As this magazine reports, there are moves afoot to ban male circumcision on non-medical grounds for those under the age of 18 in Iceland. The sponsor of the bill in the Icelandic parliament, Dr Olafur Thor Gunnarsson, tells us that he did not consult the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities, because he did not think that this was a religious matter.
He perhaps speaks more truly than he realises. A parliament, any parliament, has or should have full authority over secular matters, but should not interfere in matters to do with religion. The attempt to ban circumcision may look like a secular move based on a certain understanding of human rights, but it is in fact no such thing: it represents an attempt by a secular body to usurp the role of religious legislators. In short, the Icelandic parliament is telling Jews that Moses got it wrong.
In addition, the Icelanders seem to think that male circumcision is to be equated with female genital mutilation. There is no evidence whatever for this claim. It is in fact absolutely false. Male circumcision brings well-known health benefits; female genital mutilation (miscalled circumcision) is never in the interests of its victims.
Second, as our report has it, the bill’s sponsor claims that religions are “a private issue and should adapt over time to reflect the society they are part of.” He, a secular legislator, is telling religious people what to believe. He is not the first to do so. Back in 2015, talking of abortion, Hillary Clinton said: “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”
Really, Mrs Clinton? Is it the role of politicians to tell religious believers what they should believe?
Naturally, I support the right of Jews and Muslims in Iceland and elsewhere to carry out their millennial rituals without government interference, as indeed they are free to do in the United Kingdom. But the circumcision issue is a sign of the way secular legislatures are itching to legislate for religious communities.
One can sort of understand why. Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament did the same in England, as have all parliaments in the United Kingdom until very recently, passing laws that regulate religious belief and worship. The Emperor Joseph of Austria busied himself with the minutiae of religious laws, earning himself the nickname “the sacristan”. The National Assembly of the French Revolution effectively nationalised the Church through the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe constantly interfered with religious liberty.
Several countries even today do the same, including the People’s Republic of China. No one should take religious liberty for granted. The religious liberty we have represents the fruit of a long struggle, in Britain, and also elsewhere. Iceland is just the latest front in what seems to be a never-ending war.