In 2015, Amar, 28, decided to leave Islam. He’d grown up as a “devout, practicing Muslim,” praying five times a day, fasting on Ramadan and staying away from pork, alcohol and sex outside of marriage — all things prohibited by the religion. In his words, he “embodied” the perfect Muslim, one who was a role model for the younger members of his local congregation.
His decision to leave Islam, he says, came after “years of doubts” he’d secretly held. Those doubts were partly stoked by the endless threads he’d read on Facebook and other message boards that featured atheist groups who frequently challenged the theological dogmas of Islam. But, he says, “Much of it was natural. I hadn’t felt like a Muslim for a long time — I was just holding onto the religion for the sake of my family. I wasn’t being true to myself.”
Amar (a pseudonym) ended up joining a group of ex-Muslims when he moved to Toronto for college — people who came from similar backgrounds, some of whom had been expelled from their families and gotten death threats when their apostasy became public. They would hold secret meetings in bars and university campuses, far away from their parents and communities, to support each other’s decisions to forego Islam.
More generally, Amar did as much as he could to leave Islam behind him. He partook in the group’s tongue-in-cheek initiation ceremony of eating a bacon sandwich — the first time he’d eaten pork in his entire life. He shaved the long, scruffy beard some Muslim men grew as a means of showing greater religious devotion. But still, it wasn’t enough. Every time he went to shower or use the bathroom, his circumcised penis always reminded of his former religious life.
And so, he decided the only thing he could do to define life on his own terms was to get his foreskin back.
Like the majority of Muslim men around the world, Amar had been circumcised in a khitan ceremony in Pakistan. The ritual is part of a purification ceremony for young boys, carried out under the belief that the removal of foreskin keeps the penis clean, and protects it from bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases. Circumcision isn’t just a Muslim thing either. Jews carry out a similar ceremony known as a bris. Even outside of religious spaces, circumcision is popular. More than half of American men are circumcised, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of newborns in the U.S. leave the hospital foreskin-free.
But the number of men who want to grow their foreskin back is growing, too — at least if online communities are anything to go by. On YouTube, “The Penis Project”, a group dedicated to foreskin advocacy, has more than 12,000 members, and puts out videos promoting healthy foreskins and reviewing products designed to promote foreskin regrowth. Social media also has facilitated a market for products that promise natural ways to regrow foreskin. The Foreskin Restoration Network message board, for example, is filled with reviews of restorative products, with names like the “Tugboat XT” and the “Hyper Restorer.” Of course, there are a growing number of reviewers on YouTube talking about these products as well, in which they often include “progress pics.”
For Amar, though, his choice to regrow his foreskin wasn’t influenced by these communities — all he wanted was to regrow it as quickly and safely as possible. “Most ex-Muslims don’t really care about their foreskin,” Amar tells me over Skype. “None of my ex-Muslim friends care about it as much as I do, and none of them resented anything. They just say, ‘It was shit, but I can live with it.’
“But to me, it was a reminder that religion was forced on me, and that this identity was put on me without my choice. I understand if a man wants to be circumcise, and he makes the decision. But no matter what I did — or how I tried to get on with my life — I’d always have that mark on me that didn’t reflect who I am.”
Using savings he’d intended to use for pilgrimage to Mecca, he travelled to Miami, and checked into a private clinic that had been recommended to him by NORM, the National Organization for Restoring Men, probably the biggest anti-circumcision group in the U.S., with chapters in the U.K., Australia and Canada. NORM’s website features listings of clinics across the world where men can get their foreskin restored, as well as guides on why removing foreskin is unhealthy (e.g., desensitization of male erogenous zones). Though the website doesn’t outwardly critique faith groups who practice circumcision, it does argue that the majority of young people resent their parents and families for circumcising them.
“Most Jewish guys will end up getting circumcised, even if their parents aren’t that into it,” explains Ari Shadin, 30, who despite being raised in a largely secular household in New York, was circumcised via bris. “Like my mom used to worry that if I didn’t get circumcised, what would other people think? But I mean, when would they ever see it? Or know? Still, she was so worried that some other mom would find out, and we’d be banished from the community.”
Shadin saw his circumcision as meaningless — not only was he not interested in Judaism (he remains a staunch atheist), but he felt that as a cultural practice, it was outdated. “Maybe back when the water was filled with dirt and bacteria, there might be an argument for circumcision,” he says. “But now, that’s certainly not the case. Parents can look after their kids and make sure they get the right medicine and shots. They don’t need to have their dicks chopped off to avoid that.”
As such, Shadin decided to become an “Intactivist,” a movement of men campaigning against circumcision that’s existed for decades. In Israel, Intactivists have protested outside of synagogues as well as the Knesset. Meanwhile, groups like Beyond the Bris, Gonnen and the Israeli Organization Against Genital Mutilation have been established to campaign against young Jewish males being circumcised — both in Israel and in Western countries with large Jewish populations.
Shadin is an active member and former admin for the Facebook group Intactivists: Stop Circumcisions, a group that has more than 3,500 members, including members from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds. Besides acting as a space for its members to “come to terms over what happened to them,” the group will often talk about different methods of foreskin restoration, especially for men without much money as a result of “being disowned by their families and communities.” “A lot of these methods come from Google, or YouTube videos,” Shadin continues. “So things like tugging, a technique that involves stretching the skin of a penis repeatedly until it imitates a foreskin, which is a popular method lots of guys who want to regrow their foreskin do.”
He adds that more often than not, it’s this part of the group that’s the “most difficult to manage,” as there’s a risk that dangerous products are being sold cheaply to guys desperate for their foreskin to grow back. One of the biggest dangers, he says, are products that can “damage sensitive areas in and around top of the penis” with the biggest risk being human papilloma virus (HPV), which can infect the body quickly and lead to cervical and penile cancer.
There isn’t an exact number of how many Muslim or Jewish men are trying to get their foreskin back. None of the clinics I spoke with were willing to disclose personal information of their clients, while others didn’t keep records of their clients’ religious backgrounds. Nor were foreskin restoration communities willing to disclose the composition of their memberships. Admins from Muslims Against the Circumcision of Children, which has more than 1,000 members, says that the number is growing, though. “This isn’t just ex-Muslims,” an admin writes over Facebook messenger. “It’s a bigger movement of practicing Muslims, too. Nowhere in the Quran does it say you have to be circumcised. We want to say that not being circumcised doesn’t make you a non-Muslim.”
It’s been a little more than six months since Amar had his foreskin restoration operation, an expensive procedure that took a month and involved adding new layers of skin onto his penis. “It pretty much made me broke,” Amar laughs. “It was worth it though.” He says that he feels like a new man — both physically (“I can feel things that are new and great, things that I never expected!”) and mentally (“I don’t think about my past self anymore, or how conflicted I was about being a Muslim without knowing why”).
But Amar knows he can’t get away from his Muslim past entirely. His childhood home is covered in paintings depicting verses of the Quran, and his father still watches countless hours of Islamic TV from Saudi Arabia. And while his parents don’t know about his operation, they definitely know the new him. “I can build a relationship with my family as me, not pretending to be anyone else,” he says. “I can be true to myself.”