Islam in Germany Revisited: The Circumcision Debate

Ufuk Topkara

Humboldt University Berlin

Dr. Ufuk Topkara is Visiting Professor of Comparative Theology in an Islamic Perspective at the Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology, Humboldt University Berlin.

Dr. Topkara was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from October to December 2018. He has been active in promoting inter-religious dialogue since 2005 as an expert on Islam for the Evangelical Academy Berlin, as a member of the Jewish-Turkish Roundtables for Dialogue, and with the Catholic Academy Berlin. Dr. Topkara was a Tour Guide at the Jewish Museum of Berlin from 2005 to 2015. He was a Humanity in Action Fellow in New York and worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Humanity in Action-Lantos Fellow in Washington, DC. He studied History and Philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin and Harvard University. He completed his doctoral dissertation with the Graduate School of Islamic Theology at the University of Paderborn, Germany, analyzing the convergence of reason and faith in Islam.

While at AICGS, Dr. Topkara will conduct research on a project that emerges out of the interconnected strands of intellectual inquiry: comparing the experiences of discrimination faced by Jews in early twentieth century Germany and the experiences of discrimination faced by Muslims in contemporary Germany. By drawing parallels between the marginalization faced by these two religious minority groups, Dr. Topkara will provide a tool for combating rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in both Germany and the United States today.

Dr. Topkara intends to showcase patterns of marginalization and othering of religious minorities in contemporary German society. A comparison between the Jewish community of the early twentieth century in Germany and contemporary Muslim community in Germany is particularly promising because of the inherent questions of belonging. Similar to the experience of German Jews in early modern times, German Muslims nowadays struggle with locating their place within German society. In both cases, the religious minority brought up questions of belonging that goes beyond citizenship, that is, the inclusion if not appreciation of cultural and religious differences.

The notorious silence of the relatively uneventful summer this year in Germany was suddenly disrupted by a heated debate regarding the abolishment of circumcision—ignited by a May 2012 court ruling. The court classified the circumcision of a young boy as unlawful bodily harm, turning the religious practice of Muslims and Jews into a crime which could be persecuted on the grounds of the German penalty code.  Within Germany, circumcision is not exclusively, nor even primarily associated with Islam, but more prominently with Judaism. Given the long presence of Jewish culture in Germany, it is remarkable that Jews still have to defend their customs and practice to the wider German public.

Given this historical context, it is intriguing how outspokenly uncompromising the opposition to circumcision presented itself throughout the debate. Certainly, many were utterly astonished by the intensity and emotionality of the debate. Others, mainly defenders of the right of circumcision, were deeply puzzled and irritated by the plethora of arguments, both moral and legal, aimed at abolishing circumcision. However, it is important to remind ourselves that the circumcision debate began as a juridical dispute initiated by Holm Putzke, Professor of Law at the University of Passau, who argued in many essays since 2008 that circumcision should be banned. This position ignited a series of different reactions, both supporting and opposing his position. Between the two religious communities which were directly targeted, mainly the Jewish community opposed the idea vehemently. For many years, the dispute continued to spark intense debates only among experts in related fields, e.g. legal experts, physicians, and child-psychologists. The wider German audience and even politicians remained relatively unaware of the dispute until the issue gained broad news coverage in the aftermath of the court ruling.

Several surveys quickly revealed that a majority of German society would favor an abolishment of circumcision. Many German Muslims felt that they were once again being interrogated instead of engaged by German society at large. If circumcision was such a serious concern for many in Germany, why did they fail to convey their objections to the Muslims earlier? Why did they remain silent for such a long time, although it was commonly known that Muslims and Jews circumcise their young boys?

