Hassan al-Khateb, a 34-year-old management consultant from London, and his wife Shireen, are due to give birth to a son in about four months. To prepare for the baby’s arrival, they’ve bought a new house in a leafy suburb, complete with a room for the newborn and umpteen toys and games given to them by friends and family, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the due date.
Hassan is definitely excited, too. He’s dreamt of becoming a father since his teens — and especially having someone who he can “teach how to ride a bike,” and more importantly, to ensure “lives and breathes for the Gooners” (aka the Arsenal football club).
But there’s one thing Hassan has been privately anxious about — an issue that divides his family, as well as many of his Muslim friends: Whether or not he should have his son circumcised.
“I’m Iraqi, and I have two older brothers — all of us had Khitan [circumcision] months after we were born. In Iraq, it was this really big deal. We were dressed in new clothes; music was played before the ceremony; and our family held a party at our house afterwards. It was a routine for any boy, and we’re expected to do it to our sons and so on,” he explains.
“I didn’t expect to hesitate about it, but since we found out we were having a boy, that’s changed,” he continues. “The idea of inflicting pain onto him, seeing him cry and scream — I’m not sure if I’ll be able to handle that.”
Hassan calls himself a fairly liberal Muslim. He abstains from alcohol, but he doesn’t pray that much and only goes to mosque a few times a year. For him, his Islamic identity is largely tied to his Iraqi one. Which is really the issue here: “Being a Western Muslim, I want to give my son the right to decide how he articulates and expresses his faith. Circumcising him feels as if I’m imposing that identity on him directly — telling him that he’s a Muslim, no matter what. That might be okay when he’s younger, but I know that it can cause resentment in older age. I know people who have left the faith completely, and still resent being circumcised. As if they can’t escape being Muslim, no matter what.”
Hassan’s experience represents a growing trend of young religious men — often second and third generation immigrants living in the West — who struggle with both the ethics and national politics of male circumcision.
That conflict came to a head late last month when a bill went through Iceland’s parliament making it a “criminal offence” to circumcise young boys unless it was medically required. It’s a bill that’s garnered significant support from liberals and medical professionals, but one that’s also been called a “violation of religious freedom” by the country’s small number of Muslims and Jews. Many other European Muslims and Jews also worry that the bill will inspire similar bills in countries with much bigger religious populations.
“It’s a tricky situation for me,” Hassan says about the bill. “I don’t think the government has a right to define how people express their faith. I’m also wary that these kinds of laws aren’t there for the safety of children — they’re an excuse for right-wing parties to attack religious minorities.
“At the same time, I do see the argument that often circumcision is done more for cultural purposes than religions ones. Like, there’s nothing directly quoted in the Qu’ran about circumcising males. It was a cultural practice done to men living in hot climates — obviously not an issue in the U.K. So the question is whether a young man who is circumcised makes him more of a Muslim — or indeed, a better Muslim — than someone who isn’t.”
Of course, when you come from a religious community where circumcision is the norm, it’s difficult to find spaces to talk about whether you have problems with it. “I know my dad always had issues with it,” says “David,” a 28-year-old conservative Jewish PhD student at Cambridge University. Via Twitter DM, David wanted to keep his name hidden because of his online presence, telling me that he’s received hate messages and death threats for previously questioning the necessity of circumcision. “My inboxes were in a state for weeks! People were calling me a Nazi, or saying that I was an atheist masquerading as a Jew. All of it was bizarre. I’m a practicing Jew, and probably more so than a lot of the guys who decided to send me these messages.”
Still, he’s not necessarily alone. “In Jewish communities there are more [and more men] who are deciding not to get their sons circumcised. Part of that is that more Jews are marrying outside of their faith communities and into cultures where circumcision isn’t the norm.”
For evidence, he points me to Beyond the Bris, which describes itself as a “unique forum for Jewish people who question male infant circumcision.” The site hosts videos, personal essays and profiles of people rallying against circumcision — often in opposition to their communities, as well as their own families.
These spaces are important, according to David, because larger, more established online groups against male circumcision “tend to dismiss people with religious identities.” He recalls his first experiences being a member of a now defunct facebook group called “Campaign Against Non-Medical Circumcision of Boys,” which had more than 6,000 members in 2014. “The problem was that any conversation about the nuances of circumcision — things like alternative ceremonies or talking to your parents about not circumcising — was buried under shitty posts that were anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.”
In particular, David recalls seeing pictures of the “Happy Merchant,” an anti-Semitic cartoon frequently used by the alt-right. Other posts featured young crying boys photoshopped into ISIS imagery. “It was really bizarre. The forum ended up being infiltrated by far-right guys wanting to shout abuse and peddle conspiracy theories.”
Last year, in fact, the forum was shut down for violating Facebook’s terms of agreement. Still, there are plenty of other Facebook groups — e.g., “AGAINST CIRCUMCISION BRIT MILLAH” and “Supporting Europe Against Circumcisions” — that foster smaller, but active anti-circumcision communities. Unfortunately, though, some of them still continue to allow posts that compare circumcision to mass slaughter — statements that actively drive away men trying to reconcile their liberal ethics and their religious identities.
“It’s a shitty position to be in if you want to continue being a religious person,” Hassan says when I ask him about these groups. “The Muslim community doesn’t really have dedicated movements against circumcisions like other religions. So if you’re a young father looking for advice, you’re basically stuck between people who tell you to follow cultural orthodoxy no matter what, and people telling you that you need to abandon your religion to be a good person.”
Hence the reason Hassan is so conflicted. To find some kind of resolution, he’s planning to finally speak with his wife about it, as well as religious scholars living in the U.K., who “understand the way of life for Western Muslims.” He hopes this will give him enough religious evidence to convince his parents he’s doing the right thing should he choose not to circumcise his son. “My biggest fear is that if I choose not to circumcise him, people might see him as a bad Muslim, and his life would be difficult when it comes to life events like getting married or going on Hajj [the core pilgrimage to Mecca].”
“At the same time,” Hassan sighs. “I don’t want him to resent me for imposing my religious identity on him. We live in the West, and he has a choice about how he expresses his faith. I don’t want to take that away from him.”