Denmark’s Politics of the Foreskin

The debate over male circumcision is symptomatic of the developments in Danish politics as a result of cohabitation with the radical right over the last two decades.
Susi Meret Aalborg University, Anita Nissen Aalborg University, Denmark politics news, Denmark male circumcision ban, Danish People’s Party, Dansk Folkeparti DF news, Mette Frederiksen Denmark, Islamophobia Denmark, anti-Semitism in Europe, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right

Copenhagen, Denmark © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

December 17, 2020 07:58 EDT

Religious practices, including religious clothing, ritual slaughtering and circumcision, are coming up for debate more frequently in Danish politics and the media. The issue of male circumcision has recently hit the headlines, reignited by a protest launched by a task force of health organizations and associations. The task force was asked to update the clinical guidelines of male ritual circumcision by the Danish Agency for Patient Safety. However, the Danish Pediatric Society decided to withdraw from the group to protest the advised medical practice in the guidelines, which allows to carry out the surgical operation by locally sedating infants and young boys.

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Other health associations have since followed suit, arguing that the regulations infringe on the welfare and rights of the child while also not guaranteeing health safety. Among Danish public opinion, critical positions also prevail. In a recent poll, almost 9 out of 10 respondents (86%) said that male circumcision under the age of 18 should be prohibited altogether, confirming a similar survey conducted in 2016.

The unfolding of these events contributed to the relaunch of a 2018 citizen proposal advanced by the anti-circumcision association Intact Denmark, which asked to ban the practice of male ritual circumcision of children unless required for health reasons. In 2018, it obtained the 50,000 signatures needed to bring the discussion before the Danish parliament. The pending national elections of June 2019 have put the parliamentary discussion on hold — until now.

Pork and Headscarves

It is worth noting that debates over religious practices are not new when it comes to political controversies in Denmark. The list is, in fact, quite long. For instance, the dispute over male circumcision comes only two years after the Danish government’s approval of the contentious so-called “mask ban” legislation, which proscribes people to cover their faces in public. While the government attempted to frame this piece of legislation as a matter of national and personal security, it was in fact a political shortcut for introducing a ban against Muslim burqas and niqabs, circumventing the issue of discrimination against religious minorities.

Religious clothing had in fact already been a policy target back in 2009, when the Conservatives proposed to prohibit the use of the burqa in Denmark. Then, the ban was rejected due to both its discriminatory nature and the fact that a report by the University of Copenhagen concluded that at most 200 Muslim women wear the burqa in Denmark.

In 2016, it was ritual halal slaughtering and the serving of pork-free meals in public institutions that made the headlines. The right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DF), among others, singled out food politics, and halal meat in particular, as a sign of the gradual accommodation by Danish society and public institutions of the religious dictates of Islam. Some went as far as to argue that the dietary menu in kindergartens should safeguard the Danish cuisine and food heritage by serving children pork every day.

Like in other European countries, pork and headscarves have been a staple of the Danish populist right’s attacks on Muslims. These issues have served the DF well in terms of framing the West as surrendering its principles, identity and values to the religious prescriptions of the Muslim minority. One would expect the male circumcision issue to fit neatly into the radical right populists’ main identity politics racializing catalog. Yet the debate has taken a rather interesting turn in respect to earlier party positions concerning religious practices and rituals.

The distinguishing line on the issue of male circumcision vis-à-vis other religious practices is that this one not only relates to Islam and Muslims, but also to Judaism and Jews. The political reactions to the question highlighted what looks like a mainstreaming of double standards as regards to the identity politics debate in Denmark. As a piece in Information pointed out, when “the defence of Old Testament traditions” is at stake, the DF tends to move more cautiously. This time, however, things got a little more complicated.   

Unexpected Turn

Up until the most recent controversy around the topic this autumn, the party had opposed an actual ban of the practice, referring to the issue as being “complex.” Yet in September, and very much contrary to expectations, DF voted in favor of the ban on circumcision. The party argued that it supported the health organizations’ concerns for children’s rights, welfare and safety, stating that these must be given priority over decisions pertaining to religious traditions.

However, this was by no means a unanimous decision. For the first time in party history, the DF allowed three of its most prominent MPs to vote against the ban, and thus against the line decided by the party central organization. Morten Messerschmidt, Soren Espersen and Marie Krarup voted against the ban on the basis that the measure would isolate the Jewish community from Danish society, arguing it was a family policy matter rather than a health issue.

Krarup argued, for instance, that “male circumcision is an unpleasant and inappropriate tradition, but it is alright to allow the Jews in this country to practice it.” On a similar note, Messerschmidt bluntly declared that “Judaism historically has a greater justification in Danish society than Islam does,” and that it should be up to the parents to decide whether the child should be circumcised or not. Later, Krarup announced that because of the party’s decision to vote for the ban, she would leave politics and not stand as a parliamentary candidate at the next election.