Clearly, on the one hand there is a certain pattern of avoiding in-depth debates on the role of religion and religious practices in Germany. This becomes particularly apparent in the case of Islam. Instead of attempting to create a level of empathy and understanding for the other side through the process of a discussion, debates about the role of Islam within the German secular state tend to delegate the conflict into the realm of a judiciary or legislatory process. Interestingly, the courts, as much as lawmakers, have been reluctant to settle these kinds of debates in the past. In the case of a Muslim teacher who was banned from teaching in a public school with her headscarf, the German Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) established that society should not resist a presumably long lasting debate. The judges specifically refused to mediate because they perceived that this conflict should be negotiated not in court, but rather in society, at large.

Admittedly, the relation between a secular state and organized religious communities can at times be demanding and challenging. But why does the wider public in Germany show so much reluctance to engage in a fair and balanced debate, one that acknowledges the importance, value and credibility of any kind of religious belief in our modern society? Why is Islam specifically and continuously associated with harmful, damaging and unfavorable practices? Certainly, many Germans are undeniably overwhelmed emotionally by what seems diametrically opposed to their worldview. However, we have to remind ourselves that a democratic society is founded on the grounds of disagreement. Contrary to other forms of government, democratic society prides itself on flourishing not by diminishing, and not only by allowing, but by protecting diversity. The various societal actors and protagonists have to acknowledge that despite all of the differences, contradictions, conflicts, and difficulties that a democratic society might endorse, the single most important legacy is to uphold a sense of solidarity and mutual understanding. The various minority groups, as well as society at large, have to recognize that differences do not pose a threat to our society, but rather an enriching facet that enables us to differentiate and ultimately appreciate diversity.

As with similar discussions on Islam in the past, i.e. the headscarf, integration of Muslims into German society, or compatibility of Islam and modernity, we cannot help but detect a severe division between the supporters and opponents of the right to circumcision. Given that we already experienced a great deal of controversial debates on Islam, it is remarkable to notice that despite the previous debates, there is still a substantial lack of understanding and empathy for the concerns and objections of the respective other.

Germans feel somewhat challenged by the practices and customs of Muslims. Considering the continuing portrayal of Muslims, according to which the oppression of women, forced marriages, domestic violence, and anti-democratic sentiments remain central, it is not surprising that many Germans remain skeptical and suspicious. The circumcision of young boys seems to perfectly fit into this strange, pre-modern religion that remains not only alien, but even incompatible with contemporary German culture.

German Muslims, on the other hand, feel time and again very disappointed over the judgmental verdicts concerning Islam launched over the course of the debate. One can fairly establish a growing sense of frustration in the Muslim community over the way in which the debate was conducted. For one, the Muslim community felt excluded from the debate and was pushed into a position of self-defense, rather than active participation. The circumcision opponents may have called upon the community to get involved, but according to Muslim sentiment, the debate unfolded along the lines of accusations and preemptive conclusions. Instead of showing sincere consideration for the importance of religious traditions in a secularized society, the debate fueled the notion of irreconcilability. Many German Muslims felt that the debate was harshly judgmental and uncompromising, at times even hostile and destructive. Hence, many German Muslims are under the impression that their faith was again under severe criticism and condemnation, which they find to be unjustified. Even a cursory look at the language employed on the side of the anti-circumcision movement reveals that there is a persistent judgmental notion that denies even minimum reverence for the Muslim and Jewish custom. Repeatedly calling circumcision an archaic and barbaric custom, let alone the diatribes some commentators utilized, they failed to acknowledge how offensive this rhetoric can be towards both the Jewish and Muslim communities. Muslims and Jews are therefore confronted with the impression that secularized German society seems to think that not only are Muslim and Jewish faiths promoting a pre-modern set of beliefs and customs, but that these faiths are also hopelessly outdated and therefore incompatible with modern culture.

