into law, what would a socialist response be to the issue of ‘crime and punishment’? Evidence of the varying outcomes from the application of the law against female genital mutilation (FGM) suggests that the solution to achieving a phasing out of this practice lies in education. Whilst France does not have a specific law against FGM, since the late 1970s it has prosecuted parents and ‘cutters’ under existing legislation relating to grievous bodily harm and violence against children. There is a perception that this has led to a deluge of convictions, yet this is not the case; in the period of 34 years since, there have been 29 trials, and approximately 100 convictions. Crucially, it seems, alongside legal application has been an intense educational campaign in France, including the training of health and education professionals on this issue, and the systematic examination of girls during routine health checks as babies. As such, The Independent notes: “In the early 1980s, analysis of the examinations showed that if a mother had been “excisée” (mutilated), there was an 80 per cent chance that her daughter would also have been subjected to FGM. A survey in 2007 suggested this had been reduced to 11 per cent.”

Tour de France: watch out for those Sheffield hills!

See also my page: Sheffield Hills

The end of Stage 2 of the 2014 Tour de France is an ascent of Jenkin Road in Sheffield. Here’s what cycling journalist Matt Westby says about this hill: “Sheffield’s Jenkin Road may not have the glamour of the great climbs of the Tour de France, but what it lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up for in brute difficulty. Indeed, the Tour will have seldom have encountered anything quite as steep as its 33 per cent maximum gradient. The climb comes 5km from the end of the stage and is only 800m long, but the ramp is so severe and arrives so late in the day that it will provide the perfect platform for last-gasp and potentially stage-winning attacks. The riders will also be moving at a near crawling pace here as they battle the ludicrous gradient…”

The statistics on Jenkin Road are as follows: average gradient 11.2%; maximum gradient 33.0%; length 0.8km; height 136m; vertical gain 94m; km 193 (source: Cycling Stage).

So, Anaemic On A Bike reckons she can bag it but the real question is, can Cavendish? 😉

What’s more, Jenkin Road isn’t the only beast of a climb in Sheffield. A review of Sheffield’s steepest hills (Hagg Hill, Blake Street, Jenkin Road, Myrtle Road, and Kent Road) by Robin Lovelace of Now Then concludes: “Taking ‘the highest average gradient over 100 metres of horizontal distance’ as my definition, I looked at Ordnance Survey data only to find that all the hills mentioned (except for Myrtle Road) were about the same: a ~20% gradient over their steepest 100 metres. Hagg Hill may just have the edge. Measure it over a 500 metre stretch, however, and the deceptive Myrtle Road would probably win.”

Marxism 101: Globalisation, Culture, and the Coke Studio India

So what might “Zariya” – a composition by India’s foremost composer AR Rahman, which brings together a traditional chant by Nepalese Buddhist nun, Ani Choying, traditional lyrics sung by Jordanian Farah Siraj, and a Hindi chorus – tell us about globalisation? As an audio-visual cultural offering, readily available via social media, it is an exquisite piece of hybridisation and connection across place, space, and time. Note also the backdrop (and indeed foreground), the Coke Studio India, which was a production by the Coca Cola Company and MTV India. Moreover then, what might an unhappy story of Coca Cola in India tell us about globalisation and does this taint “Zariya” (a commodified song about compassion, motherhood, and happiness)?

The Coca Cola Company entered the Indian market in 1956 but left in 1977 when it refused both to comply with the country’s Foreign Exchange Regulation Act and to disclose its secret recipe to the Indian Government. Coca Cola returned in 1993 in the context of market liberalisation. Since its return, a mass movement has developed in India against the Coca Cola Company to demand it is held accountable for the contamination of groundwater and soil, water depletion and shortages, and land grabs.


(Wikimedia Commons)

The Guardian newspaper noted in 2003: “The largest Coca-Cola plant in India is being accused of putting thousands of farmers out of work by draining the water that feeds their wells, and poisoning the land with waste sludge that the company claims is fertiliser.” The Ecologist reported in 2009 that while: “not all such disputes are as simple as ‘corporate giant versus local community’. What they do have in common, according to Tom Palakudiyil of Water Aid, is that it is ultimately the poor who lose out. ‘What we have seen happening with Coca-Cola has been happening all over the country, largely between the well-to-do and the not-so-well-to-do. The richer side is able to acquire powerful pumps and extract more and more water with no limits. In the case of big corporations like Coca-Cola, or other big industries that have a lot of power over the local government, they are able to get their pipelines to bypass the villages altogether,’ said Palakudiyil.” Most recently (again reported in The Ecologist) is a case from the state of Uttar Pradesh, where, in line with popular protest, officials have moved to demolish an ‘illegal’ Coca Cola bottling plant from community-owned land.

In Chapter Fifteen of Volume One of Capital, Karl Marx states a conclusion apt for the present-day: “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer.”

Back to “Zariya”, a composition by AR Rahman and a production by the Coca Cola Company and MTV India. In Grundrisse, Karl Marx argues that the appropriation of human culture in the commodified form cannot simply be regarded as capitalism’s quest to exploit to the detriment of our social being and development, neither can it be celebrated as offering an unconditional sphere of freedom. Marx draws an analogy of capitalism as an autonomous “animated monster” (or leviathan) able to lead us, as workers, “by an alien will and an alien intelligence”. He recognises that individuals increasingly feel isolated from one another, and indifferent to their work, through the capitalist-driven fragmentation of the labour force. What Marx calls “the great civilizing influence of capital”, an explicit recognition of the radical potential within capitalism, is of most interest here. He recognises that individuals identify themselves ever more through the tunnels of cultural complexity penetrating within capitalism. It is by the use of a continually differentiating production/consumption process that individuals are open to a new kind of wealth, social wealth, with capital offering a cultural dynamism on both a politico-economic and an individual level. “[N]either bound to particular objects, nor to a particular manner of satisfaction”, individual consumption (whilst a reaction to production) is “not qualitatively restricted, only quantitatively”, thus it has the possibility of “fall[ing] outside the economic relation” . In other words, the relation of capital to labour exploits us socially, however it does not crudely determine the inner configuration of new use-values.

In sum, in its use-value “Zariya” is ours, and what is ours too is the struggle against social and environmental exploitation by global capital like the Coca Cola Company. Marxism 101.