Krarup’s, Messerschmidt’s and Espersen’s stance aligns with the usual DF party line on questions regarding Judaism. Throughout the years, the DF has often championed the Jewish cause, promoting a pro-Israel and anti-anti-Semitic agenda. This has often served as another pretext for fending off Muslims, while Jews are conferred the status of a tolerated minority, in part because they are not considered to represent a threat to the “native” identity and culture. The decision not to continue along this line of thinking opens a few interesting questions as regards the DF’s current vote-maximizing and crisis-management approach both at national and EU levels.

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The DF appears to be split internally over the strategies it can pursue in order to extract itself from the crisis. The timing could not be worse for the DF leadership. The party has not yet recovered from the dramatic decline suffered in the 2019 parliamentary elections, where DF’s electoral support suddenly shrunk down to only 8.7%, a 12.4% drop from 2015.

The aftershocks still trouble the party command, and several dissenting voices from the party rank and file have started to openly question Kristian Thulesen-Dahl’s leadership — something completely unprecedented in party history. This has brought about a significant political reshuffle at the central organization level. The vice-chairman, Soren Espersen, had to step down, while Morten Messerschmidt became a new member. Messerschmidt has also recently been endorsed by Thulesen-Dahl to become the new party leader once he himself steps down.

This is an interesting endorsement, especially considering Messerschmidt’s recent pronouncements for the need to strengthen the DF’s positions on value and cultural politics by placing Christianity and the common Christian heritage and traditions at the core of party ideology.

It would also tally with DF’s choice to join the European Parliament group, Identity and Democracy, which includes parties such as the Italian League, the French National Rally, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany. These parties strongly promote the primacy of traditional Christian values and symbols as a staple against Islam, a religion they see as representing the most serious threat to the Christian West and Judaism. It is this ideological framing that Messerschmidt now strongly supports and which had earlier important “intellectual” exponents among DF politicians like the pastor Soren Krarup and the late Jesper Langballe.

And yet, the party’s support for the ban on male circumcision went against this standpoint, highlighting a tension between the more radical line represented by Messerschmidt and the middle-way ambitions embodied by Thulesen-Dahl. The current leader’s strategy appears more responsive toward the opinions expressed by the party rank and file and by the wider public. Messerschmidt seems to be trying to come up with a good response to the DF’s current political reality of having no real influence in Danish politics while perhaps also casting an eye to the European developments among the radical right.

External Challenges

The political tensions within the DF also reflect the challenges coming from outside the party. The DF needs to both fend off the offensive coming from the far-right in the form of The New Right party (which voted for the ban) while also having to pay attention to the reaction among the mainstream parties, particularly the Social Democrats (who voted against it).

The governing party was slow to react to the law proposal, but on September 10, the Social Democratic Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen explained the party’s decision to vote against the ban on male circumcision by appealing to not let the “debate about circumcision of boys … become a single case detached from our European history,” in reference to the persecution of Jews throughout the last centuries, and in particular during World War II. “I know what the century-old ritual means for religious minorities in Denmark,” she continued. “And I know that some Danish Jews no longer will be able to see themselves in our society if a ban is implemented.”

Yet, in 2008, as part of the opposition, Frederiksen said the opposite, namely that she was against male circumcision, arguing that she did “not believe that religion can legitimize inflicting physical problems on one’s children and the pain that may be associated with it.” Yet today, she believes that a ban would prompt Jews to think “they no longer belong to the Danish society.”

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Here, the health concerns for the (Jewish) children fade into the background, while discrimination, historical legacies and security issues are brought to the forefront. Still, what the more attentive audience immediately noticed was the prime minister’s silence regarding the fact that this religious ritual is also practiced by Muslims, who also experience forms of discrimination and intolerance in Denmark on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion.

By adopting this position, the Social Democrats contribute to the double standard that legitimizes the view that some groups in society deserve to access rights over others, which otherwise would be deemed as incompatible with those held by the overall society. Few would argue against the need to tackle growing anti-Semitism in Denmark and in Europe or against the need to take the horrible history of the Holocaust into account.

Yet Frederiksen’s explanation remains ambiguous and risks to widen divisions and to foster conflicts between minority groups in society. This is particularly the case in view of the proliferation of categories such as “non-Western immigrant/descendent” employed by the Danish Social Democrats as a proxy for Muslim immigrants in the party course on migration politics.

In this sense, the most recent debate about male circumcision in Denmark tells us perhaps more about two other issues. On the one side is the normalization of discourses and practices that tend to single out Islam and Muslims and to portray them as the unassimilable and threatening minority. On the other, there is a further polarization of the political space on issues of migration, religious rights and integration, with the DF having to decide where to place itself between the far right and the mainstream on such questions. This latest dispute is symptomatic of the developments in Danish politics as a result of cohabitation with the radical right over the last two decades.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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