The Muslim community, on the other hand, has to be held equally accountable for failing to constitute a constructive and helpful discussion, one that gives credit to the accomplishments of German society: e.g. its ethics and concern for the dignity and integrity of every citizen. The Muslim community, for instance, undoubtedly failed to show sincere consideration and appreciation for the ethical and moral questions raised throughout the discussion. The dignity and physical or emotional integrity of human beings are paramount concerns for the Muslim faith and not negotiable. It would have been necessary to underline these similarities by providing insights into Muslim religious beliefs. Moreover, it is imperative for any religious community in a secular state to translate the meaning of their customs to the wider audience, since—without translation—these customs remain meaningful only to those who believe.  Unfortunately, the Muslim community failed in engaging this issue, partially because this sort of debate did not take place within the community to start with.

Accordingly, the question remains what the Muslim community could have done differently in tackling this issue? Did the Muslim community, for instance, provide sufficient knowledge that underlines the importance of circumcision for Muslim religious belief? As much as we can criticize the opponents for their judgmental language and insensitive conduct, we have to acknowledge that they in fact raise moral and ethical questions which Muslims and Jews alike cannot simply ignore. A sincere consideration of these concerns would require thorough contemplation about the origins of the circumcision tradition and its implications in our modern world.

First and foremost, we have to clarify that female circumcision of any kind is neither endorsed nor allowed by Islam. Secondly, we can state that male circumcision is not endorsed by the Qur’an, but rather introduced through the custom of the Prophet Muhammad. The four sunni legal schools, however, deviate in their assessments about the status of circumcision. Whereas the Hanbali and Shafi’i legal schools regard  circumcision as obligatory (wajib), the Hanafi and Malaki legal schools recognize the practice as strongly recommended (sunna mu’akkada). According to the Hanafi school, an obligatory (wajib) act is defined as a firm command affirmed by a text that allows the possibility of interpretation. A confirmed or emphasized sunna (sunna mu’akkada) is that which Prophet Muhammad has engaged in most of the time. It is a strong category, in the sense that habitual abstention from a confirmed sunna is considered reprehensible. All four schools emphasize though that male circumcision becomes discouraged and even prohibited if harm is expected.

Although male circumcision is rooted in a religious custom, it certainly has impacted other fields of social and cultural value. For instance, it is fair to assess that many Muslim women would find it difficult to accept a husband if he has not been circumcised, since it is considered to be a basic religious rite. All too often, non-Muslim men who would like to marry Muslim women are asked to not only convert to Islam but also to be circumcised. Thus, far from carrying only a religious implication, circumcision has become a cultural paradigm, which resembles a pivotal point of identification for both men and women alike. We should therefore recognize that it is essentially endorsed by two different and yet very powerful entities: religion and culture. Consequently, circumcision not only carries a religious significance, but more importantly a cultural point of identification. Whereas the overwhelming majority of the Muslims, observant as much as non-observant, are not necessarily able to identify the religious origins of this tradition, they certainly identify fundamentally with its religious and cultural meaning. One should therefore not underestimate the psychological pressure and social stigmatization one would likely face if he would chose to opt out of this tradition. But as the religious tradition has already recognized, if parents have considerable concerns that the emotional and physical integrity of their child would be harmed, they have reason to reconsider circumcision. One should also note, and this was actually raised in the debate in Germany, the male Muslim can still decide to undergo circumcision upon becoming an adult, and consequently being fully and exclusively responsible for his own decisions.

In response to this debate, the German parliament recently passed legislation that declares circumcision permissible, but with the requirement of proper medical procedures. By legalizing circumcision, politicians tried to again resolve a societal debate by employing a legal solution. As with the headscarf in an earlier case, introducing a law to bring an end to a heated and emotional discussion is not going to resolve the underlying tensions which became very apparent through the course of the debate. It is merely an expression of a premature understanding of what a pluralistic, democratic society should entail. It is absolutely necessary for a democratic society to pursue such debates and thereby develop a certain kind of maturity in addressing controversial issues. One can only hope that the various protagonists will come to understand that engaging in these debates with sincerity, honesty and a sense of solidarity will remain the only vital way to strive for mutual understanding.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.