About “Male” Religion and “Female” Freedom

I.
At the peak of Germany’s latest “circumcision-debate,”[1] talkshow host Anne Will invited an orthodox rabbi, so as to let him defend the position of his folks. Inexperienced with contemporary religious tribunals, the rabbi brought forth what was, to him, the single one relevant argument: “If circumcision is going to be forbidden, we will continue in any case…because it is written in the Torah: On the eights day, his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev 12:3). Needless to say that with this explanation, the rabbi gave the audience the gratification of being easily identifiable as a religious fanatic: he was – as is obvious from what he just said – a fundamentalist one cannot reasonably talk to.

Of course, not all Jews quoted the word of God in order to illuminate circumcision’s raison d’être. Some willfully followed the choreography, which dominates religious tribunals from the Middle Ages onwards, and has the accused trapped in (of course futile) attempts to prove Judaism’s compatibility with Christian and/or secular notions of the truth. Whether such rhetorical compliance is a strategic choice or a matter of conviction – one thing is certain: Any speech about God in a secular space has to grapple with the ways, in which secularism has not only installed a division between earthly and divine power, but also rearticulated “religion” in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities and modes of governance.[2]

II.
Germany’s “circumcision-debate” did not come alone. The debate needs to be read as an integral part of the religious debates that preceded and followed it – most of which were directed against Muslims, Germany’s principal bearers of “religion.” This is not to deny the circumcision-debate’s unique qualities and dynamics, which developed when Germans figured that circumcision is not only a Muslim, but also a Jewish practice – yet, I hold that the circumcision-debate’s ideological context are all those debates, that had previously scrutinized, stigmatized and criminalized the religious practice of Muslims: The debate about the “meaning” of a hijab, about prayer in public schools and universities, about religious education in mosques or Islamic kindergartens, about Muslim girls’ participation in swimming lessons, about handshaking, to mention just a few.

A central element in all these debates is an anxiety about the subject’s free will and the way the latter is deployed vis-à-vis her body. During the circumcision-debate, for example, one of the most notorious and powerful arguments against the rite focused on the obvious lack of “free will” on the part of the child: How can the German State permit Muslim and Jewish parents to inscribe the bodies of their innocent minor offspring with an irreversible religious mark? How can parents force a religion upon a child that does not have the slightest understanding of what said religion is all about? More generally, this argument is time and again brought forth also against the religious education of children: Children should either grow “naturally,” without any “premature indoctrination,” or learn about every religious tradition, so that they may henceforth choose from among what they “liked best.” In order for a religious practice to be accepted at least by left-wing liberals in favor of “religious diversity,” it is thus crucial for this practice to pass as an expression of an individual’s free choice. Accordingly, both hijab-wearing women and their secular supporters defend the hijab in public spaces as an individual choice, and not as a religious obligation.

The practice of circumcision, however, does not fit this strategy. It completely undermines the standard arguments of left-wing liberals in favor of religious diversity and self-determination, because circumcision simply cannot aptly be described as “just another choice.” It is obviously not the child’s “choice,” but neither is it the parent’s “choice”: From a Jewish religious perspective at least, circumcision is not a choice among any number of equally worthy options. There is no marketplace of different practices, from which a “consumer” may pick whatever suits her best, because the body is here not a thing, which an individual owns and with which she can do whatever she is inclined to do. It is not a commodity to possess, analogous to a thing being purchased. It is, rather, something that defines the self long before the latter is able to capture itself in language (hence, the obligatory and pre-discursive character of circumcision). The rite’s opponents thus detected, quite accurately, that circumcision is, indeed, about subjugation, in which an individual’s “free choice” does not take center stage.

In this respect then, practices such as circumcision fundamentally contradict contemporary identity-politics, which do not recognize the body as a guarantor of stable (gendered) identity and a site of self-evident (masculine) power: In contemporary Europe, difference is no longer explicitly, in a socially acceptable way, articulated through reference to the body, that is, through gender and/or race. This does of course not mean, that gender has ceased to work, that it is an obsolete category. Rather, I’d suggest that difference, that was previously articulated in terms of gender and race, is today negotiated primarily in terms of “male” religion vis-à-vis “female” freedom: The face of Islam – again: Islam as the primary bearer of “religion” – is decisively decoded as male and black, that is, the “old” way of being male. It is autocratic, violent, physical, and dangerously virile, it even “conquers.” It is, if I may, everything the “new,” Western male was once, but is no longer. In contrast to the “old” manliness of religion/Islam, the “new” manliness – that is, the new way of exercising cultural superiority – entails a disavowal of the male body as a site of symbolic and actual power: the face of the New Right in Europe does not feature archaic machismo, but female leadership figures, and female self-determination against religious (male) authority as one its most prominent pet issues.

III.
My question then is: Are all those debates about the embodied practices of “religion” a reflection of a sense of insecurity regarding the cultural superiority of this “new” manliness? Or why do Europe’s “new men” feel such an urgent need to constantly hurt the bodily integrity of others, to unveil female hair, faces and bodies, to obligate children to shake hands, to circumvent the public bowing down in prayer, to define the proper look of the male sexual organ – to emasculate whatever reminds them of what was once, but is lost? Why do so many people attack the body in an age, which has stripped the body of any innate, intrinsic meaning? Is this because the “enchanted” body is (still) too desirable?

 

Notes:
9e67349cb1bec817b7bf99a4d976026d[1] For an analysis of previous German circumcision debates see Robin Judd, Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, Cornell University Press 2007.

[2] A person, who embodies a religious practice, that runs counter these notions, thus faces something like an ever-ongoing Fanonic moment: Even before uttering a first word, she has to take into account that her audience yields secularism a non-negotiable necessity and religion a threat – with the threat growing proportionally to her religion’s distance from modern notions of what a religion is, and how it should behave like.